The SLM feature of the Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour Cloer Construction 250 at Hickory Motor Speedway was dominated by Matt Craig, who pulled away from the rest of the field after passing Jeff Fultz early to claim his second victory of the 2020 season.
Finishing behind Craig in second was Kodie Conner, who rode around at the back of the pack during the first 80 laps before charging his way towards the front of the field, but was ultimately unable to chase down Craig for the win.
Laying back was initially not part of Conner’s strategy entering Saturday’s Cloer Construction 250, but he felt that he had no other choice after turning in a disappointing 10th place qualifying run.
“I thought after yesterday we got the car dialed in where we needed it,” Conner said. “When we went out for qualifying, it felt like there was oil all over the racetrack. We ended up having one of my worst qualifying efforts of all time, which is a shame because Hickory is my track.”
Along with claiming a PRA Super Late Model Series victory at Hickory on Oct. 12, 2019, Conner never finished outside the Top 10 in his six previous CARS SLM Tour starts at the track, with his best finish being a third in the 2018 Throwback 276.
Conner had every reason to believe that the speed he and his team showed during their previous outings at Hickory would carry over into the Cloer Construction 250, but he was left surprised by how slow his #45 Toyota was so slow during qualifying.
Conner did not let the poor qualifying run deter him, as he quickly diagnosed the issue with his car and proceeded to hang out at the rear of the 13-car field while Craig, Fultz, Trevor Noles and several others battled each other for the lead.
“I wanted to make sure there was nothing wrong with the race car,” Conner said. “Turns out the tires were the issue. I guess I didn’t heat them up enough. We were last through those first 80 laps and then we started to work our way through.”
Conner worked his way inside the Top 5 with just over 30 laps remaining before later passing Noles, Tyler Church and Carson Kvapil to put himself in the second position behind Craig, who had opened up a significant advantage over the rest of the field.
Conner managed to run some faster lap times than Craig, but he ran out of laps to mount a challenge on Craig for the win and settled for his third CARS SLM Tour Top 5 finish at Hickory and his fourth overall in the series.
Conner believed that he would have caught Craig if the right opportunity came to fruition, but he affirmed that he was thrilled with his strong showing and hopes to build on that momentum over the final four CARS SLM Tour races.
“I felt like if we had a caution, we would have been right there with [Craig,]” Conner said. “If it was a 150-lap race, maybe we would have had something else for him, but all in all, it was a great race weekend.”
With Craig increasing his points lead in the CARS SLM Tour, Conner intends to focus on winning races and is looking to bring home his first checkered flag in the series during the Mid-Atlantic Classic at Orange County Speedway on Aug. 22.