ROSSBURG, Ohio — He wasn’t a part of the original 44-man invite list. He didn’t earn one of the first four fan-vote spots either.
But Kyle Strickler made the most of his alternate spot in the inaugural Dirt Late Model Stream Invitational, whipping the rest of the 48-strong DIRTcar Late Model field Thursday night at Eldora Speedway.
Strickler held off Shane Clanton and Brandon Sheppard to win the week’s first preliminary feature.
That feature was the first of its kind in the long and storied 67-year history at the famed half-mile. An empty grandstand due to the mass gathering restrictions set as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
On the backstretch fence hung a long mesh sign that read “We miss you! The world’s greatest race fans” – a true sign of the times and a message of appreciation to the large audience watching online from inside their homes, garages and race shops across the country.
And the moment Strickler excitedly climbed atop his No. 8 Longhorn chassis on the prestigious Eldora stage after leading flag-to-flag, the online viewers could feel the former DIRTcar UMP Modified star’s excitement of a first-time victory at The Big E, as he energetically pumped his fists in the air and screamed loudly.
“Man, I’m telling you, I’ve won a lot of modified races, but this is a career win for me,” Strickler said.
Strickler started on the pole for the 30-lap feature and immediately took the lead on the historic half-mile dirt track. By the time the first caution flag waved, Strickler led by half a straightaway.
Under the yellow, Strickler was making no plans of slowing down his pace. He led the field back to the green and immediately went back to work, tearing up the high banks with a best lap of 15.579 – exactly one tenth off of the time he posted in qualifying.
A bit further back, Sheppard had already begun his charge to the front. He ran the high side to run third after starting 12th.
“It was blowing a lot of crumbs across the track there at first, and I was able to run though them really good. Everybody was going to the bottom, so I was just trying to keep my speed up top and try and pick off as many as I could up there before they started moving around,” Sheppard said.
Meanwhile, Clanton was continuing his chase-down of leader Strickler out front. Still over four seconds ahead at the completion of lap 10, Strickler showed no signs of slowing down. That was until lap 12, when he got distracted coming out of turn two and scraped the outside wall, damaging the sheet metal on his right-side rear decklid and spoiler.
“I was paying attention to my signal guy, Vinny, so much that I screwed up off of turn two and got in the fence. Man, I thought I gave it away, so I barely looked at him the rest of the race. I just focused on hitting my line,” Strickler said.
This would have broken most rookie Late Model drivers’ concentration, especially with the pressure of leading at Eldora. But Strickler wasn’t about to let that ruin the opportunity. He recalls what happened to him while leading the 25th Dirt Late Model Dream last year, and simply wasn’t going to be denied Thursday night.
“I didn’t know I had that much damage. But it’s huge here. At the Dream last year, I was leading and knocked the quarter panel off it. I didn’t want to do that again,” Strickler said.
Strickler was able to gather everything back in and keep his cool out front, but as the field dipped down into the final five laps, Clanton was coming fast.
The several-second gap Strickler maintained had been shaved down to just eight-tenths of a second by lap 28. Clanton was smooth on the top side and was racing with everything he had left, but it just wasn’t enough to catch Strickler in the end.
“I could see, he was running like a dog chasing a rabbit,” Clanton said of Strickler’s wicked pace. “I don’t think he could’ve made it 100 laps up there, but it was 30 laps and he made it. Hats off to him, he drove a hell of a race.”
Feature (30 Laps): 1. 8-Kyle Strickler; 2. 25-Shane Clanton; 3. 1-Brandon Sheppard; 4. 20rt-Ricky Thornton Jr.; 5. 32p-Bobby Pierce; 6. 0m-Chris Madden; 7. 83-Scott James; 8. 7-Ricky Weiss; 9. 72-Michael Norris; 10. 22-Chris Ferguson; 11. 1t-Tyler Erb; 12. 18b-Shannon Babb; 13. 17m-Dale McDowell; 14. 39-Tim McCreadie; 15. 18-Chase Junghans; 16. 9-Devin Moran; 17. 28-Dennis Erb Jr.; 18. 49-Jonathan Davenport; 19. 99jr-Frank Heckenast Jr.; 20. 40b-Kyle Bronson; 21. C9-Steve Casebolt; 22. 7m-Donald Mcintosh; 23. 76-Brandon Overton; 24. 20-Jimmy Owens