For most of Saturday’s 150-lap Pro All Stars Series race at Seekonk Speedway, it seemed that a local product would steal a win from the touring regulars. But instead, a driver with one of the longest hauls to the Massachusetts border town was the one hoisting the winner’s trophy.
Mike Hopkins took the lead from rookie Ryan Kuhn late in Saturday’s PASS North season finale, leading the final laps en route to his first PASS North victory since 2016.
Deeper in the pack, a battle of perseverance handed the 2019 PASS North championship to DJ Shaw, who dodged bad luck to earn his second-straight and fourth career crown in New England’s premier Super Late Model touring series.
Kuhn, making only his third career PASS North start, started alongside Seekonk Pro Stock regular Dylan Estrella and took the lead before the race’s first caution on lap 25. From there, Kuhn was on cruise control. The 2018 Seekonk Late Model track champion left the pack in the dust on restarts, with Estrella fighting to stay in second.
Estrella ultimately lost the battle for second to Ben Rowe, which opened the door for Hopkins to slip into the top three. Hopkins, who started tenth, was on Kuhn’s bumper for a lap-101 restart, setting up a door-to-door battle for the lead between the longtime PASS competitor and the local phenom. Hopkins nosed out in front for a few laps, but Kuhn was able to power back into the lead.
Hopkins took the lead for good on a lap-118 restart. From there, the Hermon, Me. veteran went unchallenged on his way to his second career PASS North win and his third PASS-sanctioned victory. Hopkins won one of the two PASS features this March at Richmond (Va.) Raceway’s inaugural Commonwealth Classic.
“I never saw this place until yesterday morning,” Hopkins said of his first trip to Seekonk. “We weren’t very good, we struggled, but my guys, I owe this one to them. They never give up.”
Kuhn, from East Bridgewater, Mass., held on for second, his best performance in three PASS North starts so far. The 2019 ACT Rookie of the Year finished sixth in June at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and won the pole for August’s Oxford 250 in his other PASS attempt. Kuhn admitted that his early dominance may have been his ultimate downfall.
“I tried saving,” Kuhn explained, “and I probably could have saved a bit more.”
Lost on neither driver was the fact that Kuhn’s car was familiar to both of them. “That’s actually my old car that I raced last year, and I thought I was gonna get beat by it,” Hopkins said.
Reid Lanpher started thirteenth but ended the day in third, matching his performance in September’s Granite State Pro Stock Series-sanctioned D.A.V. Fall Classic at Seekonk. Lanpher, the winner of last week’s PASS North event at Oxford, ended a challenging season on a hot streak with top-five finishes in his last four PASS and GSPSS starts.
Ben Rowe finished a strong fourth to cap off a late-season surge. Gabe Brown stole fifth place on the final lap when contact between Estrella and David Darling ended strong runs for the two Seekonk regulars.
Conspicuously absent from the battle for the win were the top two drivers in PASS North points, as they waged their own private battle for the season championship. DJ Shaw won his heat race, while Derek Griffith spun making a bid for the lead in his heat and was sidelined by a second incident. Shaw’s heat win chopped his points deficit to three markers at the start of the race, with Griffith mired deep in the field at the start.
But at the drop of the green, Shaw went backwards in traffic while Griffith carved through the field. At the midpoint of the race, Griffith was safely inside the top ten and in control of the championship battle, while Shaw was frustrated and struggling with an ill-handling car.
On lap 104, though, Griffith’s title hopes came unglued. Alan Tardiff and Griffith made contact battling for position, cutting Griffith’s left-rear tire and sending the championship hopeful spinning in turn four. Griffith lost a lap before the field took the yellow flag, but was running in the free-pass position when Jake Johnson spun on lap 118. Griffith clipped Johnson’s stopped car as the field took the caution, tearing the left fender and door from his own car.
Faced with a choice of pitting for repairs or claiming the free pass, Griffith and his team opted to gamble on another caution, taking the free pass and restarting on the lead lap with dangling bodywork. Back under green, Griffith’s car bellowed tire smoke from the damage until another tire went down ten laps later, trapping him a lap down and out of contention.
From there, Shaw merely had to cling to the lead lap to finish ahead of Griffith. The last-lap contact between Estrella and Darling moved Shaw up to eighth at the checkers, with Griffith finishing 20th. The gap between the two was enough to hand the championship to Shaw, who was ecstatic to repeat as PASS North champion.
“That was a rough day for everyone in the battle,” Shaw acknowledged after the race. “We both had terrible days, and his was worse than mine, fortunately for us. But going on to next year, I know he’s gonna be there every week, and hopefully we can be right there with him.”
Shaw’s title, his fourth in six years, makes him one of three drivers to earn at least four PASS North championships. Series veterans Ben Rowe, with four, and six-time champ Johnny Clark are the other two. Shaw, from Center Conway, N.H., ended the season with three feature wins and top-ten finishes in 13 of the year’s 17 races.
To his credit, Griffith turned in a career year in PASS North competition. Griffith’s series-best five wins matched his total output since joining PASS full-time in 2016. Among those victories was a win at Oxford Plains Speedway, a track that was not among the young racer’s favorite venues entering the season. With the close championship battle behind them, Griffith and his Louie Mechalides-led team will be looking for more in 2020.
Hopkins, who has run part-time in PASS North this year, leads the PASS National Championship standings with one race remaining. The 2019 PASS National Champion will be crowned in November at Lanier Raceplex in Georgia.
Unofficial Results, PASS North SLM Championship 150 at Seekonk Speedway:
1. (15) Mike Hopkins
2. (72) Ryan Kuhn
3. (59) Reid Lanpher
4. (4) Ben Rowe
5. (47) Gabe Brown
6. (9T) Alan Tardiff
7. (99) Ben Ashline
8. (60) DJ Shaw
9. (17MA) Eddie MacDonald
10. (7) Travis Benjamin
11. (30) Fred Astle
12. (27NH) Wayne Helliwell, Jr.
13. (97) Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.
14. (8) Angelo Belsito
15. (48) Ryan Lineham
16. (2) Tom Scully
17. (52) David Darling
18. (2RI) Derryck Anderson, Jr.
19. (81) Dan Winter
20. (12G) Derek Griffith
21. (12) Bobby Pelland
22. (46) Dylan Estrella
23. (24J) J.P. Josiasse
24. (40) Nick Sweet
25. (90) Craig Weinstein
26. (15MA) Jake Johnson
27. (7G) Curtis Gerry
28. (14) Rick Martin
29. (40) Mike Mitchell