Tensions were high entering the Southern Modified Series (SMRS) finale at Caraway Speedway (NC), with two-time defending champion Jeremy Gerstner leading John Smith by five points after Smith’s win at Hickory Motor Speedway (NC).
Those tensions came to a boiling point on Saturday, with Smith winning the race and the title while Gerstner fumed over contact between the championship contenders.
Gerstner drew the pole for the 75-lap race, while Smith quickly worked his way through the field after drawing the fifth position. Smith closed in on Gerstner after taking the second position before contact was made between the two championship contenders on lap 22.
The contact sent Gerstner spinning off turn two, while Smith maintained forward momentum and inherited the lead.
Smith insisted that he was holding his ground against blocking attempts by the points leader who had pulled out to an early lead.
“I think he went a little too hard,” Smith told Speed51. “He got to where he was blocking me. I got into him on the back-straightaway. I had to go, and I went.”
Gerstner felt cheated by the contact, and was also disappointed that Smith was not penalized for the contact.
“Before the race, I told him, ‘If you beat me fair and square, I’ll shake your hand and we’re good.’ The same shenanigans happened again where he turned my a-- around, and instead of us both going to the rear like they told us in the drivers’ meeting, he dumped me and got to keep his spot.”
According to SMRS officials, Smith was allowed to maintain his spot after deeming the contact was incidental.
“The contact between John Smith and Jeremy Gerstner was deemed a racing incident,” said SMRS promoter Renee Hackett. “Once the caution was displayed Smith’s car maintained its forward momentum and position. Gerstner reentered the field on the lead lap.”
From that point, Smith led the rest of the way to take the checkered flag, securing the 2019 SMRS championship, completing a late-season rally to win his first touring Modified championship.
“Last week, going into Hickory, I was 22 points back. We weren’t that good in practice and we went back to a basic setup. I thought it was over, but we never quit. We went to Hickory and the car was perfect.
“Everything worked out good. My guys worked their butts off on this car all year. We basically had to lead the most laps and win tonight. That was a big uphill with Jeremy on the pole. I just threw caution to the wind. I hit the backstretch wall one time. I had to give it all I had.”
Gerstner finished fourth in the race. There were a handful of late-race cautions, including a rain delay during a lap 70 caution after Jason Myers hit the outside wall in turn one, but the Florida racer still felt he wouldn’t have had a shot at the title on those restarts.
“I watched him take Burt into the wall,” Gerstner said. “Even if I had gotten to him, he would have just wrecked me. I get it, he’s hungry for his first championship. To me, if he had outrun me, drove around me on the outside, I had no problem walking over, shaking his hand and congratulating John on his first championship.
“Maybe I’m too clean of a racer. Maybe I need to get more of that Bowman Gray mentality, but that’s not me. I guarantee you, if we do go to the North South Shootout, he won’t finish the race.”
While the SMRS season is officially over, many of the series’ teams will be at the North South Shootout at Hickory Motor Speedway on November 7-9. Stay tuned to Speed51 for more details on coverage of that event.
Race fans who missed Saturday's SMRS finale can watch the highlights of the race on the Speed51 Network by clicking here.
Southern Modified Racing Series Championship Night Results
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51.com photo