Justin Johnson earned his first career CARS Tour victory on Saturday afternoon at Dillon Motor Speedway in South Carolina with a last lap, last corner pass over a dominant Layne Riggs.
As Johnson and Riggs fought over who would take the first checkered flag of 2021, several drivers put together strong performances that gave them a head start in their quest for a CARS Late Model Stock championship, while others find themselves in an early hole heading into the next event at Hickory Motor Speedway on March 20.
FRYAR QUIETLY GETS A GOOD START
Jared Fryar put together a drive reminiscent of the ones that helped him win the CARS Tour championship in 2020, as he quietly rode around inside the Top 10 before settling for a strong fourth place finish after qualifying in 14th.
“I can never qualify good,” Fryar said. “We were behind the 8-ball early and lot of things were up in the air because we didn’t know when the cautions were going to fly, but I did what I needed to do and it all paid off.”
Once Fryar worked his way inside the Top 10 during the 90-lap green flag run, he elected to back off and conserve his equipment so he would have an opportunity to fight for the win with the assistance of some late-race cautions.
With Johnson and Riggs trading the lead numerous times, Fryar was able to run them down and put himself in contention, but he navigate his way around several lapped cars in the final two laps just to salvage his strong Top 5 run.
“I knew those guys were going to race each other hard and not do anything stupid,” Fryar said. “I was more worried about the lapped cars because you never know where they’re going to go. They were almost four-wide at one time, so that was definitely hairy. I just hope I can qualify and finish better after today.”
Fryar will look to maintain his consistency in the next CARS LMSC Tour race at Hickory. In his two starts with car owner Jimmy Mooring at the facility in 2020, Fryar ended up finishing fourth and second, respectively.
BUTLER HAS CONFIDENCE
Sam Butler closed in rapidly on the front duo of Johnson and Riggs during the closing stages of the Black’s Tire & Auto Service 125 before ultimately settling for a career-best finish of third in just his third career start.
“Getting a top three is a great way to open the season,” Butler said. “These guys really put together a great car over the winter and I really liked how it performed today. This was a great season opener and I think we told everyone else that we are here to win.”
Butler qualified his #81 Triple R Racing Late Model in the seventh position and proceeded to conserve his equipment during the initial 90-lap green flag run. He found himself on the cusp of the Top 5 before a caution for Craig Moore’s crash on Lap 92 led to a late-race restart.
When the race resumed, Butler charged up to the front and chased down Riggs and Johnson for a shot at the lead, but he was unable to find the run he was looking for to overtake them and watched as Johnson narrowly edged Riggs at the line.
“I definitely thought we had a chance,” Butler said. “My spotter was on the radio telling me to be cool until about the last ten laps. Going into Turn 3 at the end, Mini Tyrrell was door-to-door with me and that just threw me off a little bit.”
Butler admitted that it was difficult to keep the tires underneath him during the race, but his performance on Saturday has given him optimism heading into another abrasive track in Hickory, which is a track that Butler has already logged hundreds of laps at in his young career.
LOONEY LAYS BACK TOO MUCH
Mike Looney’s first full-time venture into the CARS LMSC Tour did not get off to the start he was looking for, as he brought home a seventh-place finish after spending the first 90 laps at the back of the field.
“It was boring and dreadful,” Looney said about his race. “We qualified first and it turned out the track had a lot more grip than we anticipated and I just under drove qualifying. That kind of made our bed when it came to conserving tires and charging late. I was hoping we’d get some cautions, but 90 green flag laps really hurt our strategy.”
With Looney starting 19th, he joined Brandon Pierce by immediately dropping to the rear of the field in the opening laps, but the two of them would have to rely on organic cautions with the CARS LMSC Tour eliminating 40-lap competition yellows for the 2021 season.
Looney finally got his yellow with over 35 laps remaining and began picking off drivers that had been more aggressive during the first 90 laps. Looney had just passed two-time CARS LMSC Tour champion Bobby McCarty for seventh when the checkered flag flew.
“We had plenty of car and tire at the end, but not enough laps,” Looney said. “We were faster than the leaders, but track position against competition this stiff is important and you just can’t blow by them all. The car wasn’t quite perfect, but the circumstances just didn’t fall where we needed them to.”
Despite running out of time, Looney considers himself fortunate that his car did not get torn up during the frantic finish, but he is now turning his attention towards putting together a better showing at Hickory in two weeks.
PULLIAM TEAMS STRUGGLE
After being fast in practice, the Lee Pulliam Performance cars struggled at Dillon.
Jonathan Shafer and Brandon Pierce were both fast in practice all weekend, but something went amiss in qualifying when Pierce qualified 13th and Shafer qualified 17th. Pierce finished in the same position while Shafer was relegated to an 18th place finish.
“No idea what happened to our cars,” Pulliam said on Facebook. “They were both top5 on the speed charts all weekend and went to absolute junk today. Hate it for both drivers and the team. Days like today make me sick to my stomach. Toughest racing on Earth is the Cars Tour and as the leader I really let our whole team down. We don’t really have a clue what the heck happened but we will work harder moving forward to prevent it. I’m very sorry to our fans, sponsors, and drivers for a disappointing day.”
Pulliam followed up and elabored more in a response to Kirk Ipock, the owner of series title sponsor Solid Rock Carriers.
“We went from awesome on Thursday and Friday to embarrassing today. It’s really a humbling sport and days like today are always tough to swallow. Thank you sir for supporting the series and so many of the great teams. I’m very appreciative of what you do for my team.”