The 50th Anniversary National Short Track Championship 200 lap Super Late Model feature event at Rockford Speedway on Sunday afternoon included a little bit of everything. A slow start, dramatic racing, a bizarre mid-race incident, a battered race car challenging for the win and first time National Short Track Champion.
When the dust finally settled on one of the wildest championship races in the history of the 68 year old facility, it was Rockford’s Jon Reynolds Jr standing tall in victory lane after holding off a furious late race charge from Wisconsin’s Casey Johnson.
Both drivers had their work cut out for them after starting the race in the seventh row side-by-side. Three-time track champion Jerry Gille and current ARCA Midwest Tour Rookie of the Year point leader Austin Nason led the field to green and soon the madness began. As the field completed lap one, Nason slipped ahead of the pack, but soon after that, Jim Olson’s spinning car brought out the yellow flag. With a lap completed, caution flag laps began to count and the race crawled at a snail’s pace. After two other attempts to start the race were unsuccessful, the call was made to red flag the race; not only to clean up the track from the most recent incident, but to also realign the field and allow drivers to regroup.
When racing finally resumed around lap 27, the action was fast and furious. Nason shot ahead of the pack, while 2014 event winner Steve Rubeck powered into the second position. In the following laps, Rubeck tracked down Nason and begin to pressure the Roscoe resident for the lead. The two racers breezed around the track in bumper-to-bumper formation for several laps, with Rubeck sliding into the top spot on lap 77. While the front two dueled, Reynolds made his sprint forward, working himself into third and to the back bumpers of the leaders on the 92nd lap.
Fast qualifier Alex Papini also had climbed through the field. After starting the race in fifteenth position, Papini found himself in the top five as the race closed in on halfway. But on that 92nd lap, Papini looped in turn four after he and Brian Johnson Sr touched fenders. Under yellow flag conditions, both drivers traded fender punches, with the incident coming to a head in turn four. As both cars continued to contact each other, Papini’s throttle hung open as his car continued left towards Johnson. Both cars came together and angled towards the front stretch wall, sending Papini’s car airborne and on top of Johnson’s. Both drivers were uninjured and both cars retired from the race.
With the race just eight laps from halfway and with the track blocked, the decision was made to send the remaining racers to the Paddock Area for the mandatory ten minute halfway break. As cleanup wrapped up, the ten minute break expired and the field returned to the track. Shortly after the cars presented themselves, Casey Johnson darted back into the pit area, relinquishing a top ten position. The two-time Big 8 champion made it back on track before the green flag, but soon after was involved in a scary wreck in turn one, which saw he and Josh Wallace slide backwards into the first turn concrete. Both cars were able to drive away, and Johnson returned again at the back of the lead lap. On the ensuing restart, Rubeck put a slight bit of distance between he and the battle between Nason and Reynolds for second. Soon after, Reynolds was able to get to the runner up spot and immediately set his sights on Rubeck for the lead.
Over the course of the next 40 laps, Reynolds and Rubeck played a high-speed, bumper-to-bumper game of chess, trading paint and throwing sparks in their tussle for the top spot. Behind them, Johnson drove like a man possessed, picking up a position seemingly every lap. Finally, with 33 laps to go. Reynolds scratched past Rubeck into the race lead, while Rubeck then found himself with company as Johnson had raced his way into the top three.
Johnson blasted into second with 20 laps to go and began to catch Reynolds. One final yellow flag with under 20 laps to go set up an epic duel for the finish, as Reynolds and Johnson broke away to settle the 200 lapper among themselves. Johnson made several moves for the lead, shaking the leader out off each corner, with Reynolds able to hold the lead every time. As the white flag flew, Johnson positioned himself for one more bold move, diving low off the fourth corner only to come up half a car-length short of victory.
The win was the first for Reynolds in the 200 lap Super Late Model race at National Short Track Championships. In 2013, the former Rockford Speedway track champion finished second to eventual winner Eddie Hoffman. Reynolds has also claimed victory four times in the Big 8 Late Model Series 108 lap event at NSTC.
The runner up for Johnson was his second top-two effort in the 200 lap race. In 2012, the three-time Jefferson Speedway champion came up just short of beating eventual race winner Rich Bickle in a similarly thrilling finish to Sunday’s.
After leading a race-high 91 laps, two-time and reigning NSTC winner Steve Rubeck settled for third place, while Lake Geneva Wisconsin’s James Swan was the race’s ‘hard charger,’ starting in 25th position and finishing fourth. Three-time Slinger Speedway champion Brad ‘JJ’ Mueller ran consistently all day and was rewarded with a fifth place finish.
50th Anniversary National Short Track Championship 200 presented by Stanley Steemer
Sunday October 4 2015
1. Jon Reynolds Jr
2. Casey Johnson
3. Steve Rubeck
4. James Swan
5. Brad Mueller
6. Dan Lensing
7. Jeff Holtz
8. Ty Majeski
9. Landry Potter
10. Rich Bickle
11. Jerry Gille
12. Austin Nason
13. Jim Olson
14. Josh Wallace
15. Brian Johnson Jr
16. Larry Schuler
17. Josh Nelms
18. Alex Papini
19. Brian Johnson Sr
20. Tommy Hromodka
21. Jake Gille
22. Mikie Breiner
23. Ryan Ferrell
24. John Nutley
25. Stevie Campbell
26. Eddie Hoffman
Lap leaders: Rubeck (91 laps), Nason (76 laps), Reynolds (33 laps)
Fast Qualifier: Papini (12.894)
Car Count: 31 Super Late Models
– Rockford Speedway press release
– Photo credits: Doug Hornickel – www.fastlapphoto.com