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New England Notebook: Shaw Opens Title Defense With Icebreaker Win

Each week, Short Track Scene looks back at results and news from northern New England’s Late Model and Super Late Model competition, from the region’s premier tours — the American-Canadian Tour, the Granite State Pro Stock Series, and the Pro All Stars Series — to the tracks and drivers that support them. Thanks to the local journalists and fans who report in from the track each week to keep their fellow fans informed.

PASS NORTH: SHAW WINS AT THOMPSON, DEFENDING TITLE FROM THE FRONT

A week after opening its National Championship program at Virginia’s Richmond Raceway in the rescheduled Commonwealth Classic, the Pro All Stars Series teams and officials headed home to New England. For the fourth year running, the PASS North Super Late Model schedule kicked off Sunday afternoon at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park.

New England’s fastest Super Late Models were once again a featured attraction on the region’s fastest short track, joining NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour as part of Thompson’s annual Icebreaker weekend. Saturday’s 75-lap feature event served not only as the opener for the eighteen-race PASS North schedule, but as the second race of the PASS National Championship, marking the second of three races in a quick four-week burst to set the stage for the East Coast title.

Twenty-one of the fendered cars checked in in time for practice and heats, with the National Championship points and Thompson’s layout drawing some different names to fill the field. Joining the North points contenders were six-time champion Johnny Clark, who skipped Thompson last year while running a limited schedule, and Commonwealth Classic crate feature winner Mike Hopkins. Two former Thompson champions, Derek Ramstrom and Nick Johnson, were entered, along with Johnson’s younger brother Jake, a Seekonk Speedway sophomore with a top-three run in Richmond. GSPSS regular Cory Casagrande and his brother Kyle were entered for an early home-state start to their seasons. Reigning GSPSS champion Devin O’Connell, who hoped to chase National points while defending his championship, was another of the GSPSS stars in the field, along with youngster Jimmy Renfrew, Jr., who scored a top-ten finish at Thompson a year ago.

Youth and experience split Saturday’s qualifying heats, with Gabe Brown and Ben Rowe each winning a qualifier to set the field and the front row for Sunday’s race. Brown would line up on the pole alongside Rowe, with defending race winner Derek Griffith rolling off third and Johnny Clark fourth.

Raceday dawned with a milder forecast than last year’s in store, with temperatures approaching the sixties by the drop of the green flag. After a quick yellow for Greg Nanigian’s spin coming to the green, Gabe Brown shot out to the early lead, with Derek Griffith pacing the second-year SLM star. On a restart following a yellow for problems on Derek Ramstrom’s entry, though, Griffith overpowered Brown on the outside, leaving the field to battle for second place as he set off at the point.

For the first half of the race, Griffith looked likely to start off 2019 the same way he had started 2018. However, DJ Shaw cleared the battle for second and began to chip away at Griffith’s advantage. Shaw reached Griffith by halfway, stalking the race leader and looking for an advantage. Shaw eventually found one, diving low on Griffith to take the race lead just before a lap-48 caution flag for a Nick Johnson spin in turn two.

Shaw led the field back to green, but Griffith kept pace with the defending PASS North champion, with a scramble for second place allowing Griffith to break out into the lead. Ray Christian III took the runner-up spot, but within a few laps Shaw was able to displace RC III, moving back to second with his eyes fixed on the leader.

Once again, Shaw chipped away at Griffith’s advantage, drawing close to the race leader as Griffith easily dispatched lapped traffic. Shaw pulled low alongside Griffith in the turns, but could not get past Griffith’s black-and-red #12G. With three to go, Shaw poked his nose high, pulling even with Griffith with two laps remaining. Shaw’s power move to the outside paid off, with the black #60 taking the lead for good in turn two with only two turns left to go. Griffith was unable to rally, and Shaw led Griffith to the checkered flag to claim his first PASS North trophy of 2019.

Ray Christian III, in only his sixth PASS North start, finished third after a late-race battle with Johnny Clark, who held on for fourth. Rookie Jake Johnson followed up his strong performance at Richmond with a fifth-place finish at Thompson. Garrett Hall was sixth ahead of Gabe Brown. Travis Benjamin placed eighth in the red and black #7, with Nick Sweet and Devin O’Connell rounding out the top ten.

Mike Hopkins soldiered back from a Saturday practice crash to finish 11th, ahead of Cory Casagrande and Angelo Belsito. Outside polesitter Ben Rowe faded through traffic midway through the race and finished 14th. Reid Lanpher suffered a similar fate; Lanpher climbed to fourth before reporting that his engine had lost power. The lap-48 caution gave Lanpher’s team (and Rowe’s) a chance to peek under the hood, but all the driver could do was limp home to 15th, the last car on the lead lap.

Shaw’s first PASS win on Thompson’s high banks was his 17th career PASS feature win, and a strong way to start a title defense. However, PASS lists Griffith with a single-point advantage leaving Connecticut, with last year’s title rival Travis Benjamin thirteen points back.

Shaw’s win was also the first PASS North win (and the second of the year) for the new Five Star “Gen-6” bodywork, with Shaw’s #60 wearing Ford Mustang sheetmetal this season. Seven drivers—Shaw, Ray Christian III, Gabe Brown, Nick Sweet, Mike Hopkins, Ben Rowe and Reid Lanpher—had Gen-6-bodied cars at Thompson, with four opting for the Mustang, Sweet and Hopkins with Chevy Camaros, and Ben Rowe with the lone Toyota Camry. Griffith, in an ABC-template car, more than held his own at the front of the field. With two of the more aero-dependent tracks on the PASS circuit already gone by, it leaves one to wonder what next year’s Thompson field will look like after teams adapt to the new bodies.

On a further technical note, this year’s Thompson race was limited to crate engines only, after allowing built engines in previous seasons. Last year’s race hinted at the disparity, with some of the series’ top contenders looking hopelessly off the leaders’ pace. This year, the field remained closer and more competitive, with only a few cars falling off the lead lap under green.

Worth noting, though, is the lack of a southern presence in a PASS National Championship event. Despite National points on the line at Thompson, not a single entrant from PASS’ southeastern contingent made the trip north. To be fair, the list of drivers from the PASS South ranks who will travel north has been short for years, but to some degree it diminishes the impact of a National Championship when the top ten in points looks quite close to the PASS North standings. Rookie Jake Johnson leads the standings over Derek Griffith and Gabe Brown, with the former PASS South heavy hitters mired beyond thirteenth.

It bears considering that the crate engine restriction may have discouraged southern teams from making the trip. A quick glance at the results from PASS’ crate and open features at Richmond shows that the southern teams heavily favored the open feature. The tracks and tours of the south similarly favor built engines. It stands to reason that the majority of the southern teams may not have had a crate engine on hand for one or two races. This may explain the lack of southern drivers in the field. It may also explain the absence of Eddie MacDonald, who raced in the open feature at Richmond as well. MacDonald is always a threat on New England’s largest tracks, having won the Thompson opener in 2017, but he may not have had a crate engine at the ready either.

With Thompson in the rear view mirror, the PASS North teams get an unexpected two-week layoff (or, depending on the team, an extra week to prepare) before the tour’s de facto home opener at Oxford Plains Speedway. PASS National teams will be back in action Easter weekend for the annual Easter Bunny 150 at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

PASS: “ROAD TO THE OXFORD 250” EVENTS CONFIRMED

Qualifying for August’s Oxford 250 is no guarantee. Curtis Gerry proved that last year, when mechanical issues left the defending Oxford 250 winner with no way in but to win the 50-lap last-chance feature (which he won). But as with the last few years, drivers will have a few opportunities during the season to make that path a little easier.

For a sixth year, PASS will continue the “Road to the Oxford 250” program, promising a provisional start to the winners of selected events in the 2019 season. Last year’s provisional program gave drivers an option to use their provisional start toward the 250 or the ultimately-rescheduled Commonwealth Classic at Richmond Raceway.

One such event had already been established earlier this year, with the upcoming Leonard Evans 150 in Washington granting Oxford 250 provisionals to the top three finishers (assuming they are PASS-licensed and have filed an entry for the 250). Garrett Evans made the long trip east in 2016, successfully making the field for the 250.

The official “Road to the Oxford 250” adds five PASS North events as Oxford 250 qualifiers, with the top-finishing United States and Canadian drivers each earning a provisional berth for the 250. The upcoming race at Oxford Plains Speedway on April 28th, the Memorial Day tilt at Thunder Road International Speedbowl, June’s race at Speedway 95, July’s Tuesday-night 200-lapper at Star Speedway, and August’s race at Spud Speedway in Caribou, Maine are now Oxford 250 qualifying events.

Oxford Plains Speedway has an additional qualifier on the sixth of July, with that week’s SLM feature extended to 100 laps. While the event is part of Oxford’s weekly program and not a PASS-sanctioned feature, the top-finishing Oxford regulars and PASS competitors will each earn provisionals. This extra-distance weekly feature is not to be confused with the PASS Open 100 a week earlier; the Open 100 is the annual event open to drivers who have not won a PASS feature in the last five years.

Naturally, many of these provisionals are likely to go unclaimed, with their holders advancing through the heats and consis to make the field. However, a driver faced with a bad day or a bad draw may be able to overcome misfortune with a provisional start in their back pocket.

PASS/ACT DOUBLEHEADER: MOTHER NATURE FLAGGED AS EARLY WINNER WITH DOUBLEHEADER DELAY

While the Connecticut climate was considerably inviting, the Maine weather was not so kind this week. A late-season storm dumped a few inches of fresh powder throughout the state, blanketing Oxford Plains Speedway just a week before the track’s opener. Officials were forced to make an early call to move Sunday’s scheduled PASS North/ACT doubleheader to the proposed rain date, April 28, to allow for time to clear the track and grounds for competition.

The ACT Tour’s second scheduled event of the season, at Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Vermont, was slated for the 28th as well; accordingly, ACT officials moved the Thunder Road event a week forward to the fifth of May to accommodate the rescheduled doubleheader. The extra week will give T-Road a little more time to prepare for the season ahead.

Unfortunately, rescheduled season openers are nothing new for the American-Canadian Tour. Lee USA Speedway, host of the Tour opener for a number of years, had to postpone its opening race several times in recent years, if not for weather itself, for the muddy track grounds that resulted from the Spring thaw.

LOCAL RACING: TC3 SCHOOLS THE FIELD IN THOMPSON LATE MODEL FEATURE

In addition to the touring divisions on hand for Thompson Speedway’s Icebreaker, the track’s own regular program was on Sunday’s schedule, with planned features for the track’s Sunoco Modifieds, Late Models, Limited Sportsmen and Mini Stocks. With the visiting Whelen Modified Tour on a timetable for live broadcast coverage, Thompson’s Late Model feature was moved to the end of the program.

The Late Models finally went green after Justin Bonsignore’s victory lane celebration, with Tom Carey III and William Wall making the event a two-man race. Wall, the winner of last year’s ACT Tour finale, took the early lead with some help from Mark Jenison, but Carey powered past Jenison to battle Wall for the top spot. Carey, who narrowly missed the track championship in 2018, ultimately seized the lead on the low side and held off Wall’s challenges through a couple late restarts to earn his second Late Model win at Thompson. Woody Pitkat, who was involved in an early spin that left the nose of his Ford rearranged, raced his way back to third only minutes after running the 150-lap Whelen Modified Tour event. Carey’s win came a week after a strong run in a non-points ACT Tour feature at Richmond Raceway as part of the Commonwealth Classic.

NEXT ON THE SCHEDULE

The Pro All Stars Series North and American-Canadian Tour each get two weeks off with the snow cancellation of this Sunday’s doubleheader. Both series will reconvene at Oxford Plains Speedway on April 28th.

Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. A native of New Hampshire and a long-time fan of New England racing, Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional Late Model touring series.

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