If the outcome of the Star Country 150 presented by Domino’s is any indication, Lee Pulliam slept well Saturday night.
“We got our butt handed to us in the last race,” acknowledged Pulliam. “You know, I can’t sleep when that stuff happens. I’ll work on these things all day and all night.”
It was a retribution race for the defending O’Reilly Auto Parts Late Model track champion. After suffering a sobering 5.068-second defeat to Knoxville, TN, native Chad Finchum on April 23rd, Pulliam returned to Motor Mile Speedway with something to prove. In a dominating performance, Pulliam led every circuit of the caution-free nightcap en route to his third win of the 2016 season.
The marquee race boasted a field of 18 Late Models— the largest contingent of the season. Pulliam collected the Price’s Body Shop pole award, with Finchum completing the front row. Qualifying results suggested the 150-lap finale would be a continuation of the division’s last contest, with Pulliam and Finchum renewing their fledgling rivalry.
The duo rapidly distanced themselves from the field at the outset, staging a two-car duel for the top spot. Through the opening circuits of the race, Finchum shadowed Pulliam, never fading more than two car lengths from the frontrunner’s back bumper. Yet, as the race unfolded, it became apparent something was amiss on Finchum’s entry.
Finchum was going for back-to-back wins. But the car was going backwards.
On lap 56, Finchum surrendered second place to Josh Berry. One lap later, Philip Morris overtook Finchum for third. The perplexing freefall culminated with a visit to pit road on lap 60; the issue, diagnosed as an overheating engine, sidelined Finchum permanently. Finchum finished seventeenth.
With his chief threat relegated to the garage, Pulliam began constructing an insurmountable lead. Morris eclipsed Berry for the runner-up spot on lap 69, but Pulliam had vanished. Morris was resigned to racing lapped traffic in the waning stages; Pulliam’s torrid pace left just five cars on the lead lap at the checkers.
As the laps dwindled, Pulliam’s advantage continued to swell. Despite posting comparable lap times to Pulliam’s lead machine, Morris couldn’t close the gap. With less than five laps to go, Pulliam had amassed a colossal 6-second-plus lead. The official margin of victory was 4.949 seconds.
“I was looking for that caution. I kept seeing debris on the racetrack everywhere… I’m not sure the officials saw it, though,” joked Morris. “Lee had checked out; I couldn’t even see him. I was basically riding.
“We’ve had a hard year; it’s been tough,” Morris continued. “But we’re getting there; the car is getting better.”
In the closing laps, Berry became embroiled in a battle with JR Motorsports teammate Christian Eckes and newcomer Stefan Parsons for third. The 2012 Late Model track champion successfully forestalled a pass, rounding out the podium in his 2016 debut.
“We were terrible; tight the whole time. We struggled with the car the whole time we were here, really. Third is decent— luckily we had some track position,” Berry said. “We’ve got some homework to do.”
Pulliam entered the 150-lap event seventh in the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national standings; the official tally was released for the first time earlier in May. Pulliam’s point total will be bolstered by his latest triumph; Saturday night’s victory marks his first full-field win. The three-time national titlist will be defending his 2015 crown this season.
“We’re trying to turn this year around; we’ve had a slow start. We’ve had good runs here, but everywhere else we’ve been struggling,” Pulliam noted. “We’re trying to get it going.”
-Motor Mile Speedway Press Release
-Photo Credit: Shane Green