TAMPA, FL – Every January for the past six years, Tyler Nicely has made the journey from his home in Owensboro, KY, to East Bay Raceway Park for the annual UMP Modified Winternationals and been shut out of Victory Lane each time. That was, until Thursday night.
With a swift move to the outside of defending Florida Speedweeks champion Lucas Lee with less than 10-to-go, Nicely grabbed the lead and fended off pressure from Tuesday night winner Drake Troutman in the final laps to claim one of the longest-awaited wins of his career.
“In my heart, it’s the biggest,” Nicely said. “I’ve tried so hard for the last six years to get one here.”
The win’s significance in his career only grows the further back in history you look. In the 2021 Winternationals opener, he was passed by Troutman (making his East Bay debut) for the lead just past the halfway point. In last year’s opener, he spun out all by himself while leading in the opening laps.
On Wednesday night, Nicely rode the struggle bus, dropping from his third-place starting spot all the way back to 16th before retiring and taking a DNF at the hands of a broken rear-end component. Just when all hope seemed lost, Nicely looked deep into his bag of tricks and pulled out his most powerful weapon – experience.
“After last night, I wanted to just load up and get ready for Volusia,” Nicely said. “My dad just told me to keep my head down. Me, Ryan, my shock guy, and Chase, we just put our heads together last night at dinner and went back to everything we knew.”
The changes he and the crew made took a few laps to show a difference, but Nicely immediately felt it come Feature time.
“When the green flag flew, I actually had the feeling in the race car that I’ve been wanting all week,” Nicely said. “I just kept my head on my shoulders and took the positions when I could get them, and it paid off.”
Unlike Tuesday and Wednesday, Nicely did not win his Heat Race on Thursday, forcing him to come from ninth on the Feature starting grid. He took the green and immediately was on the move, cracking into the top-five in only seven laps.
At the head of the field, outside polesitter Denny Schwartz was on a mission, leading the first 22 laps of the 30-lap event. Lucas Lee was his biggest competition throughout and crept underneath him for the lead in traffic on Lap 23. As Lee took the position away and crossed the stripe, Schwartz made the frontstretch a bit too wide and made heavy contact with the wall, coming to a stop just before Turn 1.
This gave Lee the lead for the first time all week. Nicely restarted right behind him in third and made the most of it, getting a big run into Turn 3 on the high side and powering around the outside of Lee for the lead in Turn 4.
Then came Nicely’s toughest test. Troutman had been riding top-five all race, and on a restart with seven-to-go, shot around Lee for second and made a beeline for the leader. Nicely had taken notice and devised a plan to defend his lead.
“I wanted to make sure he was going to have to pass me on the bottom,” Nicely said. “I was just trying to make it a big circle as much as I could to keep the momentum up. My guys were motioning me to go to the bottom, but my front-end was just way too unstable for down there.”
And defend the lead he did. Try as Troutman may, Nicely was able to hold him off the rest of the distance.
“I just found a pretty good spot on the racetrack where I could take it and run with it,” Troutman said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of places on the track tonight that wasn’t slippery. I kinda found that spot where I could get a good run on [Nicely], but it just wasn’t good enough.”
Troutman did cross the stripe in second, however, making it three-straight top-five finishes at East Bay this week and five total top-fives in five Speedweeks starts. East Bay has, overall, been kind to the 17-year-old from Hyndman, PA, and it showed again Thursday night.
“It was very technical, but that’s the glory with this place,” Troutman said. “That’s what I love about it.”
Completing the podium was multi-time East Bay track champion Bryan Bernhardt, who made and incredible drive from dead-last 24th on the starting grid all the way up to third in 29 laps. The 21-spot improvement gave him his best finish of the week and will bode well for his Winternationals event points total, which will lock the top-six into Saturday’s 75-lap, $5,000-to-win finale at the conclusion of Friday’s events.
The fourth and final night of preliminary UMP Modified Winternationals action hits the dirt of East Bay Raceway Park Friday night, Feb. 3. Hot Laps are set for 6pm. If you can’t be at the track, Follow DIRTcar Racing on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for live updates throughout the program.
A Feature 1 (30 Laps): 1. 25N-Tyler Nicely; 2. 5-Drake Troutman; 3. 69B-Bryan Bernhardt; 4. 145-Kyle Hammer; 5. 12-Lucas Lee; 6. 2-Devin Dixon; 7. 99-Blake Brown; 8. 24-Zeke McKenzie; 9. 40-Kevin Adams; 10. 20-Brian Skaggs; 11. 54-Jason Kinney; 12. 18C-Miles Cook II; 13. 33W-Rodney Wing; 14. 1H-Ben Harmon; 15. 90-Tim Gay; 16. 9PG-Percy Gendreau; 17. 5X-Joe Godsey; 18. 7-Brad Deyoung; 19. 25-LJ Grimm; 20. 22-Austen Becerra; 21. 21S-Denny Schwartz; 22. 205-Travis Varnadore; 23. 56-Chris Wilson; 24. 70B-Shane Burrows