The DIRTcar Summer Nationals may be drawing to a close, but Frank Heckenast Jr. is just warming up. Heckenast, the 32-year-old driver from Frankfort, Ill., pulled away from Ryan Gustin of Marshalltown, Iowa, on a late restart in Thursday's Summer Nationals feature at Thunderbird Raceway and raced to his second series victory in three nights.
The second-starting Heckenast took the lead over polesitter Dona Marcoullier of Houghton Lake, Mich., on the start of the 40-lap race and survived two runs through heavy traffic on his way to winning by 1.079 seconds. Gustin settled for second, while Marcoullier edged series points leader Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., in a photo finish for third. Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., moved forward from the 13th starting spot to round out the top five.
Heckenast's victory adds to his best career season on the Summer Nationals. While he's a distant second to Shirley in the points chase with two races remaining, his three victories on this year's tour are more than he had in all previous seasons combined entering the year.
"I'm just trying to give it my all and things are starting to fall together," said Heckenast, who now has five career Summer Nationals wins. "I think I've been hurting on confidence more than anything. Now that the confidence is starting to come up the wins are coming and everything's starting to gel pretty good."
While he made have led every lap, the race was far from smooth sailing for Heckenast. He made contact with an infield tire midway through the race, making his XR1 Rocket car difficult to steer. That was a major inconvenience once the low-running Heckenast reached slower traffic around lap 20.
The slower cars allowed the high-running Gustin to quickly erase Heckenast's lead. Just as Gustin was pulling within striking distance, Heckenast abandoned the bottom groove and moved to the top side just as the race's first caution waved on lap 26. Heckenast remained on the faster top line once the race went back green and edged away from Gustin and the rest of the field.
Gustin again closed the gap once Heckenst reached traffic again with under 10 laps remaining, but a caution with three laps remaining gave Heckenast clear track ahead and denied Gustin the chance to pull off a late pass for the win.
"Gustin was really good," said Heckenast, who acknowledged that a signal from his crew member was what led him to move up on the racetrack as the hard-charing Gustin was approaching. "I hate it for him, but I've lost a ton of races with that happening. You're getting ready to smoke someone and a crew guy changes the outcome. That's happened to me before, and it's part of it.
"I hit that u-tire and couldn't steer like I needed to. So I was just trying to ride on the bottom and make it through the lapped cars. I finally seen (crew member) Corey about a half a lap before that caution. Then he made it clear (under the caution) I'd get passed if I didn't move up. I got up there after the caution and it was good from there. I guess the crew guys won the race for us tonight."
Gustin was happy with his runner-up performance, his best career Summer Nationals finish, especially considering he was running without brakes for much of the race.
"The longer the race went, the brakes got worse and worse," Gustin said. "I'm not making excuses because Frankie had it won and was better. But them long greens were tough. But it is what is. All in all, a pretty good night. A second place with these guys, we'll take it."
Marcoullier's third-place finish continued his career-best season that's seen him win seven of 16 starts while competing mostly weekly at Michigan tracks. He was satisfied with his solid run in his first start on the Summer Nationals this season, but he's looking forward to try to do even better in the tour's final two races on Friday and Saturday.
"I rode around too long on the bottom. The bottom was good early, but then the top cleaned up and Gustin got by me," Marcoullier said. "But I had fun. To run third with these guys is pretty awesome. We lived to race another day. We came home third, so we can put some times on it and go for it tomorrow."
The Summer Nationals makes its first appearance at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, Mich., on Friday for a $10,000-to-win event before heading to Merritt Speedway in Lake City, Mich., for the season finale on Saturday.
Ryan VanderVeen rallied from fourth to win the consolation race and earn his way into tonight's main event. Garrett Wiles used the high line to overtake low-running Tim Lance with two laps remaining for second and also earned a transfer to the feature. ... Ronnie Smith went up and over the turn-two guardrail during the consolation race; the former asphalt racer was OK.
Finish (12 laps; top two transfer): Ryan VanderVeen, Garrett Wiles, Tim Lance, Bill Bray, Greg Gokey, Nick Kurtz, Andy Sprague, Ryan Lanphierd, Derek Passenier, Brad Harden, Bob Gardner, Cody Bauer, Bryant Dickinson, Jeff Robertson, Brian Juusola, Tim Lance Jr., Ronnie Smith, Tom Sprague, Travis Stemler.
Heat race recap
Ryan Gustin drove away with the first heat race, topping Brian Shirley by 3.003 seconds. Jeep Van Wormer and Brandon Thirlby also transferred. ... Dona Marcoullier and Colten Burdette ran side by side for the first half of heat two before the low-running Marcoullier pulled ahead in the closing laps. Burdette settled for second with Rusty Schlenk just behind in third and Eric Spangler farther back in fourth. ... Second-starting Frank Heckenast Jr. and third-starting Jason Feger split polesitter Logan Nickerson on the first lap of heat three with Heckenast then pulling ahead and pulling away. Nickerson recovered to slip back by Feger late in the race and take second. Feger was third with Mike Vandermark fourth. ... Chad Finley cruised in the fourth and final heat race with Rich Bell holding off tail-starting Drake Troutman for second. Curtis Roberts also transferred. ... Bob Gardner's bad luck streak continued when he tagged the wall on his first qualifying lap and didn't get a time. Travis Stemler also didn't get a timed lap due to a dropped driveshaft on his first lap. Niether driver made it out for their heat race.
Heat race results
(10 laps; top four transfer)
First heat: Ryan Gustin, Brian Shirley, Jeep Van Wormer, Brandon Thirlby, Tim Lance, Nick Kurtz, Bryant Dickinson, Brian Juusola, Cody Bauer.
Second heat: Dona Marcoullier, Colten Burdette, Rusty Schlenk, Eric Spangler, Ryan VanderVeen, Brad Harden, Ryan Lanphierd, Tim Lance Jr. Scratched: Bob Gardner.
Third heat: Frank Heckenast Jr., Logan Nickerson, Jason Feger, Mike Vandermark, Greg Gokey, Billy Bray, Andy Sprague, Derek Passenier. Scratch: Travis Stemler.
Fourth heat: Chad Finley, Rich Bell, Drake Troutman, Curtis Roberts, Garrett Wiles, Ronnie Smith, Tom Sprague, Jeff Robertson.
Ryan Gustin (19r), Marshalltown, Iowa, 13.167
Dona Marcoullier (6M), Houghton Lake, Mich., 13.174
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 13.231
Colten Burdette (44), Parkersburg, W.Va., 13.304
Jeep Van Wormer (55), Pinconning, Mich., 13.318
Rusty Schlenk (91), McClure, Ohio, 13.517
Brandon Thirlby (M14), Traverse City, Mich., 13.564
Eric Spangler (27), Lake City, Mich., 13.635
Tim Lance (48), Brimfield, Ill., 13.759
Ryan VanderVeen (23v), Six Lakes, Mich., 13.878
Nick Kurtz (92), Greenville, Mich., 13.884
Tim Lance Jr., (48L), Brimfield, Ill., 14.290
Cody Bauer (19x), Farwell, Mich., 14.296
Ryan Lanphierd (11x), Midland, Mich., 14.367
Bryant Dickinson (5*), Ionia, Mich., 14.615
Brad Harden (52), Ovid, Mich., 14.716
Brian Juusola (20), Muskegon, Mich., 14.947
Bob Gardner (4G), East Peoria, Ill., No time
Logan Nickerson (21n), Vestaburg, Mich., 13.425
Chad Finley (42), DeWitt, Mich., 13.654
Frank Heckenast Jr., (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 13.789
Curtis Roberts (9r), Coleman, Mich., 13.809
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 13.951
Garrett Wiles (16), Hubbardston, Mich., 14.064
Bill Bray (94), Spring Lake, Mich., 14.229
Ronnie Smith (0), Grand Rapids, Mich., 14.237
Mike Vandermark (41), Cedar Springs, Mich., 14.314
Rich Bell (21), Sheffield, Ill., 14.352
Greg Gokey (50), Buckley, Mich., 14.382
Drake Troutman (7), Hyndman, Pa., 14.549
Andy Sprague (1s), Muskegon, Mich., 14.557
Tom Sprague (21s), Muskegon, Mich., 14.676
Derek Passenier (71), Muskegon, Mich., 14.963
Jeff Robertson (P3), Defiance, Ohio, 15.598
Travis Stemler (4), Ionia, Mich., No time
The DIRTcar Summer Nationals continues its season-ending trek through Michigan with a visit to Thunderbird Raceway. Thursday's $5,000-to-win event marks the third straight season the tour has visited the quarter-mile track.
Fresh off his victory Wednesday night at Butler Speedway in southern Michigan, series points leader Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., returns to a track he won at last season. Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., won the tour's event at Thunderbird in 2018, but he's not competing in this year's event.
Thursday's program features a full slate of series action including time trials, heat races, consolation races and a 40-lap main event. Open-wheel modifieds and four-cylinders are also in action with 38 mods and 48 four-cylinders signed in. The four-cylinder race is the $1,000-to-win Brandi Buchner Memorial.
6 p.m. - Drivers’ meeting
6:30 p.m. - Hot laps
- Super Late Model hot laps
- Modified hot laps/time trials
- Cyber stock hot laps
- Super Late Model time trials
- Super Late Model heats (10 laps)
- Cyber stock heats (10 laps)
- Modified heats (8 laps)
- Super Late Model consolation (10 laps)
- Cyber stock consolation (10 laps)
- Modified consolation (8 laps)
Intermission/track prep (if necessary
- Super Late Model feature (40 laps)
- Modified feature (25 laps)
- Cyber stock feature (20 laps)