By Craig Murto
Some are calling Sunday's Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300 NASCAR Late Model Stock Car race at Martinsville Speedway the best NASCAR Late Model race there's ever been.
Tommy Lemons Jr. agrees. The 26-year-old racer from Troy, N.C., won the event.
"Nothing tops winning this race," said Lemons. "There's nothing that could express how important this win is. I've been coming here since 2003. Last year was the first time since 2006 that we didn't make the race. ... I just felt really good about today. We were fast in the first half, had some bad luck, battled back and we're the winners."
After winning his heat race, Lemons started from the second position in the 200-lap feature. He led some of the first few laps, and stayed in the top five so he was in good position after the eight-car invert following the halfway break. He cut a tire early in the second half, but the yellow flew for an accident allowing him to pit without losing a lap.
By this point in the race, the battle up front was between NASCAR Weekly Racing Series National Champion Lee Pulliam and Langley Speedway regular Matt Waltz. For 30 or 40 laps they battled side by side in some of the cleanest racing many have seen at the paperclip-shaped half-mile. But when UARA point leader Dillon Bassett joined the battle, it got a little rough.
Bassett beat and banged on the leaders, sometimes making it three wide exiting the corners. The fans cheered wildly for one of the best three-way battles anybody had seen all season.
But with 10 laps to go -- per the race rules -- NASCAR interrupted the battle and threw a caution to bunch up the rest of the field.
Hopefully in the future that competition yellow will be discretionary and not mandatory. Interrupting the best race of the year was, well, stupid. Perhaps it would have been useful if the field was strung out, but given the incredible battle that raged on it was a stupid decision that prevented the race from being the best race there's ever been.
On the restart Deac McCaskill -- usually a clean racer -- dumped Waltz and ended his day in turns three and four. That sent the race into green-white-checkered territory.
On the restart, McCaskill drove into turn one and crashed Pulliam, taking out the national champ as well as Philip Morris and C.E. Falk. Reportedly McCaskill complained of brake failure.
It was dark by the time they finished cleaning up the wreck. It was too dark to race, but NASCAR decided to give it one more green-white-checkered attempt.
Bassett led them to the flag, but by the time they got to the start-finish line Lemons had a big lead. Opinion is split as to whether Lemons jumped the start or Bassett had a problem. It's NASCAR's call, and they ruled in Lemons' favor.
"The leader started, checked up on the restart and I don't know if he spun his tires or missed a shift, but something happened," Lemons explained as he celebrated his $25,000 winner's check and grandfather clock trophy. "At that point, you've got to go. I got a shot from the car behind me on the restart. Coming off turn two, I had about six car-lengths on the field, and I knew that if I didn't screw up or a caution didn't come out I had a pretty good chance of winning it."
After the checkered fell, it got strange. On the cool-down lap, second-place finisher Bassett charged ahead of Lemons on the backstretch, parked his car at the start-finish line, and jumped on the car as if he were the winner. He then collapsed and fell to the pavement due to carbon monoxide poisoning and was transported for medical attention. Former Truck Series competitor Dennis Setzer finished third.
There was some fantastic racing at Martinsville on Sunday. But the four heat races and the last-chance race took far too long to complete, and drivers tore up far too much equipment, sending at least two to local hospitals. Ninety cars attempted to make the race, and many were destroyed. Of the 40 cars that started the feature, only 14 finished.
And NASCAR's competition caution with 10 to go ended a great race in favor of a demolition derby, more torn up cars, and a controversial finish. Exciting for the fans? Yes, indeed. It was a good one, and the fans will be talking about it for a long time to come. But the best race ever? Probably not.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.