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STS Report card: Our picks for the best and worst of short track racing in 2019

The 2019 short track racing season lacked no shortage of storylines …

Jeff Ames | STS

Short Track Scene is ringing in the new year with a look back at the best and worst of the 2019 season.

There was no shortage of storylines across the Super Late Model, Late Model Stock and Tour Type Modified world, often transcending both the United States and Canada.

Without further ado, here is what the short track community provided the racing community in 2019.

BEST RACE: WHAT WAS THE RACE OF THE YEAR?

Matt Weaver: It didn’t take long in 2019 to get to the best overall race, which in my estimation, took place on January 26 in CRA Speedfest at Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele, Georgia. Everyone likely remembers Connor Okrzesik dramatically outdueling Kyle Busch on a series of late restarts. But the entire race delivered and built up to the Okrzesik versus Busch finale. Stephen Nasse and Brian Campbell traded the lead early. Bubba Pollard was in contention until the closing stages when a misunderstanding of the pit stop rules forced the de facto face of the discipline to start at the rear. The race concluded with Busch giving Okrzesik a major show or respect with a hug and handshake; and a fuming Pollard refusing to get out of his car.

Jeff Brown: In my heart, I can’t position any of the races I attended this year above the Oxford 250. Call me starstruck. But the 250, from start to finish, truly embodies the spirit of short track racing in a way that few races of similar stature do. It’s a test of strategy that didn’t come down to a bumper. It’s a marathon that found local teams leading laps and defending winners struggling to keep pace. And it’s a tradition that went to a now-three-time winner in Travis Benjamin who invested all his midsummer effort into taking home the big prize.

Paul Lambert: Credit New Hampshire Motor Speedway for continuing to host the Whelen Modified Tour after losing their September Cup Series date with the marquee Musket 250. The drivers clearly like having top-dog status. The racing they put on in 2019 was certainly worthy of it. There was a first-time winning owner in Dave Sapienza thanks to a dramatic rally by his driver Bobby Santos, who picked up yet another win at a track he’s become so strong at. I’d recommend any fan to go back and watch the full race. I’m still not sure how the field makes it through turn three on the last lap.

BEST FINISH: WHICH RACE HAD THE BEST ENDING?

Matt: I still can’t believe how the All-American 400 ended back in November. The race seemed destined to come down to Chandler Smith and Stephen Nasse but they tangled with 29 laps to go, handing the lead to Mason Mingus and Wauters Motorsports. Meanwhile, Casey Roderick felt like he was incorrectly scored two laps down and raced the leaders as if he was on the lead lap. His participation in the battle for the lead likely cost a faster Smith and Boris Jurkovic from catching Mingus. Making matters even more complicated was that Roderick was driving a Rowdy Manufacturing car and holding up fellow Rowdy drivers Smith and Jurkovic. It was a wild scene to witness first-hand.

Jeff: The best finish I personally saw has to be the Granite State Pro Stock Series’ half of Star Speedway’s annual Star Classic. Ray Christian III dominated the evening, but Joey Doiron had stolen the lead late. “RC III” muscled Joey out of the way in the final two turns to take his first series win of the year. It was an aggressive move, but Ray didn’t dump him outright, and Joey still crossed the line second, though he was not pleased. I’d say the outcome of the Eddie MacDonald-Mike Hopkins PASS duel at NHMS was cleaner and no feelings were hurt, but I feel dirty giving a mile-long track the best short track finish of the year.

Paul: Fans who went to see a show at Stafford Motor Speedway this past June got their money’s worth and more for the SK Modified $5,000-to-win 100-lap feature. Young Modified Star Ronnie Williams went up against Connecticut Modified champion Keith Rocco over the course of the final laps of the race. The two raced side-by-side for the final three laps of the race, sliding and bumping their way to the checkers. In the end, it was Williams edging out Rocco by a couple of feet, giving him the $5,000 winner’s check.

BEST TRACK: WHO RUNS THE BEST VENUE?

Matt: I love everything about Stafford Motor Speedway in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. In addition to a wildly diverse schedule that includes the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, its weekly schedule includes arguably the most competitive and action packed weekly division in all of short track racing — the signature SK Modifieds. The track is well-promoted, understands social media and (most importantly) how to serve fans. In light of recent developments at Thompson, Stafford is proof that there are race fans and teams to serve in Connecticut if you work for it. There isn’t a bad show to be seen at Stafford and they’re adding a Super Late Model race in 2020.

Jeff: It’s hard to argue against what Bobby Webber, Jr. has done with Star Speedway in Epping, New Hampshire. As a racer himself, Bobby is engaged with the teams and the fans, and the loyalty is evident in the pit area, starting with the annual clean-up day before the oval-track season kicks off. The weekly competition is strong, car counts are high, and there’s an option for every level of experience from the Star Troopers youth division to Late Models and 350 Supermodifieds. Star also hosts just about every major regional touring series throughout the year. Add in the big-ticket annual events, the Star Classic for ISMA and the SBM 125 for Tour-type Modifieds, and of course the beloved enduros. Yes, the grounds remain a work in progress, but the on-track product, the diversity of racing, and the support from its racers elevate Star in my eyes above the other tracks in the region.

Paul: As tracks in New England have begun drying up, Stafford Motor Speedway continues to run a full program every Friday night from late-April through the end of September. Along with hosting three Whelen Modified Tour dates, the track runs various Open Modified shows and a $5,000-to-win SK Modified feature. The track has also embraced using social media to get their product out, and remains successful. They make a strong case for being the king of Modified country.

HEADLINE MAKER: WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST STORY OF THE YEAR?

Matt: The Late Model body saga has continued on for almost the better part of a decade but remained center stage in 2019 as it spilled over from the Super Late Model community back into the Late Model Stock community where it first began in 2014. And even now, at the start of 2020, there is no real resolution in sight for foreseeable future. The ABC Committee says they are not ever going to approve the Five Star Gen-6 shell. AR Bodies created an alternative reskin for 2020 for the divisions that have approved that option. NASCAR meanwhile approved a variant of the controversial Five Star option for Late Model Stocks. It’s not even a consensus opinion that Late Models needed a new look. It’s a topic that will continue on in 2020 and beyond.

Jeff: Sometimes the biggest headlines creep out just before the calendar turns, and the Thompson Speedway news from this week just might fill that role for 2019. Thompson has been part of the New England racing rumor mill for years, though talks of the oval’s waning days are more recent gossip fodder. But rumors are just rumors. This brings legitimacy to the speculation. And it puts racers in an impossible position. If racers stay, does it set a bad precedent for promoters elsewhere to exploit? If racers go elsewhere, what will the future be of the country’s oldest paved oval track? This story goes far deeper than the track, and the fallout could reach as far as NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour. And even if Thompson were to recant based on the bad press, this isn’t going to sit well with the teams if the situation arises again.

Paul: The K&N-ARCA merger: With both the K&N Pro Series divisions struggling to attract cars and fans, NASCAR decided to merge K&N with its other short-track series, ARCA, for the 2020 season. All of the racing will now be run under the ARCA name, and have both an eastern series, a western series, the standard ARCA tour, and a Showdown that crowns a champion from a roster of drivers from all three series. Whether the problems that plagued K&N will dog ARCA isn’t known yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the years going forward.

BEST QUOTE: MOST QUOTABLE DRIVER OF 2019

Matt: I’ve always said that Short Track Scene doesn’t work without Bubba Pollard. He is the most reported-on racer in the history of this website and is without a doubt the most notable short track driver in North America. The 32-year-old can be equal parts polarizing, political and thoughtful depending on his mood. His words carry further than anyone else in the industry and 2019 saw his popularity explode due to marquee wins and driving for JR Motorsports in the Martinsville 300. If there is an important story to be told in this discipline, I go to Bubba because his words matter and people care about what he has to say.

Jeff: Modified racer Andy Jankowiak comes to mind for two moments: his honest shock at finishing third at Oxford, and his surprise at inheriting a podium spot at Seekonk, both racing with the Tri-Track Open Modified Series. But for consistency, it’s hard to ignore Stephen Nasse. If he doesn’t have a good line at the race track, he certainly has something for social media afterwards.

Paul: Six-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby. The Modified great had his finest season yet in 2019, leading the Whelen Modified Tour in poles, top-fives, top-10s, and laps led on his way to his sixth Tour championship. Coby had plenty to say on the way there. He called his season-opening win at Myrtle Beach “a murder in the first fucking degree” over the radio, lamented a controversial tire-changing rule at Stafford in August, and expressed displeasure over the red-checker finish of the July Tour race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He’s almost always extremely well thought-out with what he says, and has the respect of the entire garage and short track community.

UNBELIEVABLE: THE MOST SURREAL MOMENT OF 2019

Matt: There is a recency bias at-play here, but I’m still completely beside myself over what happened at the end of the Snowball Derby when a leading Ty Majeski got turned sideways in front of the field at the start-finish line. Majeski had drawn the ire of race control for his two prior restarts. The race director liked his last attempt but it got him turned sideways and stripped him an opportunity to win the biggest race of the year. I still sympathize with Ty and wished he had just restarted his way and forced the tower’s hand. And perhaps, Majeski winning would have saved us all from another Room of Doom incident that transpired over the following three hours.

Jeff: Back in July, the Granite State Pro Stock Series was running at Lee USA Speedway, and points leader Joey Doiron was sitting third just past halfway. A car in the back half of the top ten oiled down the track, and the two leaders were swept up in a multi-car crash. Doiron inherited the lead and went on to win. What made this notable is that Doiron lost this same race last year in the same fashion; he was the leader and got swept up in someone’s mechanical failure in the same turn. Racing is replete with redemption arcs, but when your redemption comes a year later in the same turn of the same track under the same circumstances, that’s fate handing you a favor.

Paul: The oldest paved asphalt oval in America waited until the very end of 2019 to make an announcement that shocked the racing community. A letter sent by Thompson Speedway CEO Jonathan Hoenig to competitors read that both the schedule and purses will be cut for the 2020 season. Hoenig also wrote that management had no plans of repaving the aging Thompson surface, meaning the oval will soon be abandoned whether teams agree to the changes or not. It brings the future of one of America’s most hallowed tracks into question.

BEST WRAP: PAINT SCHEME OF 2019

Matt: Maybe it’s the colors or the NASCAR Pinty’s Series body stylings, but I love Alex Tagliani’s 22 Racing No. 18 in the True North Strong and Fast division.

JEFF: If we’re talking gimmicky schemes, one comes to mind, and that belongs to Thompson (CT) Speedway Limited Sportsman regular Shawn Monahan. Shawn showed up at April’s Icebreaker with his car converted into a station wagon, wrapped in purple with woodgrain sides and a name emblazoned across the tailgate: the “Swaggin’ Wagon.” The wagon is pretty tough to beat.

Paul: Molly Hellmuth’s Dale Earnhardt Peter Max 2000 No. 3: Those Cup teams over at Darlington had better step up their game, because right now, the CARS Tour has the best race in the country when it comes to nostalgia, the Throwback 276. While there’s always a ton of great paint schemes brought to the track, the best-in-show belonged to Molly Hellmuth. Hellmuth’s No. 3 team put the famous Peter Max colors all over their Late Model, raced in the 2000 Winston by Dale Earnhardt.

CATCH UP: MUST READ STORIES FROM 2019

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