More often than not, Speedfest at Watermelon Capital Speedway comes down to a dramatic duel between two or three drivers, and they frequently leave with bruised feelings or flared tempers.
It’s a byproduct of racing on the tight 3/8-mile Georgia bullring and there is no reason to not expect it on Saturday either.
Who are the most likely candidates? Well, that begins with the eight fastest qualifiers who made the starting position redraw on Friday night. It begins with 2020 winner Corey Heim, who posted the fastest speed in time trials, but will start fourth after drawing that spot.
Having won the Georgia Summer Nationals at Watermelon Capital in August in his debut start with Donnie Wilson Motorsports, everyone kind of expects Heim to be the class of the field, and he has been.
“I feel really good about it,” Heim said. “We’ve come a long way from the start of the race weekend to tonight as a team, all four cars have, taking a big swing at it.
“I feel like we kind of went over what we needed so if we can go over our data and backtrack a little bit, I think we’re going to be in a really good place. I feel really confident. Wilson Motorsports brings really good cars to the race track as everyone knows but there are some really good cars here, and there’s always Bubba and William.”
That would be Bubba Pollard and William Byron, two of the other drivers to have qualified in the redraw, starting third and eighth. Pollard is the defending winner of the race but starting third in a car he hasn’t driven here before — not to mention a completely different chassis.
“We have to go faster,” Pollard said with a laugh. “Naw, we’re pretty decent. We just really don’t know. We’re pretty good in race trim as long as everything stays balanced, so I think we’re alright.”
Byron hasn’t raced at Watermelon Capital in six years, and says it’s slicker than what he remembers, but says he’s been satisfied with his Hamke chassis over the past two days.
“History tells me our car is going to have good longevity, but Corey is really fast too,” Byron said. “He knows this track really well too, so he’s going to be really good. I think Bubba is going to be fast. I feel optimistic in our long run speed but you don’t know who is going to pop up.
“We’ve been top five to six all week and then this last session, we found something and we’re top-two so we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, another Wilson Motorsports Hamke drew the pole for tomorrow in Gio Ruggiero
“We just got to take care of it,” Ruggiero said, “and try to be there at the end.”
But that’s just the start of the battle, as the end is where things have gotten interesting over the years at Speedfest, as Pollard can attest to.
He specifically has been involved in late race battles with Stephen Nasse, Chandler Smith, John Hunter Nemechek, Byron …
“Who’s next,” Pollard said with a laugh.
It’s a joke, but when you run up front at Speedfest, the tiny confines of Watermelon Capital means you’re in store for a slugfest.
“Because you can move around,” Pollard said. “Turns 3 and 4 here can get wide. When rubber gets laid down, track really gets wide and you can move around. 1 and 2, everyone is stuck to the bottom, 2 is tough to get off of, that’s a tricky spot. It gets wide on one side and gets bottled up on the other, so it does make for some good racing. ”
What does Byron remember about that one ill-fated battle between himself, Pollard and Nemechek?
“The bottom is so inviting and it takes so much discipline to get to the bottom,” Byron said. “You have to hook it the right way. So when you have someone behind you, it’s easier to have them just drive in and get to your left rear. I did a lot of that in 2015, 2016 and drove in too deep.
“Hopefully, this race, I can be a little more patient and keep all the fenders intact and be there at the end. I do think it will be a classic duel type race because this track is perfect for Super Late Models. Perfect corner speed. Perfect track for this kind of racing.”
CHASE ELLIOTT COMING FROM MIDPACK
In his first Super Late Model start since the 2020 Snowball Derby, and first race at Cordele since winning in 2015, it’s been a bit of a struggle for Chase Elliott.
The 2020 Cup Series champion will start 15th but isn’t that immediately confident in his race pace either.
“Trying to piece something together the past couple of days,” Elliott said. “I’m not sure we’ve gotten much better at times. We’ve only made things worse at times too.”
Elliott said that last bit with a self-deprecating laugh.
“Trying to work through it and find those small things to help us, and really need to come up with something for tomorrow to just have a good race, and just try to learn as much as we can.”
Byron says the track has lost a lot of grip since he was here last. Does Elliott remember it the same way?
“He must have a way better memory than me,” Elliott said. “I don’t remember it that well, to be honest. Obviously, I remember the tendencies of the track, but it’s been awhile so how much grip it has, if I told you that, I feel like I’d be pulling that out of the air.”
But real talk, does Elliott feel like he can make something out of 150 laps on Saturday?
“Not right now, but we’ll see,” Elliott said. “It’s always hard to tell but frankly, we have a lot of work to do for tomorrow. Look, we’ll try to make it as best as we can but you can’t always fix everything at the race track but you can make the most of what you have going on.
“We’ll think through some things tonight and make the most of it tomorrow. If that puts us in contention, great, but we’re going to work hard to get us closer in that direction.”
Pit gates open at 8 a.m. with a drivers meeting scheduled for 9:30. Grandstands open at 10 and an autograph session at 11:30. Racing begins at 1 p.m. for Bandoleros and Legends with the Outlaw Late Model, Pro Late Model and Super Late Model races scheduled for afterwards. The entire event will be streamed online for subscribers of racingamerica.tv.
SPEEDFEST SUPER LATE MODEL 150 STARTING LINEUP
1. Gio Ruggiero (4)
2. Jake Garcia (6)
3. Bubba Pollard (5)
4. Corey Heim (1)
5. William Sawalich (7)
6. Carson Hocevar (2)
7. Matt Craig (8)
8. William Byron
9. Casey Roderick
10. Michael Atwell
11. Johnny Sauter
12. Jett Noland
13. Timmy Watson
14. Billy VanMeter
15. Chase Elliott
16. Michael Hinde
17. Jason Lester
18. Nicholas Naugle
19. Michael Goddard
20. Stephen Nasse
21. Steve Dorer
22. Hunter Wright
23. Colin Allman
24. Dusty Williams
25. Tony Elrod
26. John Coffman
SPEEDFEST PRO LATE MODEL 100 STARTING LINEUP
1. Katie Hettinger (6)
2. Augie Grill (7)
3. Seth Christensen (3)
4. Caden Kvapil (4)
5. Cody Hall (8)
6. Dylan Fetcho (2)
7. Bryson Shaffer (5)
8. Josh Hicks (1)
9. Cale Hall
10. David Ragan
11. Brett Suggs
12. Steve Dorer
13. Dawson Sutton
14. Kyle McCallum
15. Gavin Graham
16. Michael Hinde
17. Spencer Bragg
18. Zack Dixon
19. Johnny Aramendia
20. Nicholas Naugle
21. Jolynn Wilkinson
22. Benjamin Jones
23. Joseph Meyer
24. Robby Taylor