GLADIATORS DUEL, BUT MILLER KEEPS HIS SMT CROWN By Matt Kentfield
Lapped Traffic Costs Tim Brown Race Win and Championship
Junior Miller and Tim Brown walked into Southern National Speedway (NC) Saturday night prepared for battle. The track was their Roman Coliseum filled with anxious fans excited to witness a duel to the finish to decide the 2006 NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour championship. The two donned their battle garb, stepped aboard their chariots of steel and heroically challenged each other for supremacy.
Saturday night played out just like a scene in the Gladiator movies. Everyone knew that it was going to be a battle unlike any other, but in the end only one driver was going to get the thumbs-up, signifying victory. The other, would go home and have to wait all winter knowing that he came up short.
Brown came into Southern National just four points ahead of Miller, the inaugural SMT titlist in 2005. All that Brown would have to do was finish ahead of Miller this time out and the championship was his. Miller knew that if he was going to score another championship, he would have to out-race Brown Saturday night. The race win, just like the entire season, came down to Brown and Miller.
Brown got out to an early lead after starting on the pole and checked out in the early laps, while Miller was mired deep in the field. As seems to be Miller’s calling card throughout his career, he patiently waited for the right time to progress forward. Eventually he got to Brown’s bumper. No one else was a contender. The race win and the season’s championship were going to come down to the final laps.
The entire season, and the race, was decided on lap 71. Miller was following in Brown’s tire tracks off turn two when they
Tim Brown (left) and Junior Miller (right) were all smiles before they entered the duel to decide the title. (Riggs Racing photo)
approached the cars of George Brunnhoelzl, III and Earl Baker, both of whom were racing side-by-side to remain on the lead lap. Brown chose to follow Brunnhoelzl on the outside lane, opening the bottom groove for Miller, who filled in the gap behind Baker. Baker got the better run in the third corner, allowing Miller to charge below and past Brown and Brunnhoelzl. Brown fell in behind Miller, but there was no looking back. The “King of the Southern Modifieds” was not going to give up his crown. Miller withstood a last-lap bumper tap from Brown to collect the checkered flag and the season’s championship by a scant one point.
“There were two cars there side by side,” said Miller of the move that won the race and the championship. “Tim took the high lane and there wasn’t anything left but the low lane so I jumped in there to see if I could get by him. And sure enough, I jumped by him and put the hammer down.
“Then on the last lap I got caught with some lapped cars and he gave me a lick and tried to turn me around. We stayed in it and came home with the win.”
Tim Brown had voiced his frustrations about constantly finishing behind Miller to Speed51.com several times in recent weeks. Just when it looked like Brown was finally going to get the upper hand and get the biggest trophies of his career, his bid was shot down by traffic. Finishing second to Miller once again was like pouring salt in Brown’s wounds.
“I honestly didn’t know if I was doing the right thing,” said Brown of the incident that cost him the win. “I guess it gets back to a respect thing. When not just the championship contenders, but hell we were racing for the race win too, come up behind you, you would think that they would give you enough room. But they didn’t.
“Junior came out of it on the better end of it like he always does, smelling like a rose. I honest to God think that we had the car to beat tonight. I just got screwed by lapped cars.”
Brown was not going to give up, however. Like a gladiator that had gotten knocked to the ground, he was going to take one more last-ditch charge to come out on top. After losing the lead, Brown drove his car as hard as he could to catch Miller. Off the second turn on the final lap, Miller caught more lapped traffic, allowing
Miller climbed out to celebrate the race win (top photo), then got doused with silly string by his Riggs Racing team as he hoisted the SMThampionship trophy (bottom photo). (51 Photos)
10. (11) Gene Pack, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Chevrolet, 99
11. (14) George Brunnhoelzl III, Long Island, N.Y., Chevrolet, 98
12. (5) Bobby Hutchens, Lexington, N.C., Chevrolet, 98
13. (10) Jay Foley, Stuart, Va., Chevrolet, 98
14. (12) Jay Mize, Clemmons, N.C., Chevrolet, 97
15. (13) Jay Charles, Walkertown, N.C., Chevrolet, 9, rear end
Brown to get to his bumper. Brown gave Miller a strong bump from behind, but Miller kept his car straight. Instead of taking the championship in a dirty manner, Brown let Miller collect his car.
“I got into him,” said Brown. “I could’ve turned him, but I don’t race that way. I’m sure if the shoe was on the other foot, he would’ve turned me around. But hell, he’s old and he’ll be quitting before too long. I’ve got 30 more years of this s--t, so I’ll be fine.”
Miller felt the shot that Brown gave him, but he was not going to be denied. While Brown said that he let Miller save the car after the last-lap bump, Miller knew Brown’s motivation for the tap.
“I’m not so sure that he let me collect it up because he hit me hard enough to turn me around,” said Miller. “He lost his momentum and as soon as he hit me, I turned it to the right and held it wide open and it went to the plate. I knew I wasn’t going to back off. I didn’t hesitate long enough for him to hit me a second time, I don’t think.
“We were two and three wide early in the race and I decided I didn’t need to be there that early in the race,” said Miller. “I rode around eighth for a little bit, but then I saw that they weren’t going anywhere, so I just started picking them off one by one.
“When I caught Burt, I knew that Burt was blocking for him. We picked up about three tenths once we got around the #1 car. I don’t know what he was doing. He ran me down on the apron one lap and ran me in the fence another lap, but I finally got by him. It all worked out, though.”
Early on, it looked as if Brown was going to walk away from the field and dominate the event. Miller started eighth and stayed there for the first 30 laps. Then he hit the turbo, motoring past cars to work up to third by lap 45. Brown held the lead with pole winner Burt Myers second and Miller third. Miller had his hands full with Myers before eventually taking second on lap 71 by putting his left side tires on the apron in turn one to pass Myers on the low side. That set up the battle between Miller, Brown and the lapped cars the next lap that decided the race.
“He can say he checked up and let me save it if he wants to, that’s fine with me. I would’ve done the same thing he did. I would’ve nudged him, but I wouldn’t have tried to crash him. I would’ve definitely let him know I was there, though.”
After the race, an ecstatic Miller and his Riggs Racing team celebrated in Southern National’s victory lane. Brown was left to reflect on the move that cost him everything, admitting to picking the wrong line in traffic.
“Hell yeah I regret that, it cost me the race and the championship and I always will,” said Brown. “There ain’t nothing I can do about it now. I screwed up.
“I blame myself some, but I also blame those lapped cars for having no respect. I know who it is, so the next time they need respect I won’t give it to them. Hell, I don’t know, they might not have even known we were there and they might’ve had their hands full, but it’s still disappointing. To have a car that was as good as ours was tonight going for the race win with a championship on the line, it’s disappointing.”
After the race, Brown was left to ponder what happened on the track.
Junior Miller's #69 chariot
Just like in those gladiator movies, the champion was knocked down, but he was never out. Neither was Brown, until Miller struck the final finishing blow that won him another Modified championship. We will have more on the gladiator who remained “King of the Southern Modifieds” later this week on Speed51.com