On a beautiful day in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, Thunder Valley roared back to life with the sound of race cars ripping around the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway for the one and only practice day for next week’s Rusty Wallace Automotive Group Short Track U.S. Nationals.
For many, the day was a calm one, unlike the two chaotic test days of 2017. Perry Patino went for a spin in the second-to-last round of Pro Late Model practice, taking slight damage to the left rear of his Bobby Reuse-owned No. 89 Pro Late Model. Anthony Cataldi also went for a spin and took a little bit of damage to the back of his No. 00 Super Late Model.
Patino said his incident was the “best-case scenario we could have” as the damage he suffered was nowhere near as severe as one would expect.
“It sucks to crash like that, but the car should be folded in half so I’m kind of glad for what happened,” said Patino. “We’ve been having issues bottoming out all day in practice and I guess it just bottomed out too hard that time.”
The man who found himself atop the leaderboard after three of the four practice sessions for the Pro Late Models was 60-year-old former NASCAR driver, Mike Skinner. Skinner’s best lap of the day was a time of 15.022 seconds. Skinner won a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol in 2005, but said winning next weekend in the Pro Late Model would be a big accomplishment.
“It would be really cool, especially since I’m older than dirt now and don’t really race anymore,” joked Skinner. “Man, this is a fun race track. My boys brought me a really good race car so our Toyota Camry is not too shabby. It doesn’t pay anything to win practice… so we’ll come back next week and give it our best.”
On the Super Late Model side of the pits, the Canadian teenager of Raphael Lessard showed that he and his Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 will be one of the cars to beat next weekend. Lessard paced two of the four practice sessions on Saturday afternoon with a fast lap of 14.773 seconds in the very first session of the day.
Lessard scored a heat race victory at this event one year ago, but struggled a bit during the feature event itself when he was still driving for David Gilliland Racing. Now, Lessard is with a new team and he said so far everything has gone well.
“My KBM Toyota has been really good today,” said Lessard. “I’ve got a little bit of experience here last year. I think it’ll be a little bit better than last year, because we qualified on the pole but during the race it wasn’t that great. (That win) gives me confidence and I’m really excited to be here. It’s Bristol. Every time I get here it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s really cool that we get to race here in Super Lates.”
Meanwhile, Josh Berry kept his No. 88 JR Motorsports machine at the top of the Late Model Stock Car time sheets for much of the day. Berry, who had a rough race at Bristol in 2017, said that things have been better so far in 2018 at the Last Great Colosseum.
“Really, I thought last year we had a pretty good weekend going until the race started,” Berry said. “We took what we learned from last year and made our cars a little bit better. I think I’m a little better prepared for what to expect. So far it’s been so good. It feels nice to have some speed. We’re just trying to get it to drive a little bit better.”
One of the practice sessions that didn’t see Berry’s No. 88 atop the leaderboard was the final one of the day. That session saw five-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Lee Pulliam’s name at the top with a lap time of 15.310 seconds.
“You dream as a kid to race on a stage like this,” said Pulliam. “Martinsville was a dream come true to win that deal. A win at Bristol would be a big check on the list. I think we have the car to do it. We’ve gotten better all day long. We’ve got some really good speed in the car. I think we’re going to be pretty tough.”
When asked what he’d do if he was able to win and collect one of the gladiator swords that Bristol gives to the winners, Pulliam gave an answer that might surprise other parents out there.
“My little girl would have a fun time playing with that,” joked Pulliam. “It gives you goose bumps racing at a place like this. There’s so much history here. So many races I watched as a child. It would be really special for me to get a win here.”
The three Late Model divisions were not the only divisions in action on Saturday. The Modifieds of the ICAR All Star Tour took to the track, as did the CRA Street Stocks and Vore’s Compact Touring Series.
Race fans can see all six divisions in action throughout next weekend when it is finally race weekend for the 2018 Rusty Wallace Auto Group Short Track U.S. Nationals. Speed51.com will have live pay-per-view coverage of all three days of action. Fans can save $10 off full price by clicking here now.
Speed51.com will have more from Saturday’s test session still to come on the Speed51 Video Network.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Associate Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com