Following a third-place finish Saturday in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season opener at Myrtle Beach Speedway, Matt Hirschman took a step up to the top of the podium Sunday at Caraway Speedway. “Big Money” Matt held off multiple charges from the Myers brothers (Burt and Jason) and even a tap to his rear bumper from John Smith in the last corner to capture the opening round of the 2019 Southern Modified Racing Series season at the Sophia, North Carolina oval.
After missing the first round of practice while making changes to his Modified from Myrtle Beach the night before, Hirschman was still a little off in round two of practice, timing in 10th fastest of the 15 Modifieds in attendance. But in typical Matt Hirschman fashion, he wasn’t off the pace for long. The driver of car No. 60 stepped it up in qualifying to post the third fastest time and was poised for another strong run.
Jimmy Blewett was the early leader of the race, pacing the field for most of the first half of the race until he dropped out with an apparent transmission issue on his No. 76. That handed the lead over to Burt Myers who had a very fast No. 1 car all race long.
As one would expect, pit stops and tires played a huge role in the race with drivers on varying tire strategies throughout the 125-lap race. John Smith inherited the lead from Myers by staying out on a Lap 68 caution and was at the point until Lap 93 when Hirschman came to call, stealing the lead away from Smith on the outside.
A caution with 27 laps to go sent Smith and Tim Brown to the pit area to see if they could steal a win away in the late stages, restarting sixth and eighth respectively when the race resumed on Lap 98. On the ensuing restart, the Myers brothers were hounding Hirschman at every turn.
While the lead battle was heating up, Smith was making his way back up the running order, passing Bobby Measmer Jr. and Burt Myers to get to third place as the caution flew again with five laps to go for a car stopped up high in turn two. That set up a five-lap dash for the $5,000 cash with Hirschman hoping to hold off a slew of hungry southern drivers who wanted to defend their home turf.
Smith leap-frogged Jason Myers on the start and was glued to the rear bumper of Hirschman for the final five laps. Smith drove in hard to the final turn and gave Hirschman a little tap on the rear bumper, pulling low on the exit of four to drag race Hirschman to the line before coming up just .131 seconds short of the victory.
“It’s tough to run the same car on back-to-back days because they need so much maintenance and things you should do that we were just a little bit behind,” Hirschman explained in victory lane. “We still had a good day and I know we didn’t have the fastest car here but we just put ourselves in the right position, had a good stop and made some adjustments. The 25 (Smith) had a great car to go as long as he did and when we finally got ahead of him, we didn’t need that last caution. He wasn’t going to catch us. He was faster but he wasn’t going to catch us. The last caution gave him a great opportunity I’m just glad I could hold him off.”
Despite coming up one sport short and losing the battle to a northern invader, Smith had nothing but nice things to say after the race.
“He’s a class act,” Smith said after the race, referring to Hirschman. “When I’ve raced with him over the years he always raced me clean. We had a good hard race.”
Race fans can find results, updates and photos from Sunday’s Southern Modified Racing Series season opener by visiting Speed51’s Race Day Now. The Speed51 Network will also have full highlights of the race available Monday evening.
-Story by Shawn Meekhof, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Crystal Snape