Connor Okrzesik could not have scripted a better scenario for his breakthrough Super Late Model victory in CRA Speedfest at Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele, Georgia on Saturday night.
The 17-year-old from Mobile, Alabama was six laps away from his first victory when Tate Fogleman spun off the backstretch to set up a five lap-shootout against some of the best short trackers in the discipline.
Who was set to restart second? That would be 2015 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.
No pressure, kid.Okrzesik selected the bottom for the decisive restart and surged away, leaving Busch to be challenged by Harrison Burton over the final laps.
Okrzesik had been close to victory lane on several occasions in 2018 and broke through in a big way on Saturday night in the Peach State.
“I was pretty mad when the caution came out,” Okrzesik said. “It took me a lap to get my bearings. And then I started to think about what I was going to do on the restart. I knew it would be tough.Crew chief Mike Garvey and crew had some pretty intense instructions for the 17-year-old too.”
With five laps to go? You gotta be kidding me.”
“You need to do whatever it takes to beat him on this restart.”
“This story is going to be even sweeter when you beat Kyle Busch for this one.”
No kidding. He did. And it was.
And Busch was quick to credit Okrzesik too.”The 14, Connor and those guys did a great job,” Busch said. “They were hauling butt today. Fun to see these younger guys going fast and doing well, and sucks to finish second to them. Overall, we had fun and that’s what it’s about.”
Busch even congratulated Okrzesik with a high five and hug on the podium stage.
Of course, this isn’t the first stage that Busch has been beat on a big Super Late Model stage. The last time it happened was the 2012 Snowball Derby when Erik Jones out-dueled Busch on a similar restart with 20 laps remaining to capture the Tom Dawson Memorial Trophy.
Okrzesik was really good on Saturday night, but Busch admitted he probably wasn’t a second-place car, struggling with his right rear spring. He started 10th and battled all day just to get to second and have a chance at Okrzesik when the final caution waved.
“We were really bad in qualifying,” Busch said. “Our car was terrible there. A couple of guys ran some really good laps in the .70s and we were stuck in the .90s. I knew we were going to have a struggle in qualifying, but once the race started I knew we had a good race car. Guys worked really, really hard this weekend. The Mobil 1 Camry was good, we just could never get it exactly where we wanted it.
“It was always just a little too tight or a little too loose. We tried everything, we wholesaled it, we threw the kitchen sink at it on both pit stops trying to make improvements.”
For Okrzesik, it was a victory for the little guys — at least in comparison to Kyle Busch Motorsports. Okrzesik has a Senneker chassis and Hamner engines, and armed with Garvey, one of the brilliant old-school racing minds, but it’s still a blue collar-like effort.
“We’re not quite a low budget team, but we don’t have what a lot of these guys have,” Okrzesik said. “We’ve finished second a lot of times against some of those big teams, but we got one back against them tonight. And what a cool way to do it.”
Stephen Nasse led from the pole for the first 29 laps before giving way to Brian Campbell.
Campbell remarkably spun from the lead when his car inexplicably slowed down on Lap 29. That gave Nasse back the lead until Lap 69 when Harrison Burton moved to the point. Burton lost the lead when Bubba Pollard and Chandler Smith stayed out on older tires for a Lap 104 restart.
Okrzesik moved through lap traffic the best and emerged with the lead and held it until the decisive restart.Pollard was forced on the strategy when he pitted for right side tires during a non controlled caution period. The Pollards believed they were allowed to take tires during non controlled cautions, but only at the risk of losing laps — something that wouldn’t happen during a controlled caution.
But the CRA’s event rules are as follows:
“You must start the race on the tires you qualify on. Super Late Models will be allowed 8 tires in your pit area for the race. 4 marked tires that can only be changed during controlled cautions, and 4 marked or unmarked tires for approved flats for any time during the race.”
When Pollard pit during the lap 123 non controlled pit stop caution, he gave up his 10th place spot and was forced to start at the rear.
The complete results from Speedfest can be found below.
- Connor Okrzesik
- Kyle Busch
- Harrison Burton
- Chandler Smith
- Stephen Nasse
- Scotty Ellis
- Casey Roderick
- Brian Campbell
- Chris Dilbeck
- Anthony Sergi
- Kyle Plott
- Corey Heim
- Kyle McCallum
- Daniel Webster
- Brandon Herbert
- Josh Brock
- Kyle Bryant
- Austin Thaxton
- Nolan Pope
- Bubba Pollard
- Rich Bickle
- Tate Fogleman
- Steve Dorer
- Jeff Fultz
- Hudson Halder
- Jerry Artuso