Oct. 16, 2016 is a day that will always be special for Mike Looney.
A relative unknown at the time, Looney stunned the short track community by leading 120 laps from the pole and holding on to secure his first victory in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway.
Nearly five years have passed since then and Looney admitted the idea of being a winner at Martinsville is one that he still finds hard to believe even as his Late Model Stock program with Billy Martin continues to grow.
“Sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday and other times it does feel like that happened five years ago,” Looney said. “I remember how we did it but with every race [at Martinsville], circumstances have to fall your way for the day to be perfect.”
The dream of winning at Martinsville almost did not happen for Looney on that fateful day.
Despite having the best car all weekend, Looney found himself under immense pressure from Lee Pulliam during the closing stages. Pulliam had led 53 laps earlier in the day and was determined to pass the New Castle, Virginia short track veteran to claim his third ValleyStar Credit Union 300 win.
With nine laps remaining, Pulliam saw the opening he was looking for and dove underneath Looney heading into Turn 4. Looney refused to give up any more space on the bottom, which caused Pulliam to climb on top of Looney’s left rear tire.
Both drivers miraculously saved their cars and did not lose any positions but the contact provided Looney an advantage comfortable enough to hold off a second charge from Pulliam.
Looney admitted that he was waiting for something to go wrong on his car all afternoon and was certain the collision with Pulliam had damaged his suspension and would cause him to retire a few laps shy of the start-finish line.
Instead, Looney took home a grandfather clock and a $26,000 paycheck. Looney said that every cent of his Martinsville winnings has been invested into transforming Martin’s Late Model Stock program into an organization that can hold its own with drivers like Josh Berry, Peyton Sellers, Bobby McCarty and others.
“That win was really big for Billy Martin Racing,” Looney said. “Winning that race really changes everything. We got a lot of attention and this team certainly wouldn’t be doing what its able to do today without that one perfect day in October of 2016.”
Since that victory, Looney has accumulated countless Late Model Stock wins on the East Coast along with a Virginia State Championship in the NASCAR Advanced Auto Parts Weekly Series back in 2019. He nearly won the national title that same year but narrowly lost to Jacob Goede by just eight points.
While the additional funding has been beneficial towards his current success, Looney said that no amount of money can buy the relationships he has built with his long-time crew members that he now considers to be family.
Looney and his crew have worked tirelessly over the past several weeks preparing two different Late Model Stock for this year’s ValleyStar Credit Union 300, both of which Looney believes are strong enough to bring home another grandfather clock on Saturday evening.
Martin has tabbed five-time NASCAR national champion Philip Morris to run the other car Looney is not driving, who has not competed in a Late Model stock event since the 2019 season.
Having Morris has a teammate for the ValleyStar Credit Union is indicative of how far Billy Martin Racing has come in five years for Looney, who is now more confident in his ability to win on Saturday.
Even with the experience and success on his side, Looney knows those qualities do not always decide who takes home the checkered flag first at Martinsville.
“Every race here is challenging,” Looney said. “The dominant car doesn’t always win and circumstances have to be on your side. The car has to be fast enough to qualify, then the driver and crew have to do everything right. You still have to luck out with all of these different variables with everyone giving 110 percent.”
If fortunes do fall Looney’s way again on Saturday, he said that the race-winning paycheck of $32,000 could help Billy Martin Racing catch up to other organizations like JR Motorsports and Nelson Motorsports when it comes to equipment, trailers and other necessities.
Looney is committed to helping Martin’s team flourish into the 2020s but is currently focused on helping the team perfect his car to make another run at victory lane against the best Late Model Stock drivers in the southeast.
“It’d be wonderful to bring home another grandfather clock,” Looney said. “I’ve got a plan for the clock if we’re fortunate enough to get another one. Every cent of the paycheck will go back into the car and give us so much momentum heading into 2022. There’s a lot of stuff we still don’t have and we still want to grow this team as much as we can.”
A win for Looney on Saturday would put him in an elite company of drivers who have more than one ValleyStar Credit Union 300 victory. That list includes his teammate in Morris along with Pulliam, Tommy Lemons Jr., Timothy Peters, Tony McGuire and Phil Warren.
Looney is not yet sure what the celebration will look like if he wins at Martinsville again but he knows it will be a life-changing moment similar to the one he experienced nearly five years ago.