At one time, the unwritten rule about Hickory Motor Speedway (NC) is that rookies don’t win the Bobby Isaac Memorial race. That unwritten rule has been challenged often in recent years, and was broken again Saturday night at “The Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars.”
On a night when the smart money would have been on Josh Berry or Ryan Millington, it was an Indiana Hoosier putting it all together for his first win at Hickory in the track’s most historic Late Model Stock Car event.
Sam Butler has been the top rookie this season at Hickory, and he has shown flashes of greatness while racing against Berry and Millington, but he had not yet finished victory lane. The Bobby Isaac Memorial was the first 100 lap race of the season, and Butler made his presence known all night before he finally took the lead 35 laps from the finish and drive away from the field.
“I didn’t wake up this morning and expect to be here,” said Butler. “This being the race that we get our first win at is mind blowing. I am not going to sleep tonight thinking about how this all happened.”
Butler is a 16-year-old from Delphi, Indiana who comes south to race each week. The win comes as no shock to anyone who has been at Hickory this season because he has been fast. Entering Saturday, Butler had posted three podium finishes in his last six starts.
Many expected Berry and Millington to be the two front runners as they have combined for 18 of the 22 wins entering the event. That was a narrative Butler was eager to change.
“I have been a little tired hearing about Josh and Ryan,” added Butler. “They have been so good that it’s made us have to be that good too. They set the bar and that’s where we have to be to win races.”
Despite not winning the race, both Berry and Millington took joy in the win for Butler.
That’s great for those guys,” said Josh Berry who finished second. “They have been knocking on the door all season long. It was just a matter of time. Hats off to them for working so hard.”
“That kid has done the best I have seen for anyone who is in their first Late Model season,” said Millington. “He’s got a great group off guys behind him and he’s gonna be tough.”
Rookie drivers and younger faces have done rather well in the Bobby Isaac Memorial race with George Miedecke, Dave Garbo, Jr., Ryan Repko and Sam Mayer all taking wins in the last dozen years. Butler became the 30th different winner in the race’s 40-year history.
Butler stalked Ryan Millington, who took the lead on lap nine, for 30 circuits around Hickory. A caution on lap 49 set up a dash for the top three. Millington contested the point before Josh Berry got around Butler and was working on the lead when he pushed up the track, allowing Butler to make a three wide bid for the lead.
“Half way through the race I was like, ‘This might be my time,’” added Butler. “I was trying to save there when Berry got by us and then the door opened and I had to go and we went three wide to get the lead. It’s been a long time coming.”
Berry had come from 16th on the grid to the front three, but never felt the car was right.
“It was tough,” added Berry “I wasn’t good enough to pass on the bottom. I got real free. We are just it taking it one week at a time.”
The focus around Berry was different with him taking the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national points lead. Berry had won four races in a row last week between two tracks to assume the points lead. He stated he’d be at Hickory until the points end on October 17, which is also the date for the Fall Brawl.
Millington got pinched out and ended up third. He’s still the runaway track points leader and he’s holding ground behind Berry in the National points, but he will need some luck on his side.
“We really gotta work on this thing,’ said Millington “This car has over 100 races on it. It’s almost time to put it away. It’s not responding how we want it too, but we’ll keep tweaking on it for the rest of the year. I am sure we will come up with something.”
While it sounds like Millington is thinking about 2021, in a way, so is Butler.
“Right now we are struggling outside of this year,” said Butler. “A big thanks to all the people who support us and work with us. We are struggling for 2021. We are open to all sponsors. Call us, help us. I can’t thank everyone enough with my team that helped get us here.”
The only heated moment of the night was a brief exchange between Berry and Millington after the race. Both drivers seemed frustrated and had a few words for each other.
“Sometimes people just want to talk more then they should,” said Berry. “We raced hard there and he was whining. All three of us are so close it’s easy to get frustrated. If I wanted to rough him (Millington) up I could have, but we raced clean.”
Millington also seemed to think it was water under the bridge.
“In my opinion it’s just some stuff thats been going on the last few weeks,” stated Millington. “I think it was unnecessary. We don’t need to touch on that. It is what it is. Hopefully theres no more issues with it.”
-Story by: Elgin Traylor, Speed51 Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51 Photo