Sunday afternoon was the perfect setting for racing in the Piedmont region. Temperatures were great, the atmosphere was electric and the fans turned showed up for what was gonna be an unforgettable day of racing.
The temperatures were cool in the morning, but it warmed up quickly and so did the energy and the racing action.
Matt Hirschman of Northampton, PA didn’t even know he was racing until Pee Dee Motorsports car owner Roy Hall called Monday and asked if Matt wanted to race. The northern based team members and driver made the pilgrimage down south on Thursday and the southern based car and team owner descended on the track Friday. They didn’t even have a setup under the car, they unloaded Saturday on test day and still had their championship winning setup from New Smyrna. They switched everything over to their Caraway setup Saturday afternoon and focused on Sunday’s racing events.
Hirschman continued his Caraway Speedway winning ways by qualifying on the pole with a very respectable 15.893 at 103.064 mph with “greasy” track conditions. 2008 Whelen Southern Modified Tour Champion Brian Loftin driving for Shady Grady Racing ended up second ahead of 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte picked up where he left off last year at Florence by winding up third.
After the to 12 redraws it was Labonte and multi-time modified winner Jason Myers alongside on the front row. Labonte got out front quickly at the drop of the green, but the first caution happening on lap 1 due to Jimmy Wallace hitting the concrete strip and spinning out in turn two. It setup up the same restart with Labonte and Myers still on the front row. Myers knows how to restart races as he’s been doing if for years, but the NASCAR Hall of Famer has way more experience on restarts and it showed as he launched so hard and pulled away by two cars on the restart. Myers gathered it back up and set Labonte up going down the frontstretch and past Labonte to lead lap 4. The Two-Time Southern Modified Racing Series Champion Jeremy Gerstner was trying to slide into that hole that formed after Myers powered by Labonte, but Labonte slammed the door on him, which regulated Gerstner to the third position.
Back behind the leading trio, Hirschman was just riding around in fourth about 5-8 car lengths back, with his arch-rival Chuck Hossfeld beating on his back bumper to try and get around him. Hossfeld settled into fifth, behind Hirschman. Heading into the Jerry Hunt Supercenter Auto Sales Stage One break on lap 30, it was Jason Myers, Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Gerstner completing the podium.
Stage two saw a different lineup as the SMART Modified Tour utilizes a cone for cone restarts or “madhouse style” restarts as their referred to. It was the younger Myers on the inside with Gerstner choosing the outside to advance his position past Labonte. When the green dropped it was Gerstner who looked like he was shot out of a cannon to the lead. The outside line proved to be good as Hirschman and Loftin also rocketed by Myers.
Hirschman went to work on the back bumper of Gerstner and got around him to take the lead on lap 38. Loftin & Labonte took advantage of the stalled out momentum of Gerstner and also slid around him. Jason Myers dropped back to fifth and looked like he had problems as he kept dropping farther back. The problem would arise as Myers would spin out in turn four to bring out a caution on lap 41 thanks to a flat left rear tire.
Hirschman jumped out to a huge lead on the restart, which left Labonte, Loftin, legends graduate and 2021 SMART Modified Tour Rookie of the Year Candidate 16-year old Caleb Heady & Gary Putnam to battle it out for the rest of the top five. The caution flew again on lap 48 as Bowman Gray Stadium regular Daniel Beeson got up into the outside wall off of turn four, which caused the right front suspension to break and sent him up into the outside wall in turns one and two. Beeson’s car and his day was done.
As the green flew most of the field appeared to be settling in for a long green flag run, a few drivers did not heed to that as they were still moving up front like Jeff Fultz. Fultz was in 10th on lap 53 and less than 20 laps later passing Gerstner and Labonte for third and second and chasing down Hirschman in his Chris Walker prepared car. As if it seemed like Fultz was go to reel in Hirschman here comes a caution on lap 69 for Johnny Kievman spinning to the inside of turn four.
This marked the “money stop” as most of the leaders came down pit road for their mandatory service, most teams swapped tires, while some took their one fresh tire and put it appropriately in the right rear. The new lineup looked shockingly different as some cars stayed out and played a different strategy. Former Concord Speedway Champion Jeff Fultz led Gerstner, Tom Buzze, Brody Jones and Jimmy Wallace led the field to the green. Jones spun the tires and got loose heading into turn one and allowed Wallace, Hossfeld and Tim Brown to get by on the inside. Brown and Burt Myers were coming to the front after being a lap down to Hirschman early in the race.
Not only were Brown and Myers coming to the front, but the two leaders Labonte and Hirschman were charging hard. Labonte took his new tire and swapped two tires for a total of three tire changes, while Hirschman only took a new right rear and an adjustment, so a tale of two different pitting strategies was making their way back up front fairly quickly, while the third pit strategy upfront was brewing in hopes to catch the right caution to stay in the hunt for the win.
Lap 77 saw a controversial moment, when third place runner Tom Buzze trying to get to the inside of second place runner Jeremy Gerstner in turn three, but Gerstner was loose in the outside lane and Buzze was able to close in coming through the center and Gerstner was recovering it off of four and Buzze made contact coming out of four and sent Gerstner spinning. Where Hossfeld was so close to the duo, he piled into the back of Buzze and he pushed Buzze around too. Hossfeld and Buzze’s bumpers got stuck together and Hossfeld was along for the ride as he was pulled down to the inside of the track. Most thought Hossfeld would drop to the back because of involvement in the incident, but race officials deemed him good as he didn’t come to a complete stop, so he got to keep his position on track. So that meant Fultz kept the lead, Tim Brown now was in the runner up position with the aforementioned Hossfeld in third, Burt Myers up in fourth. Jimmy Wallace rebounded nicely after his earlier spin and worked his way to fifth and Bobby Labonte had climbed from tenth to sixth in just a few short laps.
On the restart both Fultz and Brown both got good restarts, but where the outside line was much better than the low lane it prevailed as Brown took the lead on lap 78 and brought his fellow ten-time Bowman Gray Stadium champion Burt Myers along with him on the outside line to pass Fultz and take over second. Fultz and Hossfeld battled for third as Labonte was creeping into the picture fairly quickly. Hossfeld worked into the inside of Fultz and got by for third and brought Labonte with him.
With Labonte approaching quickly, Brown and Myers were focused on hitting their marks. Brown was stretching out his lead until Myers and Hossfeld started closing in by changing up their lines. Myers was running half a lane down compared to Brown, who was running in between both the bottom and middle lanes. Hossfeld took notice to Myers line and was in his tire tracks. Myers was getting closer to Brown’s bumper with 14 laps to go and kept closing. With 11 to go Myers got a huge run through the center of turns one and two and got to the inside of Brown up off of turn two and stayed latched onto the left rear side down the backstretch and shot down to the bottom into three and took the lead with a aggressive move through the center of three and four. Brown was fading back and went into turn one way up the track and lost several positions. Hossfeld took over the second position after Brown’s mistake and set his sights on the southern modified ace Myers.
Just as Hossfeld thought he was gonna catch Myers, here comes Labonte once again to the second position, but it was halted when Jeremy Gerstner spun due to contact with Brian Loftin with 6 laps to go to bring out the caution. As Gerstner fired his car up here came Tim Brown down pit road to change a flat left rear tire. Myers chose the inside line on the restart with Hossfeld jumping to the outside on the front row. Labonte was right there in third and Hirschman took the outside to move from fifth to fourth, which proved critical. Myers launched and bumped Hossfeld in turn one as Labonte was on his bumper with those three fresher tires. A caution flew as Gerstner and Brody Jones got into it in turn two. With the caution coming out before a lap was complete it reverted the lineup with the cone restart coming up.
Myers chose the inside again, this time he had Labonte with much fresher tires on his car on his outside. Myers had gotten a much better restart this time, but Labonte stayed with him. The pair of champions ran side by side until Labonte got a great run down the backstretch, but he couldn’t get cleared past Myers as Myers jumped back out in front. On lap 94 Gerstner had lingering issues from previous problems and Loftin was developing problems simultaneously. Loftin lost his tire completely as it came off the wheel at the bottom of turn two, While this was going on the big one happened down in turn three. Jeff Fultz, Jason Myers, Gary Putnam, Ronnie Williams, Tim Brown and Daniel Yates all crashed at the top of the crash, while Jimmy Wallace spun to the inside of the track. The track was literally blocked off, Brody Jones and Johnny Kievman stopped to avoid colliding with the others. Brown, Yates and Williams day was done with too much damage.
On the ensuing restart it was still Myers and Labonte showing the way with Hirschman now in third, Hossfeld chose the outside and slotted into fourth and last October Caraway winner John Smith in the Buddy Ellis #24 car was looking strong and was right there in fifth. Myers jumped out to the point again, while Hirschman got past Labonte and was right on Myers back bumper and had Labonte to his outside as the two battled for second. Myers was holding strong up front withstanding the challenges from Hirschman with three laps to go. Myers knew who was behind him, so he changed his line up hoping to stretch out his lead over Hirschman, but Hirschman took notice and was doing the same thing. Hirschman was getting to Myers bumper coming up out of turn two, but Myers would distance himself down the backstretch, so Hirschman knew that was gonna be the spot to try and overtake Myers.
With the white flag from flagman Jeff Bunton flagging, Myers looked good all race long going into turn one, but this time was different as Myers washed up the track going into turn one and wiggled in turn two, which left the door wide open for Hirschman to take. Hirschman dove to the inside and he sure enough did. Hirschman seen his shot and took it, but Myers wasn’t ready to relinquish the lead, he was driving defensively as he ran Hirschman way down to the bottom of the track. While that was happening here came Labonte on the top trying to make a two for one pass, but he ran out of real estate both leaders came back up the track entering turn three and shut down Labonte’s momentum. Hirschman finally cleared Myers in three and it left the door open for Labonte to rocket ship past Myers on the bottom. Labonte saw the hole and took it, but Myers came down slightly and Labonte had to get on the binders and tapped Myers. Myers got loose, Labonte went up and over the concrete strip and almost hit the end of the pit wall, but thanks to a great piece of driving Labonte didn’t hit the brunt of the wall, he slammed the wall and knocked the tire of the rim, but he limped it home in ninth. Hirschman crossed the line to win the SMART Chevy 99. Myers kept his car straight and finished second, John Smith rallied from the back to finish third. Hossfeld came across in fourth and rookie Caleb Heady had some problems earlier, but came back and rounded out the top 5.
“Don’t lift,” said Hirschman jokingly when asked about how he kept it straight “I don’t know how the hell we didn’t wreck. (Myers) got up off the bottom there and I was able to get a run underneath him, of course he was gonna try and close it, we were rubbing the whole way down the backstretch so it was a pretty crazy finish.”
When asked about his tires and how coming from the back to win Hirschman said “Well we got a little bit behind there, but with those final restarts it got us closer back up, gave us a shot and it was some good hard racing out there with everyone I ran with during the race and there at the end.”
Hirschman also talked about the tour too. “This SMART Tour is off to a healthy start and I wish them the best, we’ll check back in later this year. It might not be until later in the year, but we’ll be back.”
“I know a lot of people up there (in the grandstands) are probably mad at the 60 car (Hirschman), but he didn’t do anything wrong,” said a very humble Burt Myers. “I knew he could beat me up off the corners and I probably over strategized myself and got into there too hot and washed up getting in there. All in all, we probably had a tenth-place car, but we used strategy to get track position there. I knew he was better than us when we got going, but the cautions killed it, but these guys never quit and we worked our tails off and we came up second, what more can I say?”
John Smith rallied big from starting 19th to finish third and take home the Carolina Drilling Blast To The Front Award.
“This car hasn’t ran since Myrtle Beach (Speedway) in 2015,” Smith said. “I’ll tell you what, I didn’t feel that good about the car coming down here, but we got a ton of guys that work on this car, but Travis Owens helped me a lot today, if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be where we’re at. He’s really done a lot with the setup today, we got here and worked on the frame heights a lot. I got to thank Buddy Ellis for the opportunity to race, the good Lord blessed us with a good race today.”
The next SMART Modified Tour race is Saturday, March 20th at Florence Motor Speedway in Timmonsville, SC. The series hasn’t raced there very much, but if this Saturday’s race has any similarities to the races held last season, it’ll be a fantastic race.
SMART 99 Results
Starting Positions in Parentheses
1. 60 Matt Hirschman (6)
2. 1 Burt Myers (7)
3. 24 John Smith (19)
4. 17 Chuck Hossfeld (8)
5. 7NY Caleb Heady (4)
6. 00 Jeff Fultz (9)
7. 44NC Jared Fryar (16)
8. 5 Tom Buzze (15)
9. 25 Bobby Labonte (1)
10. 48 Johnny Kievman (25)
11. 77 Gary Putnam (14)
12. 4 Jason Myers (2)
13. 22 Jimmy Wallace (5)
14. 15 Brian Loftin (10)
15. 92 Brody Jones (18)
16. 55 Jeremy Gerstner (3)
17. 07 Dennis Holdren (17)
18. 40 Frank Fleming (13)
19. 12 Mike Norman (20)
20. 99 Ronnie Williams (11)
21. 18 Daniel Yates (23)
22. 83 Tim Brown (12)
23. 50 Michael Clifton (22)
24. 44 Daniel Beeson (21)
25. 3 Danny Propst (24)
Failed to Qualify: N/A
Fast Qualifier: Matt Hirschman 15.893
Time of Race: 01:23:29
Cautions: 10 for 43 Laps – (Lap 1 – 22 spins turn 2, Lap 30 – Stage Break, Lap 41 – 4 spins turn 4, Lap 44 – 50 spins turn 4, Lap 48 – 44 crash turn 2, Lap 69 – 48 spins turn 4, Lap 77 – 5 & 55 spins turn 4, Lap 93 – 55 spins turn 1, Lap 93 – 48 & 55 spins turn 2, Lap 94 – 00, 4, 18, 22, 48, 77, 83, 92 & 99 crash turn 3,
Lead Changes: 8 among 7 drivers – (1 – 4 Bobby Labonte, 5 – 30 Jason Myers, 31 – 37 Jeremy Gerstner, 38 – 70 Matt Hirschman, 71 – 77 Jeff Fultz, 78 – 87 Tim Brown, 88 – 98 Burt Myers, 99 Matt Hirschman)
Lap Leaders: Matt Hirschman 34, Jason Myers 26, Burt Myers 11, Tim Brown 10, Jeff Fultz 7, Jeremy Gerstner 7, Bobby Labonte 4