The ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway is the biggest race of the year for Late Model Stock Cars. It attracts the biggest names and the biggest crowds and it has one of the biggest trophies in the famous grandfather clock.
But in 2016 it wasn’t won by a big name. It was won by an underdog. It wasn’t won by a NASCAR national champion. It was won by a driver with two wins at his local race track. It wasn’t won by Lee Pulliam or Tommy Lemons Jr. It was won by 38-year-old Mike Looney.
“If I wake up and this didn’t happen, I’m going to be so mad, but somebody pinched me pretty good down in victory lane, so I think I’m awake,” Looney joked after scoring the biggest win of his career. “What a blessed weekend. Good grief. The car was spot on all week and my crew worked their guts out. We’re not like a lot of these teams. We don’t have any salaried employees and these guys pay their own fifty dollars to get into the race track. I’m so glad I have the group of friends that I have.”
Looney showed he had a car that could potentially win this race on Saturday afternoon. He was near the top of the board in practice, he won the pole in qualifying, and led the early parts of the race.
After dropping back to about the fifth position, Looney worked his way back up front by lap 140. On restart with 64 laps to go, Looney grabbed the lead back from Philip Morris.
Lee Pulliam, who shared the front row for the start of the race with Looney, followed Looney by Morris and moved into second.
From that point forward it was a battle between Looney and Pulliam for the win and the grandfather clock. Pulliam already has two, and Looney was searching for his first.
After the last competition caution with 25 laps to go, Looney and Pulliam battled tooth and nail, restart after restart, with Looney taking the outside each time.
“Lee drove within his means, and I drove way outside of mine. That’s why I kept taking the outside,” Looney said. “That way, if I blew the corner I’d just hit the wall and not wreck the whole field. But I sailed it down in there like a wild man on a mission and old blue dug in and got me. I was just running for my life, running scared because I knew Lee was going to get me.”
With about 15 laps to go the field was finally able to string some laps together. Looney started to pull away from Pulliam, but Pulliam eventually closed back in.
With nine laps to go, Pulliam got to Looney’s back bumper. They made hard contact in turn three and Pulliam ramped up the left-rear quarter-panel of Looney’s race car. Looney kept his car straight and kept going forward. Pulliam landed hard, but
stayed in second where he would finish.
“I gave it all I could give him,” Pulliam said. “I tried to move him, but I should have probably waited. I ended up hitting his left rear. All I could see was that it was a beautiful, clear night. I could see a lot of sky. I let off the gas until it landed. I finally hit the race track. I saw Kres (Van Dyke) was coming so I gassed it up. I went into one not knowing if it would turn because if I didn’t knock the clip off then you’re never going to knock one off.”
While Pulliam didn’t get the win, he said he couldn’t be happier to finish second-place for a variety of reasons.
“If you’d have told me on the pace laps that I’d have been battling for the win I’d have told you that you were crazy. We lost third gear on the pace laps before we took the initial green flag. This is just unreal, man.”
The other reason why Pulliam is happy with second is because Looney, his good friend, scored the win.
“Mike Looney is one hell of a guy,” Pulliam said. “I love him to death. He’s an underdog in great equipment now. He’s never been in a position like this. The first thing I did was run across the track and congratulate him. I’m just really, really happy for Mike.”
On Saturday after Looney won the pole he said he never let the thought cross his mind that he could win the pole. On Sunday, Looney said he did the same thing when he was leading on every late restart.
“It would just be arrogant to think I could win this race,” Looney said. “I knew something could go wrong. A dragon could fly over and bite my carburetor, a flat tire, a lightning bolt or something, but at the end of the night I was just trying not to think about it. I was trying to think that I was back home at Motor Mile running Limited Sportsman, just trying to keep my mind off of what was really happening.
“I haven’t run nearly as many races as these big champions have, but I catch on quick. I just wanted to drive within my means and not be a hero. Fortunately, I was able to slam the door on Lee and it worked out this time.”
Kres Van Dyke, CE Falk and Austin Thaxton completed the top five.
For an on-demand replay of Sunday’s Trackside Now coverage presented by PFC Brakes and Centroid Machines, click here.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com
ValleyStar Credit Union 300
Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Virginia
|3||15||Kres Van Dyke|
|33||27||Tommy Lemons Jr|