Justin Johnson (44) spins in turn four at Southern National Motorsports Park. (Andy Newsome photo)

The first half of the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park was dominated by Roxboro, North Carolina native Justin Johnson, who was determined to finally pick up a win in the prestigious race after coming up short on a controversial ruling in 2017.

Instead of visiting victory lane, a dejected Johnson was forced to watch Bobby McCarty celebrate with his crew after a tire puncture took him out of contention in the closing stages of the race.

“The tire was only about four pounds low on air, but I guess it cost us the lead,” Johnson said. “I was just riding and never really got full-throttle on that long run, and then it started swinging on entry right after the restart. I thought it was a flat tire, but it never got any worse. It’s just one of those deals.”

Johnson and his team spent a majority of the weekend working on forward drive and perfecting the front end of his #44 Puryear Tank Lines Late Model, which he believed was strong enough to contest for the pole position once the adjustments had been completed.

A mistake on his qualifying run relegated Johnson to sixth for the start of the 125-lap Late Model feature, but it only took him a few laps to pass McCarty for the lead after working the high side of the track to his advantage.

Johnson built enough of a gap over the rest of his competition to the point where he could save his tires, which he knew were going to be imperative to hold off McCarty, who had begun to erase Johnson’s lead prior to a caution for John Whaley’s spin.

Johnson’s race started to unravel shortly afterwards as the tire puncture caused the handling of his car to go away, which enabled drivers such as Lee Pulliam, Bradley McCaskill and others to overtake him on the track.

Johnson continued to battle his ill-handling car while trying to avoid trouble, but he found himself facing the outside retaining wall after getting turned around by McCarty, who was only a few car lengths away from taking the white flag as the race-leader.

“I guessed I should have moved over and let him go,” Johnson said about the collision. “We were coming to the white and they said he had 15 car lengths on second place, so I didn’t really feel like he was going to take a chance at costing himself the race there, but I don’t have any hard feelings after that.”

Johnson lost a lap because of the spin and ultimately salvaged a seventh-place finish as the first car one lap down, but he could not help but think about what could have been after starting his evening on a positive note.

After posting consistent speed all weekend, Johnson is confident that he can still hold his own with many of the best Late Model drivers on the East Coast and hopes to have more opportunities to showcase his talent before the 2020 season concludes.

“I don’t really know what’s next, because all of it depends on sponsorship,” Johnson said. “I’d definitely love to run the car quite a bit more and I really enjoy being here with all of the guys. It’s a passion I love to do, but this is an expensive sport and it’s difficult to race without the right financial partners.”

If he can secure the proper funding, Johnson intends to come back to Southern National next weekend to pursue his first career victory in the CARS LMSC Tour during their season-opener in the Solid Rock Carriers 300.