BARBERVILLE, FL – In the most grueling stretches of DIRTcar UMP Modified racing in the country, few will survive and even fewer thrive. Kyle Strickler and Lucas Lee were part of an exclusive group to do a lot of thriving in the past three weeks, and now wear the gold for their respective DIRTcar preseason accomplishments.
Kyle Strickler – 2023 DIRTcar Nationals Gator Points Champion
With three wins and no finishes outside the top-five in each of the five races he started at Volusia Speedway Park during the 52nd Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals, Kyle Strickler clinched his first career Big Gator trophy as points champion of the UMP Modified division.
Strickler, the 39-year-old Modified/Late Model racer from Mooresville, NC, is the proud owner of three Big Gator trophies in his cabinet, but none were awarded for DIRTcar Nationals points championships. He garnered the golden, life-size figures by way of three career Gator Championship Feature wins (2018, 2019, 2023). By Friday night, he had still yet to win one on overall event points, awarded for Feature finishes throughout the week.
As of Saturday night, that has all changed. Holding onto a five-point lead in the final night of competition, a heavy rain shower descended over the track, canceling the night’s events and cementing the points standings as they were to start the night – with Strickler on top.
Diving into the history books, it’s Strickler and Melanie Motorsports’ first DIRTcar Nationals points championship as a driver-team duo. Car owners Charlie and Melanie Donaldson are one of Strickler’s longest supporters, having been there for him since he moved to North Carolina over 15 years ago.
“It’s awesome for us to get our first points gator together,” Strickler said “We’ve won a lot of big races together, and it’s awesome for me to finally accomplish that points deal. I’ve never really been a great points racer. Trying to put a whole week together with the format being a little different, it definitely changed things up.
“It definitely means a lot.”
Strickler came into the 2023 DIRTcar Nationals with nine Feature wins in the event and is leaving with 12. With wins on Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, plus finishes of second (Tuesday) and fifth (Thursday, run on Friday), it was, statistically, one of Strickler’s best weeks at Volusia.
“I think a lot of that is just preparation and having great people behind you, and Late Model racing,” Strickler said. “Late Model racing will make you grow up and become way more of a professional race team than what you could get away with for so many years with the Modified stuff.
“I think I’m a little smarter as far as mentally running a race, and how I operate. I’m not just on the gas and hammer-down all the time and tearing stuff up.”
Most importantly to him, he’s having fun. So often does Strickler talk about his enjoyment in the seat of the 800-horse, open-wheel cars – a lot of which was had by him and the crew this week.
“I still love driving the Modified,” Strickler said. “It’s just a blast to be able to come out here and hang out with all my Modified buddies, and be able to be successful and win as many races as we did. It definitely means a lot to me.”
Lucas Lee – 2023 UMP Modified Florida Speedweeks Champion
In one of the most dramatic points battles seen in Modified racing over the last several years, Lucas Lee sealed his second career Speedweeks points title by 26 points over 2020 champion Tyler Nicely and rising UMP Modified star Drake Troutman.
Saturday’s rainout was the final nail in the coffin for Lee’s two closest competitors. The three swapped points positions multiple times over the 12-race/15-day stretch, keeping the storylines fresh as they chased the $2,000 grand prize through three different tracks in three weeks.
Lee’s run to back-to-back Speedweeks titles began with a win on January 29 at North Florida Speedway in Lake City – a track he finished runner-up at on three separate occasions over the track’s four previous Winternationals events held. Then it was off to East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa, where another two Feature wins greeted him, including the $5,000 Winternationals finale on Saturday night.
A fourth victory came in the opening night of DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia on Monday – four days before recording his best career finish in the Gator Championship Feature on Friday – a runner-up result for the Tennessean.
“My car was good the whole time,” Lee said. “I wanted to win all the finales, and we were close last night. Didn’t need lapped traffic.”
“All-in-all, I’m just here to race.”
Armed with two Elite Chassis, built by seven-time DIRTcar Nationals champion Nick Hoffman, Lee stayed out of trouble and put up three top-fives and four top-10s in five Feature starts to carry him past Troutman in the standings at road’s end.
“It is cool,” Lee said. “It just shows the equipment that we’ve got. If we wouldn’t have had that one mess-up there [on Tuesday night], I think we probably got us a Gator Championship or two.
“It’s probably one of the best times I’ve ever had here.”