By: Eric Huenefeld
Casey Johnson only led one lap Saturday night at Rockford Speedway.
But it was the most important lap.
Johnson survived a caution-filled 108 lap feature event and came out on top of a thrilling three-way battle during a green-white-checkered finish to capture his first National Short Track Championship win and his fourth win of the season in the Big 8 Late Model Series.
Dale Nottestad was the driver to beat for most of the event. Nottestad, the two time Jefferson Speedway track champion, took the race lead at the drop of the green flag from pole sitter Jake Gille. As the race progressed, several drivers arrived at Nottestad’s bumper, with few able to make a move for the lead. In the second half of the race, seven-time Rockford Speedway track champion Bobby Wilberg made his way to second spot and promptly began a wrestling match for the lead with Nottestad. The two determined drivers traded paint and punches over the next several laps. Wilberg at one point ripped the lead from Nottestad, but soon after it was Nottestad slamming back into the top spot.
Behind the lead battle, the mixing pot of contenders began to come into focus. Johnson, who sat in the top five for a bevy of the race, began to gain momentum. Meanwhile, teenager Austin Nason made his return to the front of the field after a disappointing start to the race. Nason, who was involved in an early race incident, picked his way through the field from the back and by lap 75 was again in the top five. 2014 Rockford Speedway Rookie of the Year Dana Czach also fought back from repeated misfortune, finding himself near the top five late in the race.
A final yellow flag flew with two laps to go, bringing the pack close to leader Nottestad. By this point, Nason had arrived in second place, while Johnson sat in third. Nason restarted on the inside of Nottestad, pushing the issue as the two raced off into turn one. Nason slipped into the lead on the backstretch as Notttestad and Johnson then raced side-by-side. As the leaders came back to the white flag, Nottestad returned the favor on Nason, wiggling him loose off of turn four. This allowed Johnson to build momentum for a run at the lead. As the three cars entered turn two, they became three wide, as Nottestad knocked Nason loose, sending the youngster up the track. Johnson meanwhile, went below both drivers and the race was on! Nason settled behind Johnson and Nottestad in turn three and as the top two sent sparks flying out of the fourth turn. Nason then dove to the bottom making it three wide at the line. Johnson won the race by a matter of inches over Nottestad. Nason settled for third. The win helped Johnson protect his Big 8 point lead, as the Edgerton Wisconsin driver seeks a second straight Big 8 Series crown.
Oconomowoc Wisconsin youngster Adam Peschek made his first Big 8 start one to remember, surviving the race and staying out of trouble late, en route to a fourth place finish. Czach meanwhile, finished his first ever Big 8 Series race in fifth, one night after finishing fourth in the Weekly Warrior Late Model 49 lapper.
In other action Saturday night…
Jefferson Wisconsin’s Jason Thoma capped off an unforgettable weekend at Rockford Speedway, winning the Great Northern Sportsman Series 50 lap feature race. Thoma, who one night earlier was the winner of the 40 lap Sportsman feature, was dominant in Saturday night’s 50 lapper, storming past three-time Rockford Speedway champion Doug Bennett for the lead early. Thoma was never seriously challenged again, leading by as much as half a lap late in the race. Rockford’s Matt Lundberg, a former NSTC winner himself, finished the race in second. Minnesota’s Jeremy Wolff, making his first trip to Rockford in over eight years, ran the extreme high line on his way to a third place finish.
Dusty Mann, who came into the evening second in the Great Northern Sportsman Series points, finished the race in fourth position. The fourth place finish for Mann is his second top five finish at Rockford this year, following a second place in July to Thoma during the GNSS’s first stop at the high banked quarter mile in July. Daryl Gerke, last years winner of the 50 lap race, came home in fifth, one night after finishing third.
In the Hobby Stox division, it was Jimmy Robinson who again the class of the field. Robinson used the extreme bottom groove of the track to advance from deep in the field to second place in short order. Robinson then had the tall task of chasing down Mike Meyers for the race lead. After stampeding past Scotte Lemke for the lead in the race’s first lap, Meyers stretched his lead to over a straightaway early. Once Robinson reached second place, he began to slice into Meyers’ lead. When the race’s only yellow flag flew on lap 13, Robinson had cut a straightaway advantage to merely three carlengths. The ensuing restart provided the Orfordville Wisconsin driver a chance to take the lead, which he did. Robinson was not challenged over the final 14 laps on his way to a fifth Hobby Stox NSTC win. Meyers collected second, while Dustin Ward was third. Chester Williams, who earlier set the Hobby Stox track record, finished the race in fourth, while Jason Van Hise collected his second top five of the weekend by rounding out the top five.