BRISTOL, Tenn. — After jumping out to a huge lead on the final restart of the UNOH Perfect Storm 150, the last thing Don Lia wanted to do was give it back.
But after it was determined that he jumped the gun when the green flag fell on lap 138, that’s just what Lia was forced to do.
Lia kept his cool, however, letting Ted Christopher back by him on lap 139, getting to his bumper on lap 141 and reclaiming the lead with a pass on the front stretch on lap 142. Lia pulled away from there, checking out to win the first-ever NASCAR Whelen Modified Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday.
“I got a little nervous there and we had to get back by because we jumped the restart there,” Lia said. “It got me really amped up to get back by because it would have been a shame to give that race away.”
Christopher dominated most of the event, leading the first 107 laps of the race. While Christopher sailed to the lead during the first 75-lap segment, Lia was struggling to keep an ill-handling racecar under control.
“I wasn’t pacing too much,” Lia said. “I was going almost as hard as I could. I was really loose early. For me, it was just a matter of getting to the halfway mark. I knew how much better we could make our racecar, so I didn’t want to give anything away there.”
During the intermission at the halfway point, Lia’s crew tightened up Lia’s No. 4, known as the “Mystic Missile,” and it was just what the doctor ordered.
When the green flag came back out, Lia got around Todd Szegedy — who was firmly in second place during the first segment — almost immediately. Lia then set his sights on Christopher as the 100-lap mark approached.
As Lia’s car was coming into its own, Christopher’s handling was heading in the other direction.
“It was a good run,” Christopher said. “The second set, we tightened up too much. That’s where Don had a good run and got by us.”
By lap 100, Lia was grinding away on Christopher’s back bumper, trying the low side and the high side. Christopher did his best to hold the lead, but Lia got by on lap 107 and checked out as Christopher had his hands full with Szegedy. Lia was well on his way to the win when raindrops brought out the fourth and final caution of the race.
The ensuing restart almost did Lia in when he had to hand the lead back to Christopher, but after reclaiming the top spot with eight laps to go, Lia won by just over three seconds.
“To win here at Bristol is amazing,” Lia said. “It’s really special. This is the biggest race for us so far and I thank everyone for letting us race here.”
Christopher, who had the fastest car in all of the test sessions as well as in practice, was a bit disappointed that he failed to close the deal after leading the most laps.
“It is a little bit (disappointing), but you don’t know until you race the race what your car is going to do,” he said.
Ryan Preece finished third, while George Brunnhoelzl III finished fourth. Woody Pitkat rounded out the top five. Szegedy faded to a sixth-place finish.
Ryan Newman, who is making a bid to run all four NASCAR races held at BMS this weekend, didn’t make it past the second lap of the Whelen race. Newman’s No. 7 machine was collected in a wreck on the backstretch on lap 2 and never made it back onto the track. Newman finished 37th.
Kasey Kahne didn’t fare much better, limping across the line in 28th place.