SYLVANIA, Ga. (Feb. 5) — Josh Richards is back. After being sidelined for most of the 2014 season with nerve damage to his hands, the Shinnston, W.Va., driver returned to victory lane Thursday night, capturing a $5,000 triumph in the opening night of Screven Motor Speedway’s Winter Freeze V.
Lowering the track record in time trials, Richards started on the pole of the 40-lap feature, charging to an early lead over outside front row starter Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., and third-starting Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill.
The three-time World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion looked as though he might go unchallenged in the early running, lapping the tail end of the field by the 12th circuit. But on lap 22, second-running Moyer slowed on the frontstretch to draw a caution, bringing the field back together.
Advancing from the seventh starting position up to third, Casey Roberts of Toccoa, Ga., gained momentum on the ensuing restart, battling side-by-side with Richards for the lead. On the 29th lap, Roberts slid ahead of Richards in turn two. Richards returned the slider in turn four, colliding with Roberts in the process and regaining the lead.
Richards led the remaining distance for the win, with Heckenast notching a runner-up finish. Roberts held on to finish third, with Morgan Bagley of Longview, Texas, advancing five spots for a fourth-place run. Brandon Overton of Appling, Ga., rounded out the top five.
While a victory in the opening night of Georgia-Florida Speedweeks is a confidence booster, the win means that much more to Richards, whose racing career hung in the balance last season.
“It was more than just sitting out, it was a matter of I didn’t think I was going to race again. Ever,” Richards said. “That was really tough. It was hard to be around it, but I still enjoyed helping people and trying to figure out how I could make it work and still be involved in racing.
“I just wanted to come down here and be competitive and contend for a win. To win the first night, we still have a long trip to go. Hopefully we can keep the streak alive and just go out there and have fun and do what we can.”
A runner-up finish was a strong start to Heckenast’s Speedweeks campaign. The 26-year-old battled with Moyer for the second-place spot in the early running of Thursday’s feature.
“His car was really good on the long runs and I was good on the shorter runs,” Heckenast said. “He couldn’t move around in lapped traffic like I could. We got in lapped traffic and it was all over. He and Josh were pulling away a bit. It would have been a fun race though. We still had 18 laps to go when he broke, so who knows what could have happened.
“We got a little bit of work to do on our motor and stuff. It’s running good, but we’ve got some fuel problems. We’ll get that figured out and hopefully come back tomorrow and get another top-five.”
The race was slowed by two cautions. Tim McCreadie spun to draw the first yellow on the fourth lap. Moyer fell off the pace on lap 22 for the second caution. Rodney Sanders of Happy, Texas, and Dale McDowell of Chickamauga, Ga., were among early retirees from Thursday’s main event.
After an early battle, polesitter Morgan Bagley slid to the inside of second-starting Dustin Mitchell in turn four, charging to the lead just before halfway mark. Bagley dominated the final laps, with Mitchell holding off third-place finisher Dale McDowell for the runner-up spot. Jordan Yaggy finished fourth, with Pancho Lawler taking the fifth-place spot. Brian Ligon grabbed the sixth and final transfer spot.
Finish: Morgan Bagley, Dustin Mitchell, Dale McDowell, Jordan Yaggy, Pancho Lawler, Brian Ligon, Chad Hollenbeck, Josh Knoll, Jim Manka
Outside polesitter Casey Barrow jumped to an early lead, with Jordy Nipper and Tony Knowles battling side-by-side for the second-place spot. Second-running Nipper got in to the turn-two wall on the final lap, with Knowles taking advantage to finish second. Boom Briggs advanced two spots to finish third, with Steve Casebolt taking the fourth-place spot. Polesitter Eric Wells dropped back to finish fifth, with Jason Jameson improving three spots to transfer to the feature.
Finish: Casey Barrow, Tony Knowles, Boom Briggs, Steve Casebolt, Eric Wells, Jason Jameson, Austin Smith, Phil Pittman, Jordy Nipper.
Polesitter Casey Roberts led all eight laps, with second-starting Rick Eckert and third-starting Kyle Beard holding on to their starting positions. Chase Junghans improved four spots to finish fourth, with Rodney Sanders finishing fifth. Tim McCreadie grabbed the sixth and final transfer spot.
Finish: Casey Roberts, Eckert, Kyle Beard, Chase Junghans, Rodney Sanders, Tim McCreadie, Riley Hickman, Gib Gibbons, Dan Stone
Consolation race lineups
(Eight laps; top six transfer)
Row 1: Casey Roberts, Kyle Beard
Row 2: Rick Eckert, Tim McCreadie
Row 3: Rodney Sanders, Riley Hickman
Row 4: Gib Gibbons, Chase Junghans
Row 5: Dan Stone, Johnny Ridgen
Row 1: Eric Wells, Casey Barrow
Row 2: Jordy Nipper, Tony Knowles
Row 3: Boom Briggs, Steve Casebolt
Row 4: Austin Smith, Phil Pittman
Row 5: Jason Jameson
Row 1: Morgan Bagley, Dustin Mitchell
Row 2: Dale McDowell, Jim Manka
Row 3: Jordan Yaggy, Brian Ligon
Row 4: Chad Hollenbeck, Pancho Lawler
Row 5: Josh Knoll
Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., lowered the track record in time trials with a time of 14.468. The previous track record, a time of 14.692, was held by Dennis Franklin of Gaffney, S.C. The top-six qualifiers, including Richards, Billy Moyer, Frank Heckenast Jr., Shane Clanton, Mason Zeigler and Brandon Overton, are locked in to the feature event.
Thursday’s $5,000-to-win program is unsanctioned, while Friday and Saturday’s shows will include a pair of $10,000-to-win World of Outlaws Late Model Series events. … Speedweeks action returns to Screven Motor Speedway after last year’s Winter Freeze events were cancelled because of weather. … Wednesday’s practice night was rained out, but the weather is favorable for Thursday’s program. … While teammate Jason Jameson is set to enter Thursday’s non-points event, three-time World of Outlaws champion Darrell Lanigan will not compete until Friday night. ... Along with Lanigan, World of Outlaws competitor Chub Frank will also sit out on Thursday. … Rick Eckert is set to make his debut with his new Paul Crowl-Viper Motorsports race team. ... Modified standout Rodney Sanders of Happy, Texas, will make his Late Model Speedweeks debut in Thursday's event.
Josh Richards (1), Shinnston, W.Va., 14.468
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 14.632
Mason Zeigler (25Z), Chalk Hill, Pa. , 14.650
Kyle Beard (86), Trumann, Ark., 14.898
Jordy Nipper (1N), Gray, Ga., 15.051
Tony Knowles (26), Tyrone, Ga., 15.178
Phil Pittman (3), Cochran, Ga., 15.630
Pancho Lawler (93), Hanover, Pa., 15.685
Johnny Ridgen (22), Clayton, Ga., no time
Shane Clanton (25), Zebulon, Ga., 14.650
Casey Roberts (101), Toccoa, Ga., 14.734
Morgan Bagley (14M), Longview, Texas, 14.821
Tim McCreadie (39), Watertown, N.Y., 15.090
Brian Ligon (4), Augusta, Ga., 15.456
Josh Knoll (87), Lake, Mich., 15.467
Gib Gibbons (07), Manning, S.C., 15.540
Eric Wells (18), Hazard, Ky., 15.628
Dan Stone (21D), Thompson, Pa., 15.730
Dustin Mitchell (D8), Pine Level, N.C., 14.977
Rick Eckert (7V), York, Pa., 14.990
Dale McDowell (17M), Chickamauga, Ga., 15.051
Jim Manka (60), Rincon, Ga., 15.127
Riley Hickman (R1), Ooltewah, Tenn., 15.371
Steve Casebolt (C9), Richmond, Ind., 15.417
Chad Hollenbeck (4DS), Kingsley, Pa., 15.610
Jason Jameson (12), Lawrenceburg, Ind., 15.757
Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., 14.624
Brandon Overton (76), Appling, Ga., 14.694
Chase Junghans (18J), Manhattan, Kan., 14.801
Casey Barrow (98), Savannah, Ga., 14.952
Boom Briggs (99B), Bear Lake, Pa., 15.272
Jordan Yaggy (77), Rochester, Minn., 15.329
Austin Smith (11), Cedartown, Ga., 15.546
Rodney Sanders (20), Happy, Texas, 15.147