BARBERVILLE, FL – Kyle Strickler entered Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals hoping to sweep the week. While he missed out on a couple potential wins, he found himself holding the biggest trophy of the week early Saturday morning.
Strickler won the coveted DIRTcar UMP Modified Gator Championship Feature for the third time in his career at Volusia Speedway Park, claiming the $5,000 payday and the iconic life-size gator trophy.
“This is so awesome, I love this Modified week,” Strickler said in Victory Lane. “So much fun doing it, being able to get all the wins.”
The 30-lap Feature saw multi-time DIRTcar regional champion Michael Long and three-time NASCAR Truck Series champion Matt Crafton on the front row of the 33-car field. However, when the green flag dropped, Crafton dropped while Long pulled away with the lead.
Strickler, who started third, stole second from Crafton on the first lap and then began his hunt for Long. Maneuvering through the grip-loaded bumps in Turn 1, Strickler crept closer and closer to Long each lap.
On Lap 7, Strickler got a run under Long through Turns 1 and 2 and held it all the way down the backstretch before throwing his Longhorn Chassis #8 deep into Turn 3 to slide ahead of Long.
“I knew I had to make a move and try to get around Long as soon as I could,” Strickler said. “I saw the door open a little bit, held ‘er to the wood, and sent ‘er in there.”
Three laps later, the first caution of the night arose for two cars spun around in Turn 4. Under yellow, two of the biggest names in the race suffered issues that ended their night – Long and three-time winner this week, Ethan Dotson.
Dotson, the DIRTcar Nationals rookie from Bakersfield, CA, broke a driveshaft slip yoke on Lap 2, immediately sending him to the pits as the field stayed green. Long appeared to have a left-rear tire flat, but decided to head back to his pit stall, nose first.
When the race resumed, fourth-starting Drake Troutman decided to take advantage and dove under Strickler on the bottom through Turns 1-2. He stayed beside Strickler down the backstretch and nearly made the pass into Turn 3, but it was all for naught. His car appeared to suddenly lose power as he came by the flag stand and stopped on track in Turn 2, bringing out another caution and ending his night.
Lucas Lee soon found himself in second thanks to Troutman’s misfortune, and NASCAR Cup Series driver Justin Haley rode third, looking for his fourth win of the week.
Lee gave Strickler the biggest challenge of the night when the race resumed, diving underneath him on the start and staying on his bumper the to the halfway point. And while Lee tried to give Strickler a fit, Haley began to close in.
On Lap 19, Lee got his best look at the lead, racing side-by-side with Strickler around the half-mile track, but Strickler had the better run around the high side and continued to pull ahead with the advantage as they approached the tail of the field.
Their battle reached a boiling point on Lap 21, where a gaggle of lapped cars appeared double-file right in front of Strickler and Lee as they raced out of Turn 2. Initially, they both committed to their first reaction and tried to go right through the middle of a slower Evan Taylor on the top and Travis Pastrana on the bottom, but Lee wisely backed out of it at the last second before disaster.
“I was just staying on the bottom, and then the lapped cars played a big factor there and kinda hurt me,” Lee said. “That’s where I was staying, so.”
Strickler shot the gap through the two lapped cars and got away safely in traffic. That move proved to be the deciding factor in the chase for the lead as Lee was unable to make the ground back up by the checkered flag.
“They were slipping and sliding around, and I came off the cushion and split through them,” Strickler said. “It allowed me to get a little bit of breathing room there.”
Strickler turned on the jets in the final laps, stretching his gap to Lee out to over two seconds as he crossed underneath the checkered flag to claim victory in the prestigious Speedweeks event.
Despite his best efforts to catch the leaders in the second half of the race, Haley came up two spots short of his first Big Gator trophy. Still, three Feature wins and his best career finish in the Gator Championship Feature say a lot about the young Indianan’s skill in a Modified for the few times per year his schedule allows him to put it on track.
“I just got caught-up in lapped traffic, and that’s really what cost us,” Haley said. “I think we were probably the best car. It’s kinda… bittersweet.”
Three-time winner this week Tyler Nicely crossed the line fourth, while 2021 Gator Championship winner Justin Allgaier made a great rebound from out of a Last Chance Showdown (19th on the starting grid) to complete the top-five.
The final day of competition for the DIRTcar UMP Modifieds at the 52nd annual Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals will settle the owner of the one remaining Big Gator trophy – awarded to the overall event points champion. One final program consisting of six Features, lined up by Qualifying, will cap-off the weekend and decide the division points champion.
Gator Championship Feature (30 Laps): 1. 8-Kyle Strickler; 2. 12L-Lucas Lee; 3. 99-Justin Haley; 4. 25-Tyler Nicely; 5. 7A-Justin Allgaier; 6. 95-Michael Altobelli; 7. 09-Michael Leach; 8. 77-George Dixon; 9. 88-Matt Crafton; 10. 21CZ-Benji LaCrosse; 11. 5CS-Curt Spalding; 12. 35-David Stremme; 13. 13-Charlie Mefford; 14. 8A-Austin Holcombe; 15. 777-Trevor Neville; 16. 145-Kyle Hammer; 17. 22B-Austen Becerra; 18. 60-Shannon Fisk; 19. 43A-Mark Anderson; 20. 7-Evan Taylor; 21. 199-Travis Pastrana; 22. 05-Dave Wietholder; 23. 24-Zeke McKenzie; 24. 99M-Mike Mullen; 25. 21J-Clay Harris; 26. 10Y-Trent Young; 27. 5T-Drake Troutman; 28. 4-Mike Learman; 29. 18L-Michael Long; 30. 1S-Brian Shaw; 31. 49-Brian Ruhlman; 32. 00B-Buzzie Reutimann; 33. 00E-Ethan Dotson