It's Thursday again... Time to take that ol' Mini Stock out of the garage for a spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

WHAT WE SAW at Thunder Road last Sunday afternoon had to have Tom Curley smiling proudly from his spot as race director in the tower over the frontstretch.

It's not that the ACT Late Model Tour Merchants Bank 150 was an exceptional race. It's not like there were four cars under a blanket coming to the checkered flag. It's not like somebody made an improbable drive from 29th to first in a span of 50 laps.

No, the race was a race was a race. It certainly wasn't the best we've seen from the Tour even this season alone, nor was it a clunker by any definition you choose.

But what had to have Curley so pleased were the two main players in the event.

 

In this corner, ACT veteran and championship contender Joey Polewarczyk Jr. – last year's ACT Invitational winner at New Hampshire and reigning Milk Bowl champion.

In the opposite corner, "King of the Road" Nick Sweet – the 2010 Thunder Road track champion , defending champion of the Merchants Bank 150 and product of the quaint little town of Barre, Vt.

And the two slugged it out in the kind of battle that the ACT Late Model Tour prides itself on; a philosophy that a track's local stars are on equal footing with the better-funded touring teams. Of course, Sweet wasn't so convinced that everybody was on equal footing Sunday.

He thought he had a leg up.

"This race track's one of those places where home court is kind of a big advantage here. It shows," Sweet said after winning the race. "The guys that are doing well here have been doing well for years. The whole division, it's so competitive here."

There are obviously two reasons the ACT Tour wants competitive balance.

The first serves the ticket-buying customer at the Saturday night short track. Sitting in the grandstands for an ACT race, fans are guaranteed a field of 40-plus cars virtually every week – making qualifying both exciting and necessary. But they're also guaranteed to see people they know, drivers they watch each and every week in the local Late Model division, going head to head with names they've read about somewhere on the internet or seen in television interviews. When Oxford's Shawn Martin finishes on the podium against the likes of a Brian Hoar or a Joey Polewarczyk, it's a tangible benchmark for just how strong a performance he's had.

The second reason is a bit harder to quantify, but it's no less important. Local racers, typically constricted by both money and time, aren't as apt to hop into a Tour race if they don't feel they can be competitive. And if 6-10 weekly teams choose to stay home when the Tour visits on a Saturday night in June, that creates a smaller field and a less than appealing product (see No. 1). But with the ACT Tour's construction, teams know that Curley has worked hard to level the playing field.

Whether or not it's too level is a debate for another time.

What we do know with certainty is that there had to be nobody happier than Curley himself to see two of his most marketable personalities, each from opposite sides of the fence, putting into practice the philosophy ACT is based on last Sunday at Thunder Road.

I REALLY THOUGHT that Saturday's PASS North Series season opener at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway was going to be Derek Ramstrom's coming-out party.

Sure, the part-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver has won a pair of PASS Super Late Model races in his career. He's also a two-time defending track champion at Thompson International Speedway.

But one of Ramstrom's PASS victories came at Thompson – a track unlike any the series competes on – and the other came against a short field in a mid-week, postponed event at Star Speedway. Saturday, as he ran with the likes of Johnny Clark, Ben Rowe, Lonnie Sommerville and Trevor Sanborn, it became clear that Ramstrom is growing up right before our very eyes.

He bided his time, stalked those guys and pounced over the final 40 laps of the race. Unfortunately for him, a mechanical failure robbed him of "what-if." He wouldn't be pushed around, and he had enough car left at the end because he didn't have to overdrive it to stay in the Top-5 through the first half of the race.

These are the things racers seem to learn over time. Ramstrom seems to have learned it, too, and he could become a threat in more than a few races this season – at Thompson, in PASS, and maybe even in the K&N Pro Series, too.

I ALMOST FELL out of my seat in the Richmond International Raceway media center following the Denny Hamlin Foundation Short Track Showdown press conference.

That's where, after winning the event, Hamlin talked about how nice it was to win after "all the bad luck" that's plagued his entire Sprint Cup Series career.

Yeah, OK. Sure, Denny. We understand that you didn't win the last two Cup titles. We get that. But bad luck your whole career?

I guess that whole winning the Bud Shootout as a rookie at Daytona and those 16 career Cup wins don't count, right?

Puh-leeze.

In an unrelated story, one national NASCAR personality hit up Twitter on Saturday before the Richmond race and openly wondered if any Cup driver needed a win more than Hamlin.

Umm... I can think of a few. Like, start with Dave Blaney. Or Regan Smith. Or Travis Kvapil. Or Tony Raines. Or... Well, you get my point.

THE FAA SHOULD be required to inform all passengers booked on any flight that I'm on that they may want to seek alternate forms of transportation. I could entertain you for hours with my "bad travel" stories.

Richmond last week, though, took the cake.

A two-hour delay trying to leave Portland, Maine, on Wednesday. Running through the terminal in Philadelphia to make my connector to Richmond. Lost luggage. A 90-minute delay Friday morning followed by an announcement that the plane would have to return to the terminal for another hour for repairs. Yet another hour-plus delay in Newark trying to get to Portland.

You want more?

Maybe next week.

JUST TO FOLLOW up on the Nick Sweet story from Thunder Road.

Sweet's a pretty good race car driver. Make no mistake about it – you don't win a title at Thunder Road of all places and not be accomplished behind the wheel.

I have a great deal of fun at the expense of my colleagues in Vermont, though, with their almost mythical fascination with the local-boy-done-good.

All I'm saying is, I'd like to see him in more places against varied playing fields to be able to make a truer judge of his talent. That's all.

WHEN IS THE Canadiens' next playoff game?

Oh.

My bad. (It's just too easy.)

YOU'VE BEEN A great audience. Try the double-decker tacos with cilantro-lime rice, and don't forget to tip your waitress. Dierks Bentley is here. Stick around.

– TB