MILLER CONSERVES RUBBER FOR SMT HICKORY WIN By Matt Kentfield
The King Holds Off Title Rival Brown In Final Laps
Junior Miller is known as the “King of the Southern Modifieds.” He has won hundreds of features at tracks throughout the Carolinas behind the wheel of an open-wheeled Modified and seemingly just as many championships. You don’t earn a title like the “King” by running mid-pack or coming up just short of victory by not having a stocked trophy case.
That’s why when Miller was running in the lower half of the top-10 for much of Saturday night’s NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour race at Hickory Motor Speedway (NC), if anyone was counting the defending SMT series champion out, they were sorely mistaken.
Much like Miller, Hickory Motor Speedway has seen its fair share of racecars. Hickory is one of the most historic short tracks in the country. It even has a cute self-serving nickname of its own – “The Birthplace of NASCAR Stars.” The Southern Modifieds were running on the same patch of gritty and worn-out asphalt that many stock car legends once raced on.
Because of the lack of grip on the old racetrack, tire conservation was the key Saturday night. Besides being the “King of the Southern Modifieds,” Junior Miller is also quite adept at saving his rubber for the final stages of the race. Early on, he and other race favorites Tim Brown and Burt Myers were racing for sixth, seventh and eighth, patiently biding their time to get up front while other, less experienced drivers showed the way and used up more of their cars. Eventually, with enough time and tire saved, Miller worked his way to the front and pulled away from Brown in the final laps to claim his fifth Southern Modified Tour race win of the season.
“I learned a long time ago that you have to save your tires,” said Miller. “I used to get in the racecar and I would lead every lap
Miller earned a trophy with a little help from his tires, so he was happy to share the win with them. (51 Photo)
that I could lead, but then I’d go backwards when there were 50 laps to go. Then I learned probably 20 years ago that you had to have enough to run that last lap. I won probably six races at Caraway one year and just beat the guys at the end and everyone caught on to what I was doing.
“I know here the racetrack is wore out and you have to have some good tires at the end to win the race. I kinda got out of the way and let some of them go. Some of them went to the front and some of them were slow cars that led the race. After about 50 laps, they were in trouble and we caught them and we ended up lapping them a couple times. A place like this, you have to save your tires in order to run at the end. That’s what we did, and we had a super-good racecar at the end.”
Saturday’s event was the first time the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour had visited Hickory and it was the first time since 2004 that Modifieds had been at the track. To no one’s surprise, Junior Miller was in victory lane on that day as well. For the fans at Hickory that perhaps had never seen the Southern Modifieds before, they likely weren’t figuring Miller to be much of a factor. Early in the race, UARA Late Model regular Brandon Ward, making his first SMT start, and Josh Nichols showed the way. The two young drivers checked out from the rest of the field, as pole winner Burt Myers, Bobby Hutchens, Miller and Brown hung back as the youngsters duked it out up front.
Josh Nichols in his family-owned #34 ran up front early.
FULL FIELD RESULTS
NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour 150
1. Junior Miller
2. Tim Brown
3. Burt Myers
4. LW Miller
5. Bobby Hutchens
6. Brandon Ward
7. Frank Fleming
8. Brian King
9. Brian Loftin
10. Josh Nichols
11. Brian Pack
12. Jay Mize
13. Jason Myers
14. Johnathon Brown
15. Jay Foley
16. Johnny Sutton
17. Lee Jeffreys
18. Brandon Hire
19. Kevin Powell
20. Earl Baker
21. Wesley Swartout
22. Bo Bo Brown
23. Michael Clifton
24. Gene Pack
25. Joe Lucas
26. Tyler Haydt
Ward and Nichols put on a display of passing each other as the veterans paced themselves nearly a full straightaway behind for the first half of the race. The two swapped the lead numerous times. Whenever one would slide up the track a bit in a corner, the other would pounce.
Of course, at a track where grip is at a premium and tires can get eaten up in a hurry, it didn’t take too long before Ward and Nichols found themselves falling back into the grasp of the series’ veterans. The two early leaders found themselves with nothing left to compete with those who were conserving, and eventually fell deep in the field as the laps clicked away caution-free.
“I can’t say that I’d do anything different,” said Nichols upon finishing 10th after leading a race-high 53 laps early on. We weren’t going that hard at the beginning, just harder than most. I had the guys calling lap times out to me, and I really don’t think I was going any faster. He (Ward) would speed up and he’d run away for a little bit. I could see that he was starting to get the twitch and he’d back up. There were a couple of times where I raced him pretty hard for the lead, but in the end it’s just cool to have your own stuff and to be able to lead one of these Tour races when you’re competing with who you’re competing with.”
“It was fun,” said Miller. “I could’ve passed them any time I wanted. I just sat there and rode it out. I wanted to stay close because the closer I got, the harder they’d run. The harder they run, the more they wear their tires out. That’s why I followed Tim for so long. I would nudge him down the back stragithaway every once and a while to get him to carry it on in there and he did. He had a good racecar at the end too, but we were just in the right place at the right time.”
For Brown, however, second place was no consolation to finishing second to his championship rival.
Ward had a good opportunity to learn how to drive the Modifieds from the best in the business after halfway. Just after halfway, it was time for the usual suspects Miller, Brown and Myers to make their way to the front. Michael Clifton, Nichols and Myers swapped the lead five times in a 20-lap span around lap 100, but eventually Myers took the lead for an extended period.
Behind Myers, championship leaders Miller and Brown were putting on a clinic. The two swapped positions and bumper taps, but the racing never got out of hand. Once they decided to run bumper-to-bumper again, the two caught Myers and a three-way battle for the win ensued. Only Miller had what it took to get to the top spot, taking the lead over from Myers on lap 118 with Brown following for second. Myers wasn’t going to give up easily, however, as before Brown could complete the pass, Myers tried a crossover move on Miller to regain the lead, but couldn’t make it stick.
Miller checked out a bit in the final 10 laps over Brown and Myers, but lapped traffic held the leader up just enough for Brown to catch Miller’s bumper. As the final laps clicked away, Brown did not have enough time to make a move. Miller found himself back in Hickory’s victory lane and back on top of the SMT points by nine over Brown with two races remaining.
For Ward, who was making his SMT debut on an off-weekend from the UARA Series, getting to the front early was not a matter of abusing the tires. Like Nichols, he had a car that could get to the front and stay there at the beginning of the race.
“To be honest with you, we never even ran that hard,” said Ward. “I just told my guys that I wasn’t sure what I could’ve done different. I’m not sure if I could’ve saved any more and been good at the end. I think we just started off too free and I think that’s where our whole problem started. We learned a lot tonight.”
Tim Brown's second-place finish wasn't satisfying for the Cana, VA driver.
“We got beat tonight by lapped traffic,” said Brown. “We had the better car, but he got under me with the lapped traffic. He used the lapped traffic to keep up there too. My hat’s off to him and my hat’s off to my team and my guys and my sponsors and all that, but inside I’m just tore up. I’m just so sick of running second to him that it’s not even funny. It’s going to happen and I know it’s going to happen, but I hope it doesn’t happen next week.
“I guess I just put too much pressure on myself. With this caliber of racing, you should be happy to come in and run second and be competitive – but I’m not. It’d be the same if I was running Cup tomorrow. I put too much into it; too much time and too much money and it’s killing me that we’re not winning on a consistent basis.”
Miller’s win did more than put him back on top of the points standings, it also brought his Riggs Racing #69 team back into championship form after three straight rough outings. With just Southern National Speedway (NC) and Motor Mile Speedway (VA) remaining on the series’ schedule, Miller knows that winning races is all he can do to chase down the title.
“I hadn’t had a wreck all year,” said Miller. “I even ran the whole season at the Stadium and that’s unheard of to not get in a wreck. Then we went to Martinsville and wrecked out. Then we had a flat at Ace, and then we got in LW’s (Miller) wreck at Caraway and that hurt us down there. We just had to get it turned around. We’ve got a good racecar and we got it out front. We just want to win every race and that way win all the points.
“We got to win the race. If I run second and Brown wins next week, we’re back tied. We’re going to go there and try to sit on the pole and win the race. There’s only two of them left and we’re going to try to win them all.”