Justin Johnson battles with Matt McCall in the closing laps of the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National. (Photo: Corey Latham)

The closing laps of the 2017 Myrtle Beach 400 featured a controversial decision by race officials that would directly affect the outcome of the race. After Jake Crum made contact with race leader Lee Pulliam with 25 laps to go, both drivers were sent to the rear of the field, as Crum was black flagged for aggressive driving, while Pulliam was sent to the rear of the field for bringing out the caution.

The race ended with JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry in victory lane, while Pulliam and Crum ended the race in the garage area after being involved in an accident on a restart. Both drivers voiced their displeasure with each other after the accident, with Pulliam calling into question the rules established by Myrtle Beach Speedway after the event, as he believed that neither him nor Crum should have been sent to the back of the pack.

Controversy would find its way into the 2017 Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park only one week later. With 25 laps remaining, Justin Johnson and Matt McCall found themselves in a heated battle for the lead when Brenden Queen land Devin Dodson were involved in an accident in Turn 4 that brought out the red flag. Johnson took his position at the front of the field, confident that he had a car strong enough to hold off McCall for the lead.

However, track officials at Southern National Motorsports Park saw the battle for the lead play out differently, as they scored McCall in front of Johnson the moment the caution came out. Johnson disagreed with the officials’ decision to move him behind the #51 of McCall, and believed that he was clearly in front of McCall when the accident happened.

“We were clearly in front on the restart, and they gave it to Matt,” Johnson said after the race. “I led the last 2 laps, and he didn’t even have a nose in front of me. They’re known for bad calls down here, but I just want to thank my guys for the awesome job they did all weekend, and to Puryear Tank Lines and Mr. Puryear for believing in me. It’s a shame to lose a race not literally on the racetrack, but because of officiating. In this day and time, we have social media, and they could have looked back and made a proper call.”

Johnson elected to start behind McCall on the following restart, as drivers had struggled to make the high line work throughout the entire evening. McCall’s car proved to be too strong for Johnson, as he was able to drive away from the rest of the field and cruise to his first Thanksgiving Classic victory, while Johnson was able to hold off his teammate Tommy Lemons Jr. for second place.

Lemons, who had started the race second and had successfully hung around the front of the pack the entire evening, admitted that the red flag hurt his chances to claim another Thanksgiving Classic trophy, as the air from the tires had depleted. However, like his driver Justin Johnson, Lemons expressed his criticism of the track’s decision to score McCall in front of Johnson.

“I really hate it for Justin,” Lemons said. “His car was a little bit snug, but he had a car capable of winning the race right there at the end. It’s just a bad call in the tower. You can’t fault Matt. He did what any racer would do. Congrats to Matt, but it sucks for Justin, and it sucks for Jumpstart Motorsports. We can’t hang our heads too far down, but I would have much rather finished 1st and 2nd, and it would have been much easier to swallow that way.”

McCall’s victory at Southern National marked the first time that the Denver, North Carolina native had won the prestigious Late Model event in his career, and it was McCall’s first victory in Late Model competition since 2015, when he won the Jerry Moody Memorial. McCall normally serves as the crew chief of Jamie McMurray in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but found time to run the 17th Thanksgiving Classic with the 2017 season now over, and was thrilled to return to Late Model racing and to pick up the biggest win of his career.

McCall was asked about the decision to score him in front of Johnson for the final 25-lap sprint to the finish. McCall admitted that there were several occasions where he thought he should have been scored in front of Johnson, and that he was solely focused on picking up a victory for his team.

“I thought I was in the lead, but every time I contested they put us behind,” McCall said. “I wanted to see if they would give us the lead by getting in the right spot. It was always weird, because they would go back to the previous lap, and there aren’t any loops here, so the scoring is visual. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but maybe it would have. I’m sure the #44 thinks differently about it.”

Southern National Motorsports Park officials took both the cars of McCall and Johnson to post-race inspection to investigate whether or not there was a discrepancy in scoring. After a 3-hour investigation, promoter Michael Diaz and the rest of the officials concluded that an error in the placement of McCall’s transponder led to the scoring discrepancy, but added that there was not enough evidence to overturn their decision to score McCall as the leader.

Diaz took the blame for the series of events that led to the controversial decision, and expressed his apologies to Tommy Lemons Jr., Justin Johnson and the rest of the Jumpstart Motorsports team. Diaz added that he maintains a strong friendship with Lemons and several members of Jumpstart Motorsports, but added that the decision to keep McCall as the winner was the right option.

“This is exactly what’s wrong with racing,” Diaz said. “We have a rulebook, and I understand that. It’s nothing more than me trying to keep up my integrity as a track owner. Based off what was happening, and based off my tech and everything that was explained to me, the decision was made to leave it the way that it stood. It was not the right decision for some, and it was not the right decision for others. It was a mistake by the track officials to not identify the position of the transponder. As much as people want me to go by the rulebook, I do not think the transponder position is what lost Justin Johnson the race.”

The Thanksgiving Classic concludes an eventful season for Justin Johnson, which has included four Top 5 finished in CARS Late Model Stock Car Tour competition. However, while Johnson believes his 2017 season was successful, he added that there were several races that he knew he could have won, and plans to make closing races a top priority for his team going into the 2018 Late Model season.