By: Eric Huenefeld
The 51st Annual National Short Track Championships at Rockford Speedway were a memorable weekend for several reasons.
Memorable for the persistent drizzle that plagued much of the weekend and shuffled the Order of Events. Memorable some of the wild accidents on the track, including Jake Gille’s harrowing encounter with the Turn 3 tire barrier in Saturday’s Big 8 race or the double rollover executed by Cody Clubb and Dan Gilster in Sunday’s Mid-American race.
But what the 2016 edition of the National Short Track Championships will be most remembered for is the amazing weekend executed by Edgerton Wisconsin’s Casey Johnson. In a span of just under 18 hours, Johnson not only claimed victory in the Big 8 Late Model Series race on Saturday night, but also collected his first ever win in the 200 lap National Short Track Championship Super Late Model race.
Johnson’s conquest in the Big 8 Late Model Series race was as much survival as it was skill, keeping his car in the lead pack throughout a caution-filled 108 lap event. Throughout the balance of the race, victory seemed to belong to Michael Bilderback, the current Big 8 Series point leader and defending race winner. But in a race which saw several yellow flag laps and after Gille’s wild accident in Turn 3 with 11 laps remaining, the decision was made by Big 8 Series officials to cut the race’s distance by 5 laps. On the ensuing restart, Bilderback’s car failed to come up to speed, handing the lead to Johnson, who never was challenged after that. J Herbst charged from 15th starting spot to take second, while Dale Nottestad advanced from 16th place to finish third.
In Sunday’s 200 lap Super Late Model race, Johnson started the race in fifth place after setting the fastest lap in Qualifying and rolling a ‘5’ for the inversion. At the drop of the green flag, West Bend Wisconsin’s Steve Apel jumped to the lead from his outside from row starting spot. Apel led the first 12 laps, before being overtaken by defending race winner ‘Driver X’ Jon Reynolds Jr. Over the course of the next 125 laps, Reynolds dominated the competition, leading by as much as a quarter of a track during one point in the race. But with just 63 laps remaining, Reynolds’ vehicle began to sputter and pop, which brought his bid to repeat as a National Short Track Championship to an end in heartbreaking fashion.
Reynolds’ misfortune handed the lead back to Apel, who now had pressure from Roscoe’s Austin Nason. Over the course of the next ten laps, Nason and Apel staged a dramatic back and forth battle for the lead, which ended in Turn 4 just shy of 50 laps to go as the two cars came together and spun out, bringing out a yellow flag. Both cars were sent to to the back of the field as a result of the accident and the lead was inherited by none other than Johnson.
Over the race’s final 50 laps, both Nason and Apel stormed back through the field, with Nason getting one last shot at Johnson for the lead with under 10 laps to go. But when the checkered flag waved on the 200 laps, it was Johnson outrunning Nason by two carlengths for the win, while Apel came back to record a third place finish, his third career podium finish in the 200 lap race.
Johnson’s wins in both the 200 lap Super Late Model race and the Big 8 Late Model Series feature were historic as well, as it marked just the second time ever that one driver had won both races in one weekend (Joe Shear captured both trophies in 1987).
The two wins added to what has been a memorable year for Johnson, including 15 race wins and season championships with the Red White and Blue State Championship Series at Wisconsin International Raceway, the TUNDRA Super Late Models and the Triple Crown Challenge at Madison International Speedway.
Other big winners at the 51st National Short Track Championships included…
-Ron Vandemeir Jr (Mid American Stock Car Series)
-Dusty Mann (Great Northern Sportsman Series)
-Kyle Stark (Midwest Dash Series)
-Patrick Bruns (Illini Midgets)
-Adam Cartwright (Roadrunners)
-Nick Schmidt (Hornet/Bandit Challenge)
-Pat Heaney (Vintage Racers of Illinois)
-Trevor Addams (Super Cup Invite)