It speaks volumes that a victory in the Rumble by the River 100 at modest Montgomery Motor Speedway on Saturday night shares equal importance to Connor Okrzesik as his signature triumph against Kyle Busch during Speedfest back in 2019.
This victory came against Stephen Nasse, Hunter Robbins and Jeremy Doss, who are certainly no slouches, but they’re also not the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion either.
“This was awesome,” Okrzesik said. “It’s great being able to battle with these guys. Great getting our season on track. We’ve had an awful season, and that’s an understatement, because our first finish of the year was last night at Five Flags.
“I’m just so grateful to have this organization on track.”
And yeah, it’s just as big as that January night in 2019 too, albeit for different reasons.
“It’s absolutely on par,” Okrzesik said. “We beat Busch, but this proves that we weren’t just a one hit wonder. I needed to prove that we’re for real and we did that tonight.”
The native of Grand Bay, Alabama capitalized on a caution with 30 laps to go and passed Nasse on the outside on the ensuing restart. The No. 14 had started to reel in Nasse in lapped traffic but the restart certainly helped him get there.
“I knew the top rolled on the last restart and I’m glad he chose the bottom,” Okrzesik said. “That let me get to the lead and we just kept it. Again, I’m just really happy to get this organization back on track. It’s been a horrendous start to the season.”
It’s been 22 months since a second win at Watermelon Capital Speedway on August 10, 2019. Since then, he has fallen into a massive slump that included failing to make the Snowball Derby starting lineup in December and failing to make it to the finish in his first six starts this season.
Even Nasse appreciated what Okrzesik was able to accomplish considering what they had been up against in recent months.
“I’ve been through big slumps too,” Nasse said. “And I like Connor. Man, he’s a good kid and he works on his own stuff. He and his family are dedicated to this sport and this series so I respect that. I’m a little sad for my team but I respect what Connor and (crew chief) Mike Garvey were able to accomplish.”
Nasse led the first three races from the pole before Jeremy Doss took his turn up front. Nasse retook the top spot on Lap 14, but not without some pushing and shoving between them.
“I don’t know if he was cleared or whatever, but he came across my nose and pushed me onto the apron in 3 and 4 so I was worried about that, but the car felt normal,” Nasse said. “We talked about it too, so all good there.
“What killed me was that last restart. When the pace car took off, it left a trail of rubber behind him from driving off the groove and picking up some trash. At the end of the day, Connor just drove a great race and I can’t take nothing away from those guys. I was surprised, and I thought I could catch them but I was just too free.”
The leaders weaved in and out of lapped traffic, but no one made a mistake and Okrzesik, Nasse, Robbins and Doss ran 1-2-3-4.
As a result of his victory at Five Flags Speedway on Friday night and his second-place finish at Montgomery, Nasse claims the $1,000 Florida-Bama Double for scoring the best average finish during the weekend.
A much slower car dictated the finish of the race in more ways than one in the Rumble by the River on Saturday night.
Georgia bank manager Mike Garrett, who has raced in various local divisions during his career and is splitting a Super Late Model with fellow journeyman Dusty Williams this season, was several tenths off the pace and was at the center of numerous incidents.
The first transpired on Lap 15 when Jeremy Pate crashed while racing for position with Casey Smith for position. The front of the FAB Specialties No. 22 was severely damaged in the incident leading to Pate confronting Smith after the race. That conversation ended with both drivers blaming Garrett for failing to leave enough room.
While running fifth, Matt Craig moved up the track in the pursuit of Okrzesik, Nasse, Robbins and Doss, but was impeded by Garrett who was several additional laps down. The two collided in Turn 1 and sent Craig hard into the wall and out of the race.
During the drivers meeting, slower cars were urged to give the leaders the bottom, but the leaders all voiced concern that Garrett didn’t give them enough room.
“I catch him going down on the straightaway and he’s running down the middle, a half car off the wall, so I’m like, I don’t know where he’s going.
“I know what they said in the drivers meeting, but drivers like that, you don’t know where they’re going. They’re going anywhere. I don’t know. I should have been more patient, honestly.”
Meanwhile, the leaders were lapping Garrett at a pace of every seven laps during the final stint of the race, and there were several instances where the Silverton Mortgage No. 28 drove down the middle of the corner.
There was just enough room to pass on the bottom, but not committed enough to make it clear on corner entry what Garrett was doing and that left the field frustrated throughout the race. Several spotters voiced concerns throughout the race to their drivers while lapping him.
“It’s tough because we’ve all been there,” Robbins said. “I don’t know if I like the decision to send them to the top, because you just never know if the spotter is going to clear them early, and then the closing rate is just so fast when a car doesn’t have speed so I don’t know that I’m for or against it, but it’s something to think about it.”
For his part, Garrett maintains that he was following race control orders.
“I hate that he’s wrecked, but they said all night long that leaders have to go to the inside,” Garrett said. “They wanted lap cars to the outside. That’s what they chose to do. I was on the outside. There was a line inside. He was going inside and at the last minute he chose to go outside. And that’s what happened.”
As for the leader’s trepidation in lapping Garrett throughout the night.
“I was on the outside,” Garrett said. “I gave them a lane and they passed me all night long.”
- Connor Okrzesik
- Stephen Nasse
- Hunter Robbins
- Jeremy Doss
- Kyle Plott
- Jett Noland
- Jace Hansen
- John Bolen
- Perry Patino
- Daniel Dye
- Jake Garcia
- Jake Finch
- Kyle Bryant
- Kodie Conner
- Mike Garrett
- Sammy Smith
- Chris Davidson
- Matt Craig
- Taylor Stricklin
- Johnny Brazier
- Bobby Reuse
- Casey Smith
- Jeremy Pate