The final laps of the 2019 Hampton Heat 200 featured one of the most intense battles for the win in the event’s brief history, as Connor Hall and Nick Smith each exchanged the lead several times and were side-by-side as they took the white flag.
Hall would be the one to take home the trophy at the end of the night while Smith settled for the second position, but even though Smith was disappointed that he came a few car lengths short of the victory, he took pride in his strong run after overcoming numerous problems during the race.
“We lost our clutch while leading the race,” Smith said. “We had to cut the clutch on to get the pressure off because the clutch wasn’t engaging, so I spent the whole race grinding and finding gears. We had a shot to win this race, but [Connor] definitely earned it. He had a good car and he did what he had to do to win.”
The Hampton Heat 200 served as Smith’s first Late Model race of 2019, which came together after he worked out a deal to drive the house car for TORP Chassis, who entered the prestigious event with momentum on their side following several strong runs with Ryan Wilson at Motor Mile Speedway.
Smith showcased the speed his #12 TORP Chassis Late Model possessed early on by posting a blistering lap of 15.912 in qualifying to line up on the outside of the front row for the 200-lap feature alongside polesitter Mike Looney.
Smith worked the top groove to perfection on the initial start to overtake Looney and pull away with the lead, but he would surrender the top spot to Greg Edwards on Lap 39 as he and his crew attempted to diagnose and fix the clutch issues on his Late Model.
After losing several spots, Smith made the necessary adjustments to keep his Late Model inside the Top 10. Smith ultimately settled into the seventh position by the halfway break and was able to get fresh tires on his car for the second half of the feature.
Smith would spend the next 100 laps biding his time and waiting for the right opportunity to make a push towards the front of the field, all while Lee Pulliam and Peyton Sellers worked their way up to the first and second position respectively after taking tires on a Lap 132 caution.
When Justin S. Carroll lost control of his Late Model to bring a caution out with four laps to go, Smith ended up getting a good view of the battle between Pulliam and Sellers from the third position, and admitted that he was not surprised when their duel culminated into an accident on the restart.
“I kind of figured that was going to happen,” Smith said. “This is a big-money race, and everybody thinks they can win it. The fastest car usually does not end up winning because of that late-race caution, but it’s just good old short track racing. Nobody gives an inch when it gets down to 50 to go.”
With Pulliam and Sellers at the back of the field following their collision, Smith inherited the race lead while Hall, who works alongside Smith during the week, lined up alongside him on the outside lane.
Smith lost the lead to Hall twice as his clutch issues began to act up again, but he would be bailed out by two quick yellows that reverted the field back to the last completed lap, which allowed Smith more time to evaluate his situation and how to approach the next restart.
Smith and Hall were dead even as they took the green flag for the last time, with Smith pulling ahead with the lead temporarily before Hall pulled a crossover maneuver to take the inside line away from him.
The two leaned on each other all the way until they reached Turn 1 on the white flag lap, as Hall was able to move Smith out of the groove just enough to clear him and take the checkered flag in the most significant Late Model win of his career to date.
Smith wanted to add another Hampton Heat 200 victory to his resume after winning the inaugural race in 2008, but he stated that he fully enjoyed his time at his home track in what he expects will be the only time he drives a Late Model this season.
“I don’t have anymore Late Model races planned for this year,” Smith said. “I have an eight-month-old at the house that has changed my life in the best way possible. I get to spend a lot of time with him and I consider myself fortunate that I was even able to be out here, to begin with. It was a great weekend and I have nothing to hang my head about.”
Regardless of whether or not he makes any more Late Model starts in the near future, Smith remains one of the best drivers in the history of the division with over three dozen victories in the state of Virginia.
Cover photo by Andy Newsome.