DILLON, S.C. – Ever since he came up just short of winning at Dillon Motor Speedway last fall, Sam Hatfield has had the four-tenths-mile oval at the top of his to-do list.
Saturday afternoon during the USAC Speed2 Eastern Midget Ass’n season opener, Hatfield emphatically checked winning at Dillon off that list, thanks to a stirring late-race charge.
After starting fifth due to a six-car inversion, Hatfield raced forward from the third row, stayed patient and ultimately passed polesitter Nolan Allison with 12 to go en route to victory in a caution-free affair.
Hatfield found his way to third by lap seven, but it wasn’t until the halfway point of the 35-lap feature that he was finally able to dispatch series rookie Alex Murray for the runner-up spot.
From there, Hatfield pared a 1.5-second gap down to mere car lengths by lap 20, working the inside of the race track over the next four laps before finally diamonding turns one and two to get a run down the backstretch and make his winning maneuver.
Once Hatfield got clear of Allison on lap 24, he never looked back, opening up a 2.444-second margin by the time the twin checkers waved over the field.
While Saturday was Hatfield’s fourth-career Eastern Midget Ass’n victory, he characterized it as one of his favorites, especially considering it was a reversal of last year’s Dillon finish.
“Last year, we had a great car here and just weren’t quite able to get past Nolan,” noted Hatfield in victory lane. “I was having deja vu in those final laps, thinking it was going to end that way again, but this car was so good on the long run that we could make it work.
“This No. 9 car was on a rail and it was flying today. It feels really good to be standing here.”
Early afternoon rains gave way to sunshine late in the day, but still made for a hot and muggy race that took its toll on the drivers, including a worn-out Hatfield.
“I should have gone to the gym some during the offseason, because I’m a bit tired after this one,” he laughed. “Thankfully though, the adrenaline got me through and we’re parked in victory lane, so that’s really all that matters.
Hatfield, a 20-year-old student at the University of South Carolina, isn’t scheduled to contest the full season but left Dillon on Saturday with the points lead thanks to his win.
Does that open up the possibility of him making a full-season run for the championship?
“Ask Butch Lamb about that one,” Hatfield said. “I’d love to, but we’ll just have to see.”
After coming home as the runner-up, Allison cited fading handling on his machine as the reason he was unable to challenge Hatfield down the stretch.
“The car was really good for the first 20 laps, but it just died on us late there and the right rear (tire) went away,” said Allison. “If I’m gonna get beat, though, I love getting beat by Sam. He’s fun to race, he drives clean and he’s really fast. My hat’s off to him.”
Murray completed the podium after battling apparent power steering issues in the closing laps. He was followed home by Neal Allison and two-time series champion Jessica Bean.
Fifty-nine-year-old Eric Lewis, who finished sixth, set fast time in qualifying for the first time in his career with a lap of 16.461 seconds on Saturday afternoon.
Sam Hatfield, Nolan Allison, Alex Murrray, Neal Allison, Jessica Bean, Eric Lewis, Connor Gross, Preston Lattomous, Daytona Spicola, Bronzie Lawson IV.