Kres Van Dyke, left, won the Kingsport Speedway Late Model season opener on Saturday. (All photos by Jeff Bobo)
KINGSPORT — Trouble in turn 2 led to retaliation in turn 4, which sparked a brawl in the infield, and it all went down just three laps into a 60-lap Whelen All-American Series Late Model race at Kingsport Speedway on Saturday afternoon.
The Concrete Jungle picked up right where it left off after a long winter.
"This ain't Daytona," said Zeke Shell, who finished second behind race winner Kres Van Dyke. "You're going to go to a fight and watch a race break out. I wouldn't have it any other way."
When the race finally did break out following an altercation between the crews of Blake Jones and defending track champion Chad Finchum, Van Dyke took control of the season opener and cruised to a victory over Shell, who challenged for the lead at times before fading during the closing laps.
Ryan Stiltner, the defending track champion at Lonesome Pine Speedway, came home third, the best finish of his career in Kingsport.
For Van Dyke, the victory was a great way to put a disappointing finish to the 2013 season into his rearview mirror. He was in the hunt to win the track championship before a barrage of bad breaks dashed his hopes.
"The car was working pretty good," Van Dyke said. "We've put a lot of time in it, and it paid off. The car was very drivable. Anywhere you wanted to put it, it would go there."
Van Dyke took the lead from polesitter Lee Tissot on lap 1 and never relinquished it.
But the win was hardly easy.
Van Dyke had to make it through a zany three-lap sequence that saw the caution flag wave twice, the second time for the incident between Finchum and Jones.
Finchum and Jones found themselves door to door out of turn 4, and Finchum's No. 19 Ford came out ahead of Jones' No. 80 machine. When they got to turn 1, there was contact, causing both to spin in turn 2. Jones stayed in the throttle and drove over Finchum's hood, and both cars headed to the pits with extensive front-end damage.
"I cleared him off of 4, and I got a tap getting into 1," Finchum explained. "It was a little more than a tap — he kind of ran over us. I thought it was uncalled for."
Jones made it back out onto the track first and proceeded to tick off some caution laps, but before the green flag could come back out, Finchum's machine roared out onto the backstretch, bypassing much of the field before making a sharp left in front of Jones to cut him off. From there, Finchum backed up into the front end of Jones' car, ripping what was left of the sheet metal off the right front fender before Finchum's Ford roared back into the pits.
"I apologize for my actions, but that was really uncalled for," Finchum said. "I can see bump-and-run. In short track racing, you're going to have it. I would have been all right with that, but getting turned sideways and destroying the whole car on lap 3, I think that was just uncalled for."
Before Finchum could even park his car, police officers and track officials had to break up a frenzied fight between the drivers' crews. Jones parked what was left of his car in the vicinity of Finchum's ride, but officials prevented the drivers from mixing it up.
After the race was red-flagged so order could be restored, Jones' crew was asked to pack up and leave. When the caution flag flew on lap 20, a red flag came out so Jones and his crew could drive their transporter around the track and exit along the backstretch. Members of the crew hung out of the truck and waved at the crowd along the backstretch as they were showered with a mix of cheers and boos.
"Everybody's pushing their cars way too hard, way too early," Shell said. "But at least it was a good show. It means everybody got to see what they came and paid for."
Shell tried to track down Van Dyke during the second half of the race, but in the process used up his equipment to the point that the handling went away. Unable to get back to the throttle as quickly as Van Dyke at the exit of the corners, Shell had to settle for second.
"We had a great car, but I think I got a little bit too anxious to get up there," Shell said. "And when I burned the front end up, it couldn't grip anymore I had to fall back."
Kingsport Speedway will be off next week when the racing action moves up Highway 23 to Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn.