Craig Murto: Remember the name Raphael Lessard

You may have never heard of a young racer named Raphael Lessard, but chances are you will be hearing a lot from the 15-year-old Canadian.

Lessard and Josh Berry visited Victory Lane in the final event of the Championship Auto Racing Series (CARS) Racing Tour 2016 season at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park on Saturday night, the CSX Play it Safe 250 presented by MMIA. Lessard clinched his Super Late Model championship with the victory and Berry brought home the owner’s championship for JR Motorsports while Deac McCaskill captured the Late Model Stock Car driver’s title.

Each CARS Tour event consists of two features. The headlining divisions rotate the order in which they race, and at Southern National the Late Model Stocks ran first.

Virginia racer and Dominion Raceway regular Jeff Oakley started on the pole in the Late Model Stock Car event and jumped to almost a half-lap lead at one point. But after about 50 laps it appeared his tires were abused too much too soon and the field reeled him back in.

McCaskill, Berry, Layne Riggs and others closed on Oakley as he struggled in traffic. R.D. Smith, after passing Josh Berry on lap 93, spun by himself in Turn 2 to bring out the only caution of the race.

Berry passed Oakley in Turn 1 on lap 115 and pulled away to his fifth CARS Late Model Stock Tour win of the season and the eighth of his career. Layne Riggs, Christian Eckes, Chris Hudspeth and Tommy Lemons Jr. rounded out the top five.

McCaskill finished seventh and won the championship by 11 points. Berry may have won both the owner’s title and driver’s championship if he had not missed a race in order to compete in an Xfinity Series event.

“We had that caution and my spotter asked ‘whatcha got?,’ and I said ‘I don’t know if we got it today, boys,’ but on that restart it was like it was a different car after everything cooled down and we tightened up,” Berry explained in Victory Lane.

McCaskill was emotional after the race in front of his home-track crowd when asked about his championship.

“I can’t believe it, I think it just hit me right now. Traveling to all these different tracks and being able to run like this — oh well, I don’t mind crying. It’s just tough. To be able to be competitive is tough to do.”

Brandon Setzer put his No. 6 Ford on the pole for the 125-lap Super Late Model race, with Pro All Stars Series South champion Matt Craig alongside. Setzer led the opening three laps until Craig worked his way past for the next 76 laps.

But Lessard was never far behind, and took advantage of Craig’s mistake in slower traffic to take the lead on lap 80.

A caution on lap 94 for Jake Crum’s stopped racecar reset the race. On the restart, Lessard’s car appeared to lag for a moment, but he jumped back to the lead as Setzer and Craig battled behind him, beating and banging off each other until Craig’s car careened into the outside wall and brought a caution on lap 97 for debris from Setzer’s machine. Cole Timm led his only laps immediately after the ensuing restart until Lessard muscled his way back around on lap 99.

Behind Lessard, Setzer made his way to second with less than 25 laps to go, but ran out of laps. The French-Canadian Lessard won his fourth race of the season by a 1.524-second margin over Setzer, Timm, Tate Fogleman and Lucas Jones.

“I didn’t think we would end like this at all,” said Lessard about his four-win season, which ties him for second on the all-time CARS win list with current NASCAR Camping World Truck competitor Christopher Bell. “I thought we would have some top-five finishes or something like that, but I never thought we could get some wins. I have to thank David Gilliland Racing, they worked so hard to get my car ready and get my car perfect like this weekend.

“My car was amazing tonight, I can’t thank my crew chief, Seth Smith, enough,” he continued. “It’s just amazing and a great opportunity to get the win like this with CSX here and on the car, it’s just amazing.”

Lessard is the first foreign-born champion of a CARS-sanctioned series since Mario Gosselin, another Canadian-born racer, won the Hooters Pro Cup title in 1997.

The CARS Tour will visit Dominion Raceway next March. Southern National has one more big race weekend, The Thanksgiving Classic, that’s worth the trip to North Carolina. Visit www.snmpark.com for information.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.