It’s just the third race, but recent events have made the CARS Tour Late Model Stock championship battle a wide-open affair.
The past three championships have been won by Josh Berry (2017) and Bobby McCarty (2018-19) but the Race at Ace 125 last weekend took a heavy toll on both of their chances.
Berry spun into the wall after contact from McCarty on the front row following a restart with 40 laps to go. It was the second incident of a similar nature within the last 12 months and Berry took his damaged car and retaliated by crashing McCarty on the frontstretch with five laps to go after being lapped.
CARS Tour disqualified Berry from the results at Ace and suspended him for Saturday night’s race at Hickory.
McCarty, meanwhile, faces a considerably challenging road for a third straight championship as finishes of 10th and 18th has left him ninth in the standings and 19 points out of the lead with seven races remaining.
Not insurmountable, but not easy either.
“We are in a hole, but I guess, nothing in life comes easy,” McCarty told Short Track Scene before the race on Saturday. “We’re going to go to work. We’re going to try to win races. We’re going to try to get max points every race we go to and see how it works out.
“I’m confident in these guys. I think we can do it. I would love to do it, but we’re focused on winning races.”
The beneficiary of the Berry-McCarty conflict last weekend was Layne Riggs, with the second-generation racer taking an eight point lead over JR Motorsports’ Connor Mosack.
The 18-year-old son of Scott Riggs has always shown speed and talent but has suffered a variety of misfortunes over the past two seasons. On the days he has been quick, he would find himself involved in incidents not of his own making. On his worst days, he would be forced to raced around less experienced or slower drivers and the results reflected.
So, opening the 2020 season with finishes of fifth and second, alongside taking the championship lead, has become a great relief to Riggs.
“The championship is secondary to winning because winning takes care of the championship, right,” Riggs said. “We didn’t do the math until we started driving home last weekend and it’s like, ‘hey, we’re the championship leaders.’ It’s way too early to start racing for a championship.
“Last year, we just had no luck at all, and we’ve got it back this year. We’ve had good cars too. Fifth and a second. Hopefully we can have more of the same this weekend. Championships are won with clean and consistent races each weekend.”
Like Riggs, Mosack isn’t thinking points yet either.
“I think we just need to go out there and do what we’re capable of every week and that should put us where we need to be in the points,” Mosack said.
The 21-year-old has finishes of 11th and third, but has had good speed every time he’s unloaded with JR Motorsports, so that’s the most comforting element — especially unloading at Hickory where Berry has been so competitive in recent years.
“We actually run a little different set up here, just because we have different driving styles, but I lean on him a lot,” Mosack said. “He is the man here and it’s great to have him here to ask him questions.”
One of the expected championship threats was Corey Heim, but finishes of 15th and eighth has him nearly as far back as McCarty. Heim also was racing for the win last weekend at Ace but spun off the nose of Riggs when he got chopped off in Turns 1 and 2 by McCarty.
Heim conceded his incident was simply a racing deal on a .400-mile short track.
So now, it’s more or less a season reset with the No. 78 and McCarty’s No. 22 this far out of the points and looking to start a run of victories on Saturday at Hickory.
“When you’re championship racing, and we are, you always have to keep them in the back of your head,” Heim said. “Last week, wasn’t the turnout that we wanted. We had a really fast car. We had a fast car at Southern National and didn’t get the ending we wanted there either.”
His Lee Pulliam Performance team is one of the stoutest in the discipline so Heim expects to be able to win every week, which is what takes care of the points.
“Our car is just as good as it was at Ace, honestly, and these cars are always good,” Heim said. “I’m looking forward to what we have for them tonight and the rest of the season.”
For his part, this isn’t the way McCarty wanted to challenge for a win or the championship. It would be his preference that Berry wasn’t suspended. McCarty takes a lot of pride in being the first double champion in CARS Tour history.
If he’s able to return to contention by rolling off wins, he wants it to be because Berry was in the field and was also points racing — just like when last season came down to the final race. Berry led every lap at South Boston Speedway but it wasn’t enough to overcome a one point deficit to McCarty by the end of the night.
“For me as a driver, and us as a team, the CARS Tour championship is a big accomplishment, especially being the first to win two,” McCarty said. “I don’t feel any pressure about where we’re at. You’re expected to contend for the championship so the pressure comes from ourselves to perform. We’re going to be fine.”
Winning on Saturday would go a long way for any of the current contenders to be fine.
- Layne Riggs
- Connor Mosack -8
- Taylor Gray -8
- Jared Fryar -10
- Nolan Pope -15
- Corey Heim -16
- Jonathan Shafer -17
- Brandon Pierce -19
- Bobby McCarty -19
- Matt Cox -21
- Deac McCaskill -21
- Ronald Hill -22
- Jonathan Findley -26
- Ryan Millington -26
- Justin Johnson -27
*Taylor Gray is not racing at Hickory this weekend, making his ARCA season debut at Toledo