(Photo by Dave Grace/Kingsport Times-News)
KINGSPORT — A line of colorful NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model stock cars sat in a row along pit road at Kingsport Speedway on Friday afternoon as crews made final preparations for a pair of 30-lap races.
With just five races remaining on the schedule and two of those set to take place on Friday night, a nervous intensity enveloped the drivers locked in a points race that has morphed into something exciting, contentious and unpredictable over the past three weeks.
As crews worked furiously on race machines that sat a few feet apart from each other, a wary glance or two was passed from one team to another. Given the events of the past two weeks, the subtle suspicion swirling up and down pit road could hardly be chalked up as paranoia.
Rookie driver Chad Finchum was firmly atop the points standings when he won a race two weeks ago. But Pat Shell, father of Late Model driver Zeke Shell, protested Finchum’s engine, and when the engine was inspected, an illegal cam shaft was found.
The mix-up was traced back to the Ford assembly line, and Ford Racing took full responsibility, but the violation bounced Finchum back to fourth in the standings, elevating Daniel Pope to the points lead.
Pope took the unexpected momentum and ran with it, leading all 60 laps en route to victory in last week’s Late Model feature. But this time it was Finchum’s team filing the protest, prompting NASCAR to look at the back end of Pope’s No. 16 car.
Found were trailing arms deemed to be too thin. This time it was Pope dropping back to fourth in the standings, leaving Shell and Kres VanDyke as co-leaders with Finchum third heading into Friday’s twin 30-lap features.
Finchum said he didn’t find out about the protest until after the fact.
“As soon as the race was over, I had to go into the care center,” he said. “I was dehydrated bad last week. When they released me, I went back and sat in the trailer and they told me 30 minutes after that our team had protested against Pope, the rear end and the truck arms.
“Up until that, I didn’t know anyone on our team had any intention of doing that.”
That did little to quell the hard feelings brewing among the drivers competing for the points title. By the time the cars rolled into the infield Friday, rumors of who would protest whom at the end of the night ran rampant.
The talk only added to an already tense environment; “twins night” always puts drivers at risk of doubling down on calamity.
“I’ve been told by a bunch of drivers that the twins night gets rough,” Finchum said. “We’re just going to have to keep doing what we’re doing, and see if we can’t get two wins out of it tonight and get back into the points lead.”
One man who wasn’t worried about a protest was VanDyke, a broad-shouldered coal miner looking to cash in on his shot at redemption.
“Protests ain’t that bad if you’re legal,” VanDyke said as his crew swarmed around his No. 15 car. “It doesn’t bother me. They can protest all they want as long as they’re paying for it.
“They can put their money up and we’ll be all right.”
Back in 2002, VanDyke missed out on a Late Model track championship at Kingsport Speedway by a single point. On Friday, he found himself tied for the lead with a handful of races left on the schedule.
The plan going into the two 30-lap features was a simple one.
“I have to have a good finish tonight, keep the car clean because we have two races,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to take care of tonight. Hopefully we can move ahead of Zeke in the points.”
But five laps into the first 30-lap race, VanDyke’s plan came unraveled. After cutting down a tire, VanDyke was forced to the back of the field only to be collected in a multicar wreck that put his dream of a track championship on life support.
As the laps trickled away in the first race, VanDyke’s crew hammered away at his car in an effort to get back out on the track. Nothing doing. The No. 15 finished 20th.
But he wasn’t the only driver to stub his toe in the first race. Shell also made an unscheduled trip to the pits, relegating him to a ninth-place finish.
With the two co-leaders out of contention, Finchum and Pope made a mad dash toward Victory Lane. Finchum held off Pope on a restart with two laps remaining to score the victory.
The runner-up finish was a blow to Pope, who showed up Friday with a go-for-broke attitude.
“Win, win, win, win; make up all the points. The only way to make up all the points is to get all the points,” Pope said before the first race. “I need five wins in the last five races to have a shot at this, and that’s our goal.
“I’m not protecting anything. It’s 100 percent offense at all times the next five races.”
The second race was a carbon copy of the first, with Finchum edging Pope at the finish line to score two victories and take the points lead back outright. VanDyke finished seventh, but his title hopes are all but dashed after the wreck in the first race. Shell battled mechanical issues and salvaged an eighth-place finish in the nightcap.