Nolan Pope climbs out of his car to celebrate his first career CARS LMSC Tour victory in the Aaron's 250 at Florence Motor Speedway on Saturday evening. (Photo: Brandon White)

The Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour’s inaugural trip to Florence Motor Speedway for the Aaron’s 250 saw Nolan Pope claim his first win in a thrilling last lap battle with Timothy Peters, while SLM Tour points leader Matt Craig obtained his third victory of the 2020 season.

Craig knew that Trevor Noles, who started on pole after winning the U.S. Short Track Nationals at Bristol Motor Speedway the week before, would pose an immense challenge, but he felt confident in his chances to win as soon as he arrived at Florence on Friday.

“We struggled really bad at Bristol, but tonight we had a really good car,” Craig said. “We were really fast off the truck on Friday. My car was really similar to Trevor’s, as we both have Rowdy [Manufacturing] cars, so it was kind of like an IROC race with everyone having the same car, but it was fun.”

Noles and Craig controlled the early portion of the event until Michael Ritch powered his way to the front from a 10th starting position and took the lead. A bad restart briefly put Ritch back in third, but he methodically worked his way back to the lead until Craig passed him on Lap 79.

Ritch would ultimately get knocked out of contention after colliding with Carson Kvapil on another restart, leaving Craig and Noles to settle the win between themselves. Noles ultimately had nothing for Craig and was forced to watch him pull away with the win.

Craig’s win at Florence will pad out an already-comfortable points lead over Sammy Smith, but he said that his second consecutive CARS SLM Tour title is far from guaranteed with the season finale being the prestigious All-American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville.

“With the All-American 400, 32 cars start that race,” Craig said. “I think we’ll still have to finish in the Top 25 or better at Nashville to clinch. A lot of things can happen there, but hopefully we can hang on and get another championship.”

The ensuing LMSC feature was primarily dominated by Peters, but an efficient tire conservation strategy from Pope enabled him to charge his way through the field and pass the two-time ValleyStar Credit Union 300 winner with a great run off Turn 4 coming to the checkered flag.

Pope believed that he could conserve his equipment at the front of the field alongside Peters, Layne Riggs and Lee Pulliam after qualifying in fifth, but he quickly adjusted his strategy when he realized how aggressive his competition was at the beginning of the feature.

“We were going to try and ride out front, but everyone was going faster than I wanted to,” Pope said. “I knew we were going to have a good chance, but we just had to be there. After that last caution 80 laps in, I told my spotter that my car was really good around the bottom and as long as it stayed there, we had a shot.”

Pope dropped to the tail end of the field while Riggs held off challenges from Pulliam, Matt Cox and Justin Johnson. Riggs’ chances of a third consecutive CARS LMSC Tour victory ended soon after when a faulty alternator cost him two laps on pit road.

Johnson assumed control of the lead and encountered little resistance from the likes of Cox and Peters, but a mechanical issue on Lap 69 forced him to bring his Late Model into the pits, denying him his first career victory.

With Johnson out of the race, Peters gained the upper hand on his closest competition in McCumbee after the latter used up his tires, but several drivers, including Pope, began to weave their way through slower traffic after successfully conserving their tires.

Once Pope dispatched Pulliam and his teammate in Corey Heim, he made short work of McCumbee, but he had less than 15 laps to get around lapped cars and chase down Peters for that elusive first career win.

Peters did not think Pope was a contender for the win until he saw him rapidly approaching in his rearview mirror, but he admitted that there was not much he could do to stall out Pope’s momentum and beat him to the checkered flag with the handling having gone away on his car.

“I just gave him a little too much room, but I was getting really tight,” Peters said. “I think I went a little too soon after the last caution. This one will go in the memory bank when we come back down here for the big race, so hopefully things will go the same way except 10 yards in my direction.”

Pope, who was coming off a dismal weekend at Carteret County Speedway that saw him get banned from the Touring 12 following a post-race altercation with Ronald Hill, was solely focused on being consistent and gaining spots, but was also oblivious as to where he was in the running order until the checkered flag flew.

“I had no idea that was even for the lead,” Pope said. “Nobody said anything, but when I crossed the line, everybody started yelling and I asked if that was for the win, and I was told yes. I really didn’t want a yellow, but luckily that didn’t happen and we were able to clear [Peters] off Turn 4 for the checkered.”

The CARS LMSC Tour will conclude their season from Oct. 24-25 for the Old North State Nationals at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. The All-American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway will be held from Oct. 31-Nov. 1.

SLM feature results:

  1. 54 Matt Craig
  2. 22 Trevor Noles
  3. 51 Sammy Smith
  4. 45 Kodie Conner
  5. 7 Justin Crider
  6. 7c Tyler Church
  7. 49 Jeff Batten
  8. 21 Kris Wright
  9. 35 Carson Kvapil OUT
  10. 57 Cole Timm OUT
  11. 11 Michael Ritch OUT

LMSC feature results:

  1. 1 Nolan Pope
  2. 12 Timothy Peters
  3. 16 Chad McCumbee
  4. 2 Lee Pulliam
  5. 14 Jared Fryar
  6. 78 Corey Heim
  7. 19 Deac McCaskill
  8. 81 Mini Tyrrell
  9. 51 Chris Chapman
  10. 4 Jonathan Findley
  11. 63 Tyler Matthews
  12. 74 Ronald Hill -1
  13. 22 Bobby McCarty -1
  14. 19c Jessica Cann -1
  15. 99 Layne Riggs -2
  16. 2s Jonathan Shafer -4
  17. 95 Matt Cox OUT
  18. T2 Travis Truett OUT
  19. 08 Justin Johnson OUT
  20. 99s Austin Somero OUT
  21. 88 Connor Mosack OUT