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Holding a Pretty Wheel: The 2 NHMS Gems You Probably Didn’t See

Editor’s Note: It’s a merry-go-round this today, as Amy Henderson fills in for Tom Bowles on his column – who is himself filling in for Matt McLaughlin. But don’t worry, things will all be back to normal next week….

Each Monday in the Frontstretch newsletter, Tom Bowles brings readers the “Secret Star of the Race.” This is the driver who has a great run but gets little mention on television, not getting the credit he deserves for a strong performance. Thinking about that this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, I realized that there were two “secret stars” you might not have heard about that deserve their due.

There’s just one major difference for these two: they were entire races.

Friday’s Heluva Good 125 showcased the talents of the Camping World East Series, and the last-lap duel rivals any of the best NASCAR finishes of this year, period. Ryan Truex won the pole and was coming off his first race win in the series at Watkins Glen. Older brother Martin Truex Jr. won from the pole at NHMS in 2000 and 2003 while their father Martin Truex Sr. has a pole and a win as well.

For a while, it looked as though Ryan would equal the feat of his other two siblings. Truex was out-dueled by another young driver, Matt DiBenedetto, coming off turn 4 on the final lap in a finish slightly reminiscent of Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton at Darlington in the Southern 500 years ago. In other words, these guys can race like the best… and are respected by the best. Former series champion Joey Logano was among those who were a regular visitor to the garage on race weekend, leaving the high pressure Sprint Cup garage for the more laid-back scene.

I was lucky enough to have a second perspective on this race, and the story bears telling. Several years ago, I took my car to a local mechanic shop in my New Hampshire hometown, and the guy who usually fixed it left to move to North Carolina to work with Tommy Baldwin. It was another several years until I moved to the Charlotte area as well. By coincidence, I ran into him again at Hickory Motor Speedway, where he verified the move was a successful one – he is currently crew chief for Jarit Johnson in the Camping World East Series. I stopped by to say hello at New Hampshire, and ended up helping the pit crew of Johnson’s No. 74 machine as a result.

The really admirable thing about Johnson’s team is that it’s an entirely volunteer operation. Johnson was supposed to have had a CWES ride with Trail Motorsports, but when that deal fell through, Johnson decided to race anyway. Even by CWES standards, this team is low budget… but they don’t run like it. Johnson was easily inside the top 10 for much of the race until he brushed the wall, causing enough damage to keep him out of contention. What made the experience so great, though, was the people involved. You’ve probably heard of Johnson’s older brother – because he happens to be the reigning and three-time Sprint Cup champion. And like Jimmie Johnson, Jarit is looking to work through the ranks the hard way. You just have to respect that.

SpeedTV replays CWES races during the week, so if you get a chance to catch this one, it’s well worth watching.

Unfortunately, the Whelen Modified Tour doesn’t get the same type of television time, so if you catch the New England 100 at any time over the coming weeks, consider yourself very lucky indeed. NHMS is this series’ Daytona: the superspeedway where both the draft and an old-fashioned slingshot move reigns. The Modifieds are NASCAR’s oldest division, and for years have moonlighted as the NHMS’s most exciting. This week’s race featured a last lap crash that allowed the third-place car, Donny Lia, to squeak through and win ahead of even two Sprint Cup stars (Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman) taking their lumps in a car they don’t usually drive.

A rule change in the series has allowed the cars to be driven more aggressively as of late, and many drivers aren’t thrilled with those adjustments – complaining that it’s become possible to take out a competitor and not hurt your own chances. That is really too bad, because it does take away the need for some of the moves seen in the past in favor of a driver leaning on another a little too hard. There’s a fine line between aggressive and overaggressive, and it’s easy to cross – although Saturday’s sparks-flying finish was certainly hard to argue with.

It’s true there was plenty of action at NHMS on Sunday, with one of the most exciting Cup races of the season to date and the youngest winner in history.

But it’s too bad two of the best races of the weekend had already happened… and most of the people watching never even knew they existed.

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