By: Eric Huenefeld
After a long and harsh winter, local auto racing fans came out in force to witness Opening Night of the 67th season at Rockford Speedway. The enthusiastic crowd was treated to some great mid-April weather and terrific racing all night long. When the final checkered flag flew on Mountain Dew Kickstart’s 67th NASCAR Season Opener, one driver had captured his first Saturday night feature win, one former champion started his season on top, one familiar face found himself in a familiar place and one driver passed almost one car per lap on his way to victory.
It wasn’t always in the plans for Casey Johnson to race Saturday night at Rockford Speedway. The 24 year old from Edgerton Wisconsin made the last minute trip to northern Illinois pay off, winning the 30 lap Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Model feature event. Johnson started the race from the inside of the second row, following ‘Insane’ Wayne Freimund and Curt Tillman to the green flag. Freimund and Tillman dueled for the top spot early, with Freimund finally grinding ahead of the pack on lap two. Johnson worked past Tillman at the same time and immediately set his sights on Freimund. Johnson, the 2013 Big 8 Series champion, wasted little time working past Freimund, inheriting the lead on lap 4.
As Johnson slipped ahead, the action was fast and furious behind him. Freimund and Tillman scrapped and clawed to retain their spots within the top five, while a bevy of challengers nipped at their heels. The group of hard chargers included Jake Gille, Ricky Bilderback, ‘Driver X’ Jon Reynolds Jr and 2013 Track Champion Alex Papini. As the pack of racers sorted themselves out, Gille found himself in second place, with Papini, Reynolds and Bilderback trading paint for the third, fourth and fifth positions.
When the race hit halfway, Gille stepped closer to Johnson, cutting the lead to three car lengths. Gille closed on Johnson, while the trio battling for third continued to trade paint. Bilderback worked past Reynolds with ten laps to go, then setting his sights on third place Papini. After a few attempts, the seven-time Track Champion Bilderback muscled into third past Papini. Meanwhile, Johnson began feeling the pressure from Gille for the lead. Gille pulled even with Johnson with two laps to go and looked to be in position to make a move for the lead. But as Gille looked inside of Johnson coming to the white flag, the battle for fourth between Reynolds and Papini boiled over, with Papini spinning directly behind the leaders.
The incident happened before the field accepted the white flag, setting up a green-white-checkered finish. Johnson now had Jake Gille, Bilderback and three-time track champion Jerry Gille on his bumper. When the race restarted, Johnson put just enough distance between he and the field to guarantee his spot in victory lane. Jake Gille finished a close second place, with Bilderback third. Jerry Gille finished fourth, with Freimund rounding out the top five.
Belvidere’s Brett McCoy is a three-time champion in the American Short Track division, and has been trying to win a Bargain Hunter Sportsman championship for the last couple of years. His quest for a 2014 championship started the right way Saturday night, as McCoy raced to the checkered flag in the 25 lap feature race. McCoy had his work cut out for him, starting the race in seventh place. Rockford’s Nick Letsinger, competing in his first Sportsman race, snagged the lead from pole sitter Brian Mayer and led the race’s opening paces. Soon after, Letsinger felt pressure for the lead from Rob Goodman. Goodman, piloting the car that Doug Bennett raced to a championship in 2013, looked stellar all night long and by lap five had wrestled the lead from Letsinger. Goodman attempted to make distance between himself and the field, but was slowed by a yellow on lap eight.
When the yellow flew for a spin in turn four, Goodman and the field slowed to avoid further incident. Goodman received a hard rear impact from a quick-closing Deanna Chandler, but appeared to have little damage. When the race resumed, Goodman sprinted back to the lead and let it all hang out, nicking the wall exiting turns two and four. Seven laps later, McCoy assumed the lead and soon he, along with the whole field, slipped exiting turn four. After the repeated abuse to the rear of the car, Goodman’s fuel cell had become dislodged, spilling fuel all over the Speedway and sending the balance of the field spinning. Goodman’s car rolled to a stop on the backstretch and the red flag was displayed.
When the race resumed following a lengthy delay, it was McCoy in charge of the field. Despite a couple late race challenges from Howie Ware and Pat Featherston, McCoy surged to the win, with Ware settling for second spot. Featherston came home in third, with Letsinger in fourth and Mayer in fifth.
After six years-plus away from competing weekly in the Miller LIte American Short Tracker division, Kelly Evink looked like he had never left the drivers seat. Evink raced from seventh starting spot in six laps, to claim the lead in his 25 lap feature race, then held of repeated challenges from defending American Short Tracker champion Nick Cina Jr on his way to the season-opening triumph. Cina, who started the race in ninth, raced side-by-side with Evink for the entire second half of the race, pulling even yet never pulling ahead of the eventual winner Evink. Five-time track champion George Sparkman finished third, advancing from eighth position. Polesitter and early race leader Brad Henrey finished fourth, with Steve Rubeck fifth. Rubeck, racing for Ron Bridges, competed in a Short Tracker race for the first time in 20 years.
South Beloit’s Dennis Smith Jr put on the drive of the night in the Kickstart Roadrunner’s 20 lap feature event. Smith, who started 16th, advanced to the lead in 18 laps and held off a last lap challenge from Adam Cartwright to pocket the first Roadrunner feature of 2014. Cartwright finished the race in second, after starting the race in sixteenth spot. Terrance Robinson came home in third, followed by James Gregory and Chad Lounsbury.