Jeremy Gerstner was still seeking his first career Tour-type Modified victory when he entered the 2017 racing season. Just two years later and Gerstner is now able to call himself a two-time champion of the Southern Modified Racing Series.
Things sure have changed quick for the Wesley Chapel, Florida native. He’d been a strong competitor with the now-defunct NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour for a few years, scoring a couple handfuls of top-10 finishes, but never was able to break into victory lane until July 2017 when he triumphed at “The Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars,” Hickory Motor Speedway.
Then in 2018, Gerstner set out to prove that his first championship was no fluke. He did just that by scoring two victories on the year, both at Caraway Speedway (NC), and never recorded a finish lower than fifth-place en route to his second straight championship.
“We’re pretty happy with that to get two championships back to back,” Gerstner told Speed51.com. “There’s only been a few guys to do that in the south. We’re already looking towards trying to three-peat. That would be cool.”
Gerstner recorded an average finish of 2.91, even better than his first championship season which had an average finish of 3.86.
But even though his 2018 season was stronger than his first championship the year before, Gerstner holds his 2017 season in higher regard.
“I’m not going to lie to you, that first year because originally we just wanted to run a travelling series and be competitive. I’ve always been competitive with the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour, but we never had what it took to be a winning team. So with that first one and finally getting my first win at Hickory on the Tour, that kind of set it. We didn’t just get a win at Hickory. We beat Burt Myers and John Smith. It was pretty intense to get that win and then wrap up the season by winning the championship.”
The only thing that causes Gerstner to look back on 2018 and frown is a lack of wins. Yes, he doubled his win total from the year before, but Gerstner said he feels like he should have had even more than the two victories he ended up with.
“We should have had about four, but we ended up with two. I thought for sure we’d get more, but it was one of those deals where the restarts killed me,” explained Gerstner. “And of course that last race at Rougemont I burned my s**t up with Tim (Brown). That should have been another win. I’m really good there, but they always make that our championship race. I had to go hard like the year before against Brandon Ward. I had to go hard against Tim to make him use his stuff up and I used my stuff up. But it is what it is.”
In the end it all worked out for Gerstner who beat Tim Brown - the all-time wins leader and championship leader at Bowman Gray Stadium – for the championship by a slim 11-point margin.
But Gerstner said that at no point this season did he feel like he was definitely going to win the championship.
“We went into the last race with 10 points up. He led a lap and he got the pole in that last race and he was actually beating me. If he would have led the most laps he would have beat me by points and that’s when I knew I had to get up front and put pressure on him. But even down to that last race I felt this was going to be a tough one to win. I thought for sure it would be hard to beat Tim in that last race but when they said he was falling to the back I felt better. It all worked out. It was kind of emotional for me, really.”
Now his attention turns to the 2019 season, a possible three-peat, and more trips to Caraway Speedway, which is the location of what Gerstner feels was the turning point of his 2018 year.
“Our nemesis has always been Caraway. We have four or five races there. Tim has always been really good at Caraway and we’ve always really sucked. The best finish I’ve got there was second. I say sucked, but for me and the level I’m at, to run second or third is a let down. This year, we changed that. When we got those two wins at Caraway I knew at that point that we were back on top. I know I’m good at Orange County and I know I’m good at Hickory.
“With me and Grady (Jeffreys, car owner and crew chief) and our communication and figuring out what we need to not be too tight in qualifying or the race, I’m a guy that likes the car to be free. He’s used to drivers that like the car to be snug and tight. That was the biggest thing was figuring out how to be free and fast at Caraway. I’m looking forward to going back there this year.”
Gerstner’s quest for a SMRS three-peat is scheduled to begin on Sunday, March 10thwhen the Southern Modified Racing Series kicks off its 2019 campaign at Caraway Speedway.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Associate Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com