Mike Looney watches intently as other drivers take time during the ValleyStar 300 test session at Martinsville Speedway. (Dinah Mullins photo)

Mike Looney is contending for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National title right now but he’s ready to shift his focus to the biggest Late Model Stock Car race in the country on Saturday night October 5th at Martinsville Speedway.

This season Looney is in the midst of a career year in Late Model Stock Car competition where he’s won 11 races between Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, VA and Langley Speedway in Hampton, VA. Looney has all but clinched the Motor Mile Speedway Late Model Stock Car championship and is currently among a group of six drivers fighting for the prestigious NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National Championship with just three weekends left to accrue points.

Looney, however, is ready to get back to Martinsville Speedway for the biggest event of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model Stock Car season. Looney is a past winner at Martinsville Speedway, taking home the grandfather clock after winning the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 on October 16, 2016. This year he’ll be looking to win his second grandfather clock, but this year’s event features a lot of changes that will affect how the race plays out.

The changes for this year include an increased purse for the top five finishers with the winner receiving the lion’s portion, $32,000. The way drivers qualify for the event has been changed as well with single car qualifying replacing the previously used European (group) qualifying. Qualifying will now lock in 20 drivers instead of two and the heat races have been trimmed to just two 50-lap races with the top 10 in each race moving on to the feature.

Looney says that bringing back single-car qualifying makes the event have a lot bigger feel.

“I’d competed under the old format a lot,” Looney said. “I really liked the old style qualifying where you could watch the other guys take a shot at you. There’s a lot of anticipation, you get on the track, three laps. That’s how it was when I started racing at Martinsville and I felt like it was a big part of the experience.”

Single car qualifying allows for some drama to play out as drivers take to the track and then sit and wait to see where they end up. With only the top 20 cars locked in, there will be around 60 cars or more that have to run heat races and every driver wants to make the race on time. Looney says it helps you sleep better when you’re in the race on time.

“We qualified fifth one time, we’d gone out early and watch all these big guns take cracks at us. And we were still in the top five at the end of the day and that was like a win to us and our little team. Then you can sleep so much better overnight knowing you’re in for the next day.”

One other change is the format of the race. This year’s race will feature segments with a break coming at laps 75 and 150 for teams to make adjustments on their cars and no invert at either break unlike in the past. They’ll also once again have four tires to change at any point during the 200-lap feature. Looney says he likes the changes and thinks it’ll make it interesting for the team’s tire strategy.

“I like it,” Looney explained. “We’ve never had this much wiggle room to do our tires when we want and how we want. If you’re starting 40th you’re going to need to put your tires on early to work through the field and hang on at the end. I saw guys last year put their tires on late and never got a green flag lap to use them. It gives us options. If we need track position, we can do stuff with the tire strategy to do stuff at the end. The whole focus of the weekend is to get in position, then it’s anybody’s game.”

Looney is looking forward to getting back to Martinsville and attributes a lot of his recent success there to maturity and learning to slow down.

“My age, I’m 41 now, matured and slowed down a little more. I’ve finally grasped the idea that you need to slow down to go fast and you have to have fenders on your car to win the thing. We’ve learned a lot over the years, the track is pretty consistent from year to year and we’ve built up a pretty good notebook from year to year.”

Looney is also optimistic about where the rules are in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series after a highly competitive season around the region.

“In years past it’s felt like it’s depended on if you had the right engine to match the engine package to fit the rules,” Looney said. “It seems like this year they have the engine parity closer to where it’s been in a long, long time. We’re excited about that, that we’re not handicapped in that department.”

Looney and all the big names in Late Model Stock Car racing will converge on Martinsville Speedway for this years ValleyStar Credit Union 300 on Saturday night October 5th and with the rules being as close as they’ve ever been for Late Model Stock Cars and all the changes going into this event, it could be a race for the ages.

Tickets to the First Data 500, the ValleyStar Credit Union 300, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Night Race and all Martinsville Speedway events can be purchased online at www.martinsvillespeedway.com or by calling 877.RACE.TIX.