The 2016 American-Canadian Tour season has come down to its final round with three drivers having a mathematical shot at winning the season championship. To bask in championship glory, those three drivers must prosper in a 75-lap race during the Sunoco World Series at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park (CT).
With Thompson’s 5/8-mile being the fastest and longest track that hosts an ACT points-paying event, the tensions are high for the three drivers chasing their first tour championship.
As ACT heads south to the Nutmeg State, it’s a pair of Vermont drivers leading the way at the top of the standings. Three-time Milk Bowl winner Nick Sweet leads by 23 markers over Scott Payea with Massachusetts’ Eddie MacDonald only 26 points behind Sweet.
The season has been a mix of triumph and consistency for Sweet with a trio of wins in points competition and his third career Vermont Milk Bowl title at Thunder Road less than two weeks ago. Thompson is a brand new track for Sweet, with his first priority being to learn all that he can.
“It should be a new learning experience, I’m going to be like a sponge as soon as I get there,” Sweet told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I’m going to go out a little early on Friday and watch some of the racing, see if I can learn a little bit that way. Hopefully Saturday when I’m on the track I can get kind of a feel when we get out there.”
Despite learning the track being a high priority, he is not afraid to take the time to make sure that his No. 40VT will have a setup to contend with.
“If we’re not close on the car then we’ll have to take some time and work on making sure it drives right,” Sweet said. “A lot of it is just going to be getting around people I trust in practice. Been told a few of the characteristics of the place; it’s not one of those places you run around the bottom, the more of the banking you use the faster you go, it should be fun.”
While Sweet as always wants to go for a race win, the focus of Saturday’s race will be locking up that first ACT title.
“We’re trying to go for the championship. We’ve got a not comfortable enough lead, but we’ll go into it and do the best we can. Race the race and hopefully have a good race and try to place it in the top five, which would be a really good day for us. It’s mine to lose. Big thing is to try not to wreck and get out in one piece.”
Scott Payea has been a force to watch since returning to the ACT at the start of the season after taking some time off from driving race cars. He too comes in with three wins on the year and like Sweet has never raced a feature event at the “Big T.” But this past March, it became the site of his return to a racecar.
“We tested down there earlier this year, I thought it went really well,” Payea explained. “It was actually my first time back in the car in a couple years and I had never been to Thompson. It was good to knock the rust off as well as getting familiar with the track.”
Payea comes into the weekend brimming with confidence knowing that the Rick Paya-owned No. 37VT has a good track record, not just on the year, but the last time it was in competition at Thompson in 2015. It was at that time that Brian Hoar scored his final career ACT win before hanging up the helmet, opening the seat up for Payea.
“Absolutely. That car is good wherever it goes,” he said. “The RPM team works so hard and they give me a good ride wherever we go. They had the right setup last year and we can have it again this weekend.”
Payea also knows that the best chance of catching Sweet is to go and win the race, the same goal he has had going into every race all season long.
“We’re going to approach it like any other race, we’ll go out and try to have the best car, try to win the race, and everything else will sort itself out.”
Eddie MacDonald on the other hand has a wealth of knowledge running at the “Big T”, mostly coming from running NASCAR Stock Cars, including a win at the 2005 World Series in what was then the Busch North Series.
“Always love going down there to race,” MacDonald stated. “I’ve been fortunate to run down there a bunch of times, we were able to get a win in Busch North. Love to get one in the ACT Tour.”
MacDonald seemed to be on his way to that ACT victory when the Tour returned to Thompson last season, until disaster struck in the closing laps. That moment reminded all in attendance that a lot can change really fast.
“We had a great run going last year and blew the engine up with 10 or 15 laps to go. Things can change there, it’s a fast track, and things can go wrong fast.”
As far as having an advantage in experience at Thompson, “The Outlaw” believes that it will not make a difference given how close the competition has been all season.
“Very little, these guys will be really good there, they’re competitive every track that they show up to,” MacDonald commented. “Our focus is just to go down there, go as hard as we can and try to win the race, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The ACT will only be in action Saturday, with practice, heats and feature racing taking course throughout the day. Be sure to follow Speed51.com for live Trackside Now coverage all day Saturday for the ACT and much more. Also stay tuned to the Speed51 Network for race highlights early next week.
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com State Editor (CT, MA, Long Island) – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: VTMotorMag.com/TJ Ingerson