Notebook: Motivated Strickler Proves He's Big E Contender

Kyle Strickler (8) rallies at Eldora.

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By the time Friday’s Intercontinental Classic preliminary feature rolled around at Eldora Speedway, Kyle Strickler had plenty of reasons to be frustrated. 

Strickler, the modified standout turned Late Model racer, failed to make the feature lineup during Thursday’s preliminary night program after a part failure knocked him from a transfer spot during his heat race. He rebounded by setting fast time during Friday’s time trials only to find out there would be a five-car heat race invert. He later struggled to get rolling in his heat and finished where he started in the fifth spot.

After using a fast-time provisional to make Friday’s feature, Strickler finally got things going his way with a charge from 17th to fifth in the 30-lap race. It may not have been as strong of a performance as his Thursday victory during Eldora’s Stream Invitation in June, but it was a run Strickler needed.

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“Sometimes it takes something like that to be a little bit of a motivator,” Strickler of Mooresville, N.C., said of his team’s mechanical problems on Thursday. “The guys know how much Eldora means to me. Having a part failure like that was motivation for the guys to do their part.

“We unloaded really fast (on Friday) and got quick time. That invert, that motivated the driver for sure. I was a little upset after we had to start fifth after we set quick time. But it is what is. It’s part of the format, so we went to work. To be able to put it on the top and get up there and race with them guys on a place like this that was hard to pass, I’m really proud of my guys and proud of the race car we have.”

By overcoming the adversity, Stickler showed just how much he has matured as a driver. His transition from modifieds to Late Models has certainly had its high points, but he’s also had plenty of struggles along the way with many due to his own mistakes.

“Everybody out there knows I can mash on the gas, but in order to win these races you got to be there at the end,” Strickler said. “I like to stay young at heart and still get up on the wheel and mash the gas, but mentally I think I’m a way better racer now than I was last year at this time.

“The mental aspect of this game is so tough. That’s one of the biggest things coming from the modifieds to the Late Models. You got guys that are doing this for a living. They’re the best in the country and you got to be right there with them.”

Stickler will attempt to prove that he’s capable of running with the country’s best drivers on one of the sport’s biggest stages in Saturday’s $50,000-to-win Intercontinental Classic finale. After his performance on Friday, he’s confident that he’s up to the task.

“I’ve won big prelim nights, but I’ve never won the actual big one,” Strickler said. “I’m thinking that this is all playing out to be really good for tomorrow. I’m hoping that I can get my first crown jewel here at Eldora. That would be a fairy tale story for me.”

Dohm’s demise

There’s an adage in racing that engines run their best just before they break. That proved all too true Friday for Zack Dohm.

The Cross Lanes, W.Va., driver dominated his heat race, pulling to nearly a straightaway advantage in the 10-lapper before the engine in his No. 17 car started vibrating down the back straightaway on the final lap. Dohm coasted the final half-lap and had just enough momentum to still beat second-place Brandon Sheppard to the finish line.

Without a backup car or a spare engine with him at Eldora, the malfunction meant the end of Dohm’s Intercontinental weekend, but he was still happy with his effort in the event.

“All of my guys are bummed, and yeah, it sucks, but I’m just happy we ran good,” Dohm said. “Yesterday was wide open and we struggled. But we changed some things today and we were a lot better. We at least figured out what we need to do to the car when we get on something this high speed as this track has been. You’re always learning with this racing, and we learned a lot these last two nights.”

The strong run was a surprise even to Dohm. He’s having a great season in his new Longhorn Chassis, but he’s never been particularly strong at Eldora. And with four former Eldora winners starting directly behind him in his heat, he didn’t expect to stay at the front for very long.

“I wasn’t really confident before that heat started, but then I slid Sheppard in the first corner and my brother’s hands kept getting farther and farther apart every lap I came by him,” Dohm said. “He gave me a big fist in the air (on the last lap), but then it started vibrating real bad getting into three. I shut it off and expected them to come flying by me, but I guess I must’ve had a pretty big lead to still win the thing. I was like in the car just coasting there and wondering where the hell are they.”

While Dohm’s weekend may have met an untimely end, his strong performance leaves him optimistic about future races at Eldora.  

“I feel like we’re learning and getting a lot better here. I’m getting where I can run up top if I got to or the middle, and I’ve always been able to run the bottom here. But I’m finally getting where I can move around and find the fastest line. I think a lot of is this car. I really like this car, especially here. Hopefully when we come back next time we’re just as good.” 

Bronson’s best run

With his seventh-place finish on Thursday, Kyle Bronson of Brandon, Fla., scored his best Eldora finish in an event that wasn’t a split field. The good news is Bronson thinks he can get even better for Saturday’s finale.

“We did some stuff tonight on our car to try and test for the longer race tomorrow,” Bronson said. “I feel like we learned some good things and some things not to do too. I think we know what to do to be even better tomorrow.

“I feel like we got the car a lot better. It got really tight here at the end. We’ve got to free up to run that top if it’s going to be there. But that was probably about the best my car has run the middle and bottom here. We know we got to do a couple little things, but overall I think we’re getting the car a lot better.”

A strong run in Saturday’s finale would be a major boost for Bronson, who hasn’t won since his May 20 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series victory at Golden Isles Speedway in Brunswick, Ga.  

“We need it for momentum and just as much for the money,” Bronson said. ’We’ve had some bad luck lately and some bad runs. We need to run good and make us some money and get us to the next race.”

Marlar overcomes ‘huge mistake’

Mike Marlar of Winfield, Tenn., had to overcome a self-induced setback to score a 12th-place finish in Friday’s feature. The veteran driver and his crew bolted a shock mount on upside-down between hot laps and qualifying on Friday, causing him to qualifying near the back of the field.

“We were rushing to get a bunch of mud off the car from hot laps, and we just accidentally put the shock mount on upside down,” Marlar said. “We were just out there wheelieing and qualified in the back. We just made a huge mistake. Me and Jerry were both working on it and both looked at it, but neither one of us noticed it. That set us way behind and put us in the back of a heat.”

After transferring to Friday’s feature through a consolation race, Marlar used the 30-lap race as a test session. After starting out slow, Marlar pitted during a mid-race caution and made an adjustment that allowed him to charge to a 12th-place finish. 

“We tried some things for the feature, but we were just too loose. I came in and they tightened me up a little bit. We went back out and was a lot better. You learn with every lap you make and tonight was definitely some valuable laps.”

“I think we’ll be pretty good tomorrow. We had to fight through some adversity these first two nights, but I think we’re in a good spot.”

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