NEWTON, N.C. – There may have been a few challenges early on, but down the stretch, no one could stop Matt Craig from winning the super late model portion of Saturday’s Cloer Construction 250 at Hickory Motor Speedway.
Craig cruised to victory at the historic .363-mile short track, keeping his No. 54 C&C Boiler Chevrolet out front for the majority of the 125-lap feature and ultimately defeating runner-up Kodie Conner by .923 seconds at the checkered flag.
The margin of victory actually belied just how good Craig was all evening long. He routinely pulled away from his pursuers on every restart and held a lead of nearly two seconds for much of the race.
Only when Conner finally got out of tire conservation mode and hit the button late did the margin shrink.
Conner assumed second place with 18 to go and quickly ate into Craig’s lead by three tenths a lap, looking like he might have something to fight with before Craig answered and turned up the wick.
From there, it was an effortless drive to victory for the 21-year-old native of Kannapolis, N.C., who raced home to his second win of the season and the seventh of his CARS Super Late Model Tour career.
Craig collected $5,000 in base purse for the win and an additional $5,000 as part of the Rowdy Manufacturing bonus program, for a total haul of $10,000 Saturday night.
In the process, Craig also extended his championship lead as he pursues back-to-back CARS Tour titles.
“To get into victory lane here (at Hickory) is the best part, because this is our home track now that Concord (Speedway) is gone. So we put a little extra emphasis on this track,” said Craig in victory lane. “So does Kodie, I know. His home track was Concord too, so I know he wanted to win just as bad as we did. My car was really good at the beginning, though. A couple of those guys wanted to go a little faster than I was going, which is fine, but as soon as they tried to pass me, I just started to speed up so I could keep the lead and keep control of the race.
“My car was good; it faded the last … about 15 laps. Kodie was a little better than me,” Craig added. “My team told me he rode in the back almost the whole race, and that’s always a good strategy, but being out front is hard. You can build up that buffer when the race goes green and you can somewhat rely on that lead as you go. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t, but tonight it worked out for us.”
With a lean field of 13 super late models, attrition was few and far between, and the only yellow-flag periods Saturday night were competition cautions at laps 40 and 80 due to 40-lap green flag runs.
That led to tire saving right from the very start, with a couple of lead changes early before Craig put any discussion about a surprise winner to rest.
Polesitter Trevor Noles led laps one and two before Craig took control on the third rotation, but it was a bump and run by Jeff Fultz on lap 15 in turns one and two that afforded the wily veteran a brief lead.
Four laps later, however, Craig repaid the favor in turns three and four and never looked back after that.
After qualifying 10th and running outside the top 10 for most of the race, Conner finally started moving forward in the final 45-lap run to the finish, cracking the top five on lap 93 and inching his way forward from that point on.
He reached the podium with 22 to go and finally dispatched Noles for second on lap 108, but didn’t have enough time to mount a real challenge on Craig for the win.
“I feel like I saved just enough, but I wasn’t expecting the leaders to be as fast as they were, so it just came down to track position,” noted Conner. “We started 10th and we dropped back to the rear where we just hung out for a little while. We felt our strategy was pretty good. The car was pretty great all night. I just ended up having to tighten my entry a little bit.
“At the end, I was hanging it out a little bit too wide and it was burning it up a little bit more than I wanted to, so I just had to move around a little bit,” Conner added. “But all in all, coming from last and almost beating Matt Craig is a pretty good day. He’s been the man and it was good to run with him.”
Noles hung on for third, followed by Carson Kvapil and hometown favorite Tyler Church.
Sammy Smith finished a disappointing sixth for Kyle Busch Motorsports, followed by Jeff Batten, Justin Crider, T.J. Duke and Dylan Smith.
Bobby McCarty won the late model stock car portion of the program.
1. 54-Matt Craig, 2. 45-Kodie Conner, 3. 22-Trevor Noles, 4. 35-Carson Kvapil, 5. 7c-Tyler Church, 6. 51s-Sammy Smith, 7. 49-Jeff Batten, 8. 7-Justin Crider, 9. 28-T.J. Duke, 10. 21s-Dylan Smith, 11. 21-Kris Wright, 12. 15f-Jeff Fultz, 13. 11-Michael Ritch.