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Late Model guys team-up to win Daytona … again!

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

In February, a trio of short track Late Model guys remarkably teamed-up to win the Great American Race, and history seemingly repeated itself in a way on Friday night, as another short track trio assembled to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

For the Daytona 500, it was driver Denny Hamlin, crew chief Chris Gabehart and spotter Chris Lambert each sharing a similar background before winning together at the highest level.

On Friday night, it was the blue-collar short track dream team Ross Chastain, Alex Yontz and Chris Rice joining forces at Kaulig Racing to win the final Firecracker 250 — the organization’s first victory since entering the division in 2016.

Chastain spent his formative years driving Late Models and Pro Trucks at Punta Gorda Speedway and New Smyrna Speedway — 15 minutes down the road from Daytona.

“Back up before that and I was a kid camping in Turn 1 at New Smyrna,” Chastain said. “We would go to the Home Depot and buy a bunch of pallets and that’s not even spinning it good. It was awful, man. It was hot out there, gross, but we just wanted to be at the race track every summer.”

Chris Rice, Kaulig Racing’s general manager, is a short track lifer and a longtime Late Model Stock crew chief for the likes of Elliott Sadler, Hermie Sadler and Jeff Burton before moving onto what is now the Xfinity Series.

He is the son of longtime South Boston Speedway general manager Cathy Rice.

Crew chief Alex Yontz has spent the better part of the past two decades behind the wheel of his own Late Model Stock and is the 2006 winner of the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway. He was always pretty good at wrenching his own cars too, something Rice took into consideration when hiring Yontz to crew chief the team’s star car.

“Alex Yontz is a fresh crew chief and he’s under my wing,” Rice said. “It’s no secret that we’re going to take this No. 10 car full-time with Alex Yontz calling the shots …

“Right now, we’re taking this car to give a guy like Ross Chastain a good opportunity and a good crew chief like Alex the same opportunity on top of the pit box. It’s been fun to take a Late Model racer like Alex who I despised racing because he was so good because now I love him because he’s pushing every limit there is for us now.”

Chastain won the 2011 World Series of Asphalt at New Smyrna in the Limited Late Model division. That was an important achievement because it was on that Saturday night in February that he decided to fully pursue NASCAR.

“We were racing against guys that we had no business being in the same speed bracket with,” Chastain said. “It’s kind of what it’s been like this year. We ran 1,000 lb. springs and 1,100 and I had to run across the apron just to get the darn thing to turn.

“We finally got a pole and went off and won like the final three races to win the championship. That’s when we decided maybe we should look at NASCAR.

“But yeah, man, we all come from the same world. I bet when you (he turns to Yontz) raced Late Models, you watched Daytona and dreamed about the day you could win here.

“AND NOW YOU’RE FREAKING HERE MAN!”

Yontz spent the majority of his life racing at places like Concord Speedway, Tri-County Motor Speedway and South Boston in the old UARA Series — a far cry from Daytona.

“It doesn’t even feel real yet,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling to take what Chris and Matt built from scratch in four years and take it to Victory Lane. It’s a great thing.”

He once said winning the Martinsville 300 was like winning at Daytona, something Rice immediately shut down.

“Hey, hey, I won Martinsville with Elliott Sadler in the No. 16 car and we didn’t even make it out of the track before we got thrown out,” he said. “So, I can tell you, winning Martinsville ain’t even close to winning Daytona. It’s way bigger.”

And Yontz immediately agreed too, even though he wasn’t behind the wheel for this one.

“It’s not, it’s not,” Yontz said. “But let me tell you something. I really mean this too. I was way happier to see our cars finish 1-2-3 at Daytona than any of my personal wins with me behind the wheel.”

And that kind of selflessness is exactly why Kaulig himself entrusted Rice to make personnel calls like this.

“I remember sitting down with Chris in 2015 and once we started spitting the numbers to figure out what it would take, we kind of put it on hold,” Kaulig said. “But we got back together, and I have to give Chris all the credit. The guys that he assembled to give us a 1-2-3? That’s just an incredible way to win our first race.”

And Rice did it with a bunch of short track guys because of course he did.

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Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He is also the associate motorsports editor of Autoweek Magazine and its website, which allows him to cover the highest levels of the sport.

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