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BUMP STOPS: Pit Strategy, Pondering The Showdown and Jimmie Johnson Vs. Pocono

Friday, September 9, 2011
Photo: ACT Late Model Tour

It's Friday again. Time to dust off the ol' Mini Stock for a test drive around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

HINDSIGHT MAY WELL be 20-20, but John Donahue still had things clearly in focus after finishing fourth in the Labor Day Classic 200 at Thunder Road on Sunday.

Donahue dominated the first three-quarters of the ACT Late Model Tour event, leading the first 168 laps from the pole before fading at the end. What bit Donahue was one of the elements that makes the Labor Day Classic such a unique event at Thunder Road.

Pit strategy.

Donahue was the only driver on the track that chose not to pit for fresh right side tires at any point during the race, a strategy he similarly employed in winning the 2007 Labor Day Classic. Even has he saw drivers like Nick Sweet, Jean-Paul Cyr, Scott Payea and Austin Theriault start their charges toward the front following their pit stops, he said he and the No. 26 team never wavered from their pre-race decision.

"Nope. We talked about it here (in the pit area), and I said, 'We've won it before and the car's really good. Let's put our best tires on it now,'" Donahue said. "We started with our best tires on it, and we almost won it. That's the way we went into this thing and the way we played it."

 

But pit strategy ultimately decided the final finishing order.

Theriault, Cyr and Payea all pitted much earlier than the rest – for Theriault, it was a matter of having qualified through the B-feature and having run nearly 40 laps more than the leaders during the qualifying rounds, while for others it had to do with the carnage that was quickly piling up on the race track following multiple-incidents.

Sweet waited until there were roughly 50 laps remaining, pitting out of the Top-5 for a late-race charge from deep, deep, deep in the field.

"The guys (on the crew), they called it perfect. They said, 'It's time to come and pit,'" Sweet said. "Man, it was awesome. It was so much fun."

The story at the end of the day, however, had less to do with Sweet – the 2010 track champion – winning one of the biggest events of the season in just his second start in an RPM Motorsports car and everything to do with Donahue's curious strategy.

Given the opportunity to do things over, Donahue said he probably wouldn't.

"It's hard is when you've got a decent car to come in and pit," Donahue said, noting that the car hadn't shown any signs of ill-handling until just past the halfway mark. "Then it was, 'Whoa. We're getting loose.' But once I got out front, I could just drive my pace and no one could contend with me.

"We've won it once before doing that. It's fine. We lost a couple positions, but I'm the only one who didn't pit and we finished fourth. I'm happy with that. The car's running really good, so I'm looking forward to the Milk Bowl now."

For most all of the Vermont-based ACT teams, next month's Milk Bowl remains the ultimate prize.

"The car went. It was decent," Donahue said. "It hadn't felt too comfortable the last four or five Thunder Road races. I finally got it back to where I can drive it anywhere and it's good.

"I'm happy."

Which means when the Milk Bowl does roll around, and every segment is about running a 50-lap sprint for all its worth, the rest of the field should look out. Take the pit strategy out of it, and Donahue's as good as anybody out there.

ALL I REALLY want to know now is where to mail Ron Silk's NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship check.

This thing's over.

SPEAKING OF MODIFIEDS, it's shaping up to be a really interesting weekend for both the Whelen Modified Tour and the Whelen Southern Modified Tour.

Both tours are at Thompson International Speedway this weekend for the inaugural UNOH Showdown – which features a 125-lap points events for both of the tours, then pits the top finishers from each of those races in a big-money 50-lap dash.

Interestingly enough, there's as much cache to the Whelen Southern Modified Tour event as there is for the northeners – who are a fixture at Thompson, having raced more than 100 times at the high-banked track.

Not only are the stars of "Madhouse" entered in the race – Burt Myers, Jason Myers and Tim Brown – but some other teams have come together in time for this race. Local hero and former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Steve Park and Jeff Fuller have both filed entries for the weekend.

More significantly, reigning NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion Keith Rocco has reunited with Hillbilly Racing to run as a teammate to James Civali. Rocco will run for the Southern points, with Civali occupying his spot on the north side.

I think the 50-lap Showdown could go one of two ways.

It could be a knock down, drag out, slugfest where guys aren't worried about points.

It could be, but I'm thinking it probably won't.

Thirty-six cars is a lot for 50 laps. The purse is heavily front-loaded, giving little incentive to the guy racing 17th to try and go three-wide into a turn and grab a couple more spots at the checkered flag. And the Whelen Modified Tour is in the midst of a heavy workload – with races at Lime Rock Park, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Stafford still to come this month.

Teams might err on the side of caution. That's what fear, but I hope I'm wrong.

JUST THREE RACES remain in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season, and following a long break in the schedule plus a rainout last weekend the series hits the stretch run at Greenville Pickens this weekend.

One of the things that jumps out at me about the young drivers in the series – and yes, there are plenty of them – is that they seem to be fighting that misconception that all you need is a lot of money to make it in racing.

I'm not suggesting that drivers like Max Gresham, Sergio Pena or others don't have cash at their disposal – heck, K&N rides aren't cheap these days – but they're not just one-dimensional people. I found it interesting that several of the drivers (Gresham and Pena, included) are enrolled in college this fall.

And I, for one, love the fact that the guys are being exposed to more than just race cars. Because, as we know, the road to NASCAR stardom doesn't always lead to Disney World.

RESCUE ME IS finally over.

As much as Tommy, Lou, Probie and Black Shawn were parts of my life for the last seven years, the show became like that old dog you love so much. You know that it's not what it used to be, you have a hard time saying goodbye, but in the end you know that the best thing is just to put the old girl down.

It was time to end the suffering.

HAD AN INTERESTING conversation with the boys from the Maine Sports Network last Sunday about Jimmie Johnson.

The perception is still out there that Johnson is a boring robot, a symbol of everything that's wrong with Cup racing today. I still point out things like him breaking his wrist while tooling around on a golf cart a couple of years back and his confrontation with Kurt Busch on Pocono's pit road recently as proof otherwise.

I challenged the hosts of the show to follow Johnson's Twitter account if they still didn't believe me. I'm extending that challenge to anyone else, too.

If you think Johnson is boring or not a regular guy, go follow @jimmiejohnson. If you don't change your mind, I can't help you.

YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the steamers and corn on the cob, and don't forget to tip your waitress. 311 is here, so stick around.

– TB