LAKE ODESSA, Mich. (July 12) — The victory Jason Feger badly needed on the DIRTcar Summer Nationals came with just a couple races to spare.
With the Hell Tour winding down to its final nights, the 40-year-old driver from Bloomington, Ill., came alive on the inside of the track to overtake Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., for the lead on lap 36 and then held on to finally score his first series triumph of 2018 in Thursday night's 40-lap Dan Salay Memorial at I-96 Speedway.
Not surprisingly, Feger let out an enormous sigh of relief after shaking off his month-long struggles to pocket $5,070 — a total that included an extra $70 because the feature offered $14-per-circuit in lap-leader bonuses — for his first Summer Nationals win since July 9, 2017, at Kickapoo Speedway in Danville, Ill.
“It’s definitely been a long Summer Nationals,” Feger said while sipping a celebratory beer and still wearing his driver’s uniform nearly an hour after the checkered flag. “It’s been a long summer, period. We’ve been in a pretty good drought here and it feels good to finally get the monkey off our back.
“The last couple days we had some bad luck and weren’t very good and kind of got down. I was starting to think we weren’t gonna get one. And I don’t think I’d have believed you if you told me I was gonna get one here tonight, especially as bad as we qualified and after we weren’t really that good in the heat race, but we got it done.”
When Feger passed Moyer for the top spot in the waning circuits, it marked the first lap he had led in this year’s 22 Summer Nationals A-mains. He wasn’t about to give it up, though he certainly didn’t waltz uncontested to victory lane.
Rusty Schlenk, a native of Jackson, Mich., who now lives in McClure, Ohio, charged around the extreme outside of the 4/10-mile oval to make a final, furious bid for the race’s top prize. But he slipped over the cushion in turns three and four on the last circuit, allowing Moyer to beat him to the finish line for the runner-up spot, 0.755 of a second behind Feger.
Schlenk settled for a third-place finish, a mere 0.073 of a second in arrears of Moyer. Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., who was in the late-race battle for the lead as well, finished fourth — his fourth consecutive top-five finish on the Summer Nationals — and Rich Bell of Sheffield, Ill., placed fifth after slipping past Travis Stemler of Ionia, Mich., and presumptive Hell Tour champion Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., over the final nine laps.
Feger started seventh, his expectations for contention tempered because his XR1 Rocket machine’s performance hadn’t impressed him earlier in the program. But the car he had for the 40-lapper clearly had improved from qualifying and heat-race action.
As the polesitting Schlenk and fifth-starting Moyer battled at the front of the pack early — Schlenk led laps 1-8 and 10-12, with Moyer nosing ahead on lap nine before gaining control long-term on lap 13 — Feger clawed forward. The 2010 Summer Nationals champion took third from Heckenast on a lap-five restart and began challenging Schlenk for second after a lap-15 caution period.
“We were good in the feature there,” Feger said. “We’ve been better when the track slicks off, and we made some adjustments. I guess that’s part of not being good early — we can make some decent adjustments before the feature. It’s kind of like you know you don’t really have anything to lose because you know you don’t have a car to win, so we kind of took a swing the other way.
“We’ve been struggling this year but we keep taking swings at it, and maybe we might have stumbled on a little something tonight for the feature.”
Feger actually went against the grain with his approach during the race’s second half, sticking primarily to the very inside of the track rather than living up to his Highside Hustler nickname.
“I felt like I was good through the middle,” Feger said. “I never really had to go to the top, but the couple times I went up there I felt decent and could maintain with Rusty and I wasn’t even really pushing that hard.
“I was just really good down there (running the bottom) and kept plugging away,” he continued. “That’s definitely not my speciality, but when I could hit my marks right in (turns) three and four I felt really good. It was just a really fine line of being able to hit ‘em and not ‘em — and I really like charging the corner so it’s hard for me to get whoahed up to hit it right, but I was able to do it enough to pull out a win.”
Feger’s moment of truth came after the race’s fourth and final caution flag flew on lap 31. Sitting in second place, he had to decide whether to take the inside or outside lane for the Delaware double-file restart.
“I was really torn on the restart there,” said Feger, who moved past the absent Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., for second in the Summer Nationals points standings. “I was real worried on that last restart because the time before (Schlenk) got a really good start and was able to challenge for four or five laps on that outside before we kind of got rolling again. I was actually gonna choose the outside and my guys were up there (outside the track) flipping out, going crazy and telling me to take the bottom, so I thought they must have seen something I didn’t.
“I really thought the only chance I was gonna have was to go around the outside of Billy. I thought he was probably gonna protect the bottom a little bit more. I don’t know if he was just too tight to get down there or what, but I had enough room to get by him.”
Indeed, Feger stayed smooth and steady on the inside and surged ahead of Moyer as lap 36 was scored, giving his victory an extra flourish.
“He’s one of the best to race with. He always races you clean,” Feger said of Moyer. “He’s definitely one of the best ever and we’ve been fortunate enough to race with him quite a few times over the years, especially on this (Summer Nationals) deal. It’s even better when you get to beat him because it doesn’t happen that often.”
Moyer couldn’t keep up with Feger, though, after losing second to Schlenk on lap 37, he snatched the position back off the final corner when Schlenk bobbled in the cushion.
“This is a different car we wanted to play with a little bit and we couldn’t get going all night,” said Moyer, who pulled out a Moyer Victory Race Car he hadn’t raced since last year. “It surprised me we come through there the way we did.
“Last night it (his other car) was going away bad (in the final laps though he held on to score his 100th career Summer Nationals win at Thunderbird Raceway in Muskegon, Mich.). Our tire situation here … something’s going on we gotta look at. It just wasn’t good there at the end (again).”
The 60-year-old Moyer complimented Feger’s run, however.
“Jason, he needed one for sure,” Moyer said. “He done a good job tonight. His car was pretty darn good there.”
Schlenk, meanwhile, fell short of gaining his first win of the 2018 Summer Nationals. His C.J. Rayburn-built mount simply wasn’t fast enough during extended green-flag stretches.
“Every time that right-rear would fire I’d just get way too tight,” Schlenk said. “So under caution … man, I just tried getting them tires as cool as I could running through the water and stuff down in the infield. I knew if I had four- or five- or six-lap runs, I was better than everybody because I could steer.
“I knew we had a shot at it that last run (following the lap-31 restart), but that run was a little bit too long for me. I needed a caution there with about three to go. I found a line there at the end and I was actually reeling them back in a little bit. If we’d have had two more laps I think I could’ve gave Feger a run for his money, but it was the white-flag lap so I just drove it into three as deep as I could and there wasn’t nothing to hold me down there so I drove off the top and let Moyer back by me.
“But I’ll take it,” he added. “We finally got this monkey off our back I think and we’re running good and competing for wins.”
The race was slowed by four caution flags, none more significant than the first on lap four when Shirley and Heckenast came together and spun in turn four while racing in second and fourth, respectively. Shirley said his car lost its brakes as he entered turn three that circuit, causing him to slide high and get stuck momentarily in the cushion between the corners. Heckenast, charging hard on the outside of Moyer, hit Shirley’s suddenly slowed car and both drivers twirled.
Heckenast managed to keep his car’s wheels turning and drove away, allowing him to keep his spot. But Shirley came to a stop on the inside of the track and had to restart at the rear of the field; he rallied to climb as high as sixth before ultimately finishing ninth.
Other cautions flew on lap five for a turn-four spin by Scott Fisk of Saranac, Mich.; lap 15 for the slowing car driven by Kevin Reeve of Hanover, Mich.; and lap 31 when Jason Playter Jr. of Saranac, Mich., slid over the turn-four bank and had his car flare up momentarily.
Notes: Feger’s 19th career Summer Nationals win came in the circuit’s first visit to I-96 since 2014. … The race was run in memory of the late Dan Salay, the father of Traverse City, Mich., driver Brandon Thirlby’s long-time girlfriend, Leah, and grandfather of Brandon and Leah’s infant daughter. Thirlby finished sixth in the feature after starting 12th. … Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., drove Schlenk’s second car in the feature after his family-owned machine was sidelined by a broken engine rod during hot laps. Gundaker pulled off after 19 laps and finished 22nd, dropping him to sixth in the Summer Nationals points standings behind Schlenk. … Lap money was split between Moyer ($336), Schlenk ($154) and Feger ($70). … The Summer Nationals schedule concludes on Friday and Saturday with a doubleheader at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio. Friday’s program pays $5,000 to win and Saturday’s 60-lap Birthday Race offers a $10,000 first-place prize.
With some darker clouds building to the north of the track and threatening showers, the Summit Equipment Modified Tour feature took the green flag at 9:22 p.m. The 40-lap Late Model feature will immediately follow its completion. … Rusty Schlenk earned the pole position for the feature with a victory in the 6-lap dash for the top-two finishers in each heat race. He also earned $500 for the win, which came after he spun on the original start but didn’t lose his position because Billy Moyer spun as well, making it a two-car incident. … Brian Shirley finished second in the dash, followed by Eric Spangler, Frank Heckenast Jr., Moyer and Rich Bell. … Gordy Gundaker’s night was short-circuited during hot laps due to a broken rod in his car’s engine, sidelining the machine for the remainder of qualifying. Armed with a series provisional, however, he landed a ride in Schlenk’s second car to start the feature. That’s some solid sportsmanship from Schlenk, who sits sixth in the Hell Tour points standings, just two points behind Gundaker. … Mike Spatola finished second in the consolation with his backup car after his primary machine was struck by terminal engine trouble on his second qualifying circuit. … Paul Stubber’s crew had to replace his car’s nosepiece after he slid off the track during his heat race. He will use a provisional to start the A-main.
Row 1: Rusty Schlenk, Brian Shirley
Row 2: Eric Spangler, Frank Heckenast Jr.
Row 3: Billy Moyer, Rich Bell
Row 4: Jason Feger, David Mielke
Row 5: Dona Marcoullier, Garrett Wiles
Row 6: Travis Stemler, Brandon Thirlby
Row 7: Jason Playter Jr., Logan Arntz
Row 8: Nick Kurtz, Kevin Reeve
Row 9: Mike Spatola, Scott Fisk
Row 10: Gordy Gundaker, Bob Mayer
Row 11: Paul Stubber, Jake Rendel
Row 12: Chuck Hummer, Cameron Pearson
Finish (8 laps; top 3 transfer): Kevin Reeve, Mike Spatola, Scott Fisk, Paul Stubber, Jake Rendel, Chuck Hummer, Bob Mayer, Cameron Pearson.
(10 laps; top 3 transfer)
Row 1: Jake Rendel, Cameron Pearson
Row 2: Kevin Reeve, Bob Mayer
Row 3: Paul Stubber, Scott Fisk
Row 4: Gordy Gundaker, Mike Spatola
Row 5: Chuck Hummer
Brian Shirley dominated the prelim, leading every lap and beating Billy Moyer by a convincing margin of 2.802 seconds. Michigan drivers Dona Marcoullier, Brandon Thirlby and Nick Kurtz completed the top five.
Finish: Brian Shirley, Billy Moyer, Dona Marcoullier, Brandon Thirlby, Nick Kurtz, Kevin Reeve, Scott Fisk, Chuck Hummer.
Rusty Schlenk shook off an early threat from Frank Heckenast Jr. en route to a flag-to-flag triumph. Heckenast was able to mount one final charge on the last lap but fell 0.278 of a second short at the checkered flag.
Finish: Rusty Schlenk, Frank Heckenast Jr., David Mielke, Travis Stemler, Logan Artnz, Cameron Pearson, Paul Stubber, Mike Spatola.
Eric Spangler grabbed the lead from Jason Playter Jr. on lap two and wasn’t headed the remainder of the distance, but the Michigan driver had to hold off a strong late-race challenge from Rich Bell to preserve a narrow victory margin of 0.248 of a second. Jason Feger finished a distant third, Garrett Wiles was fourth and Playter placed fifth after sliding over the turn-four bank on lap two.
Finish: Eric Spangler, Rich Bell, Jason Feger, Garrett Wiles, Jason Playter Jr., Jake Rendel, Bob Mayer (DNS) Gordy Gundaker.
Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., registered his fourth fast time of the 2018 Summer Nationals, turning the overall quickest lap of 16.184 seconds in the group qualifying session. He secured the pole position for the second heat as well as a $500 bonus.
Other group fast-timers were Jason Playter Jr. of Saranac, Mich. (16.622) and Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill. (16.238), earning them pole starts in the first and third heats, respectively.
Mike Spatola of Manhattan, Ill., experienced trouble during the second qualifying group when his car lost power on his second lap. He was fifth-fastest in the group but limped into the pit area and shortly thereafter decided to relinquish his starting spot and tag the rear with his backup car.
In addition, Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., and Chuck Hummer of Lyons, Ohio, did not come out for qualifying after having mechanical problems during hot laps.
Comfortable conditions — partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 80s — prevailed as teams prepared for the evening’s Summer Nationals action. … I-96 Speedway’s Hell Tour program is being run in memory of the late Dan Salay, the father of Traverse City, Mich., driver Brandon Thirlby’s longtime girlfriend, Leah, and grandfather of Brandon and Leah’s infant daughter. A key member of Thirlby’s team, Salay passed away last September after battling cancer. … All 40 laps of the feature are sponsored at $14 apiece, giving drivers an opportunity to earn extra cash by leading laps. … Thirlby is confident that he can make a bid for a victory that would undoubtedly be emotional for him and his racing operation. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, “but if there’s one place this week I feel we have a real good shot at it’s here.” … Rusty Schlenk, a native of Jackson, Mich., who now lives in McClure, Ohio, enters I-96’s program coming off a 19th-to-fifth run in Wednesday night’s feature at Thunderbird Raceway in Muskegon, Mich. He used a provisional to gain entry to the A-main after a heat-race scrape bent his right-rear wheel and then he decided during the B-main to relinquish his second-place transfer spot because he wanted to change to his other car for the feature. “I let (Jason) Playter by for the last transfer spot (in the B) because I didn’t like how my car felt,” said Schlenk, who related that the car’s setup was thrown off by the lighter engine he bolted in it. “He’s a friend of mine and I knew I was gonna get out my other car, so I let him in and took my provisional.” … Presumptive Summer Nationals champion Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., parked the car that had its motor break while he led Wednesday’s feature at Thunderbird and is running his other Bob Cullen-owned machine. … Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., and Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., took a break from the Summer Nationals grind on Thursday afternoon, visiting the water park at the Michigan’s Adventure amusement park near Thunderbird with their team members for some wet R&R.
The two-race DIRTcar Summer Nationals swing through the Michigan begins concludes a Thursday-night stop at I-96 Speedway, a 3/8-mile oval about a half-hour east of Grand Rapids.
Thursday’s 40-lap, $5,000-to-win show marks the Hell Tour’s first visit to I-96 since current points leader and likely champion Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., was victorious in 2014. The series previously ran at the track five other times, with Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., winning in 2005, ’11, ’12 and ’13 and Jeep VanWormer of Pinconning, Mich, capturing the 2010 event.
I-96 is Round 23 of the Summer Nationals, which will round out its 2018 schedule on Friday and Saturday at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio.
Group Qualifying results/heat lineups
(10 laps; top 5 transfer)
Jason Playter Jr. (4), Saranac, Mich., 16.622
Eric Spangler (27s), Lake City, Mich., 16.744
Rich Bell (21b), Sheffield, Ill., 16.800
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 16.961
Garrett Wiles (16), Hubbardstown, Mich., 17.005
Jake Rendel (06), Adrian, Mich., 17.920
Bob Mayer (42*), Holland, Ohio, 17.989
Gordy Gundaker (11G), St. Charles, Mo., no time
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 16.184
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 16.218
David Mielke (87M), Gladwin, Mich., 16.462
Logan Arntz (21A), Vestaburg, Mich., 16.502
Mike Spatola (89), Manhattan, Ill., 16.666
Travis Stemler (2s), Ionia, Mich., 16.750
Cameron Pearson (10AUS), Healesville, Australia, 16.832
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 17.584
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 16.238
Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., 16.392
Brandon Thirlby (M14), Traverse City, Mich., 16.473
Scott Fisk (12), Saranac, Mich., 16.473
Dona Marcoullier (6M), Houghton Lake, Mich., 16.626
Nick Kurtz (79), Gowen, Mich., 16.738
Kevin Reeve (45), Hanover, Mich., 17.019
Chuck Hummer (25H), Lyons, Ohio, no time