Sunday’s 47th Annual Winchester 400 came down to a traditional sight at the half-mile Winchester Speedway – one driver attempting to fend off another for the lead with the laps winding down.
But unlike most late two-car battles on the high-banked oval, Sunday’s ended without controversy or torn up sheet metal.
Instead it was settled with respect.
Jeff Choquette fended off a fierce challenge in the closing laps from polesitter Chandler Smith to secure one of the biggest wins of his career, adding a positive twist to what’s been a challenging season.
“This is awesome,” Choquette told Short Track Scene. “It’s what we needed. We’ve fought hard this year, had good race cars but fell short at some races. This is a good momentum builder.
“The next races for us will be the Governor’s Cup and the Snowball Derby, so this momentum came at the right time.”
Choquette led for a large portion of the race, but it was Smith that looked to be the dominant car early on.
After starting on the pole, Smith shot out to a sizable lead over a pair of early restarts and paced the field for the opening stint of the event. The Georgian looked unstoppable, but he had to pit from the lead on Lap 98 after encountering a flat tire and a broken sway bar.
The middle section of the race saw a host of different leaders — Donnie Wilson, Austin Kunert, Steve Wallace and Josh Brock among them — as traffic ebbed and flowed through varying pit strategies, but Choquette consistently marched his way to the front of the field.
By the time the race entered the final 100 laps, Smith had risen to join Choquette, Wallace and Stephen Nasse at the front of the field. The climb took Smith half of the race, but it was a sacrifice the 16-year-old was willing to make to have a clean car for the end.
“I just had to be patient and work my way back up without bending any fenders,” Smith said. “Definitely frustrating considering what happened with us, because I felt like if we could have stayed up front and had clean air no one could have touched us. We were unstoppable in clean air.”
The final restart came on Lap 354 with Choquette in command. Smith rolled off behind Wallace and Nasse in fourth, but quickly worked his way into second as the race entered the final 30 laps. After a dozen laps of chase, Smith finally caught Choquette with 20 to go and began searching for a way around him.
Showcasing his veteran wit, Choquette cut off Smith’s best lane.
“He was better than I was, hands down,” said Choquette of Smith. “But I had the line he wanted to run. If he would have gotten in front of me, he would have rolled off easy. So I held the position he needed to pass.”
The final 20 laps played out as one of the best super late model battles of the season. Three times Smith was able to pull alongside of Choquette, including a last-ditch attempt coming to the white flag. But Choquette powered back to the lead on the outside line each time.
Unable to complete the overtake on pace, Smith was forced to decide between punting Choquette for the win and settling for second. In the end he elected to accept a runner-up result.
“That’s awesome, especially since the highlights aren’t going to be about us wrecking each other,” Smith said. “We had a nice, clean race. Both got a pretty good finish, even though there’s was better than ours. At the end of the day, we’re going home with pretty clean race cars.
“That’s where the big money comes in, because it takes a lot of money to make these race cars. Hats off to them, and my Toyota Camry. My guys did a great job setting up my car. I hadn’t ran one of these in a long time, and they had the car dialed in and on rails all day.”
The Winchester 400 often comes down to late contact for the win, but Smith claimed he respected Choquette too much to consider such a move.
“I have a lot of respect for Jeff (Choquette),” he said. “He and I race each other really clean all the time. We may rub a little when it comes to battles like that at the end of the race, but at the end of the day me and him have too much respect for each other. I would never do anything like that to him.”
The triumphant Choquette, 31, praised the driver half his age for his clean style and decision making.
“That goes a long way,” Choquette said. “I would have done the same thing.
“(Smith)’s got a lot of wins coming in his career. He’s a young guy, fast, got a long way to go. If he keeps that head on his shoulders like he has so far, he’ll make it a long way. You’ll be watching him on Sunday.”
Wallace followed the top duo in third after struggling with the handling in the race’s final rundown.
“There at the end we got the car a little too tight,” Wallace said. “I felt like we were a little better at the end than where we finished. Those two cars were strong all day, but I felt like if we were a little looser at the end we could have ran with them.”
Nasse followed in fourth, with NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion Tyler Ankrum completing the top five. Wilson, Harrison Burton, Brock, Johnny VanDoorn and Raphael Lessard completed the top 10. Brock’s eighth-place race run led all Chase contenders, allowing him to clinch his first ARCA/CRA Super Series championship.
Kunert ended the day second in the standings with an 11th-place result, while contenders Hunter Jack and Jon Beach came home 19th and 24th, respectively.
There were nine cautions and two red flags on the day, including a competition caution on Lap 320 after a 75-lap green flag run.
The biggest win of his career complete, Choquette will now set his sights on the one race that would mean more – the Snowball Derby.
“The No. 1 in race our book is the Snowball Derby,” he said. “We finished second in that last year, so hopefully we can ride this momentum down there and pick up a win.”
Winchester 400 Results
- Jeff Choquette
- Chandler Smith
- Steve Wallace
- Stephen Nasse
- Tyler Ankrum
- Donnie Wilson
- Harrison Burton
- Josh Brock
- Johnny VanDoorn
- Raphael Lessard
- Austin Kunert
- Dan Leek
- JP Crabtree
- Trevor McCoy
- Eddie VanMeter
- Dalton Armstrong
- Mason Mingus
- Brandon Oakley
- Hunter Jack
- Corey Heim
- Jack Dossey III
- Kyle Crump
- Jaren Crabtree
- Jon Beach
- Carson Hocevar
- Michael Simko
- Chase Purdy
- Brandon Varney
- Bob Varney
- Greg Van Alst