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Kyle Strickler needed a few minutes to gather himself. No driver, after all, should be expected to jump out of their car after losing a $50,000 race to a blown tire on the final lap and immediately face the media.
So after Strickler, 37, of Troutman, N.C., saw the biggest victory of his fledgling Dirt Late Model career turn into a heartbreaking sixth-place finish in Saturday night’s 67-lap Intercontinental Classic at Eldora Speedway, he headed straight for the sanctuary of his toterhome. He was joined inside the rig by his crew chief, Vinny Guliani, who was also coming to grips with an absolutely crushing defeat.
“I said, ’That’s a tough one,’ ” Guliani, 33, recalled of his first post-race words to Strickler. “I was sitting in the truck and he was sitting in the truck, just to collect our thoughts.”
Strickler’s response was succinct: “I just told him, ’Man, we did everything we were supposed to do. The car wasn’t just good, the car was absolutely phenomenal.’ ”
The two men remained out of sight a bit longer, rehashing how they had come thisclose to a monumental upset. Strickler is an accomplished open-wheel modified driver but still a Dirt Late Model upstart — he’s in just his second full season of action in the division and owns a modest four full-fender feature wins — so both driver and crew chief understood how significant, even historic, winning a crown jewel event at Eldora would have been.
Strickler finally emerged from his hauler dressed in street clothes and was met by a scrum of DirtonDirt.com and FloRacing cameras and microphones seeking his reaction. He stood in front of them and calmly answered all questions, his eyes red from fighting through the tears that welled up in them as wrestled with the emotions of his fate.
“It’s just part of it,” Strickler matter-of-factly commented. “I’m not the first person, and I’m sure I won’t be the last person, to have a heartbreak. But Eldora means so much to me, and to be that close definitely stings.”
This was a race that Strickler seemed destined to win with his self-owned Longhorn car. He grabbed the lead from Chris Ferguson of Mount Holly, N.C., on lap two and refused to relinquish it. After turning back a brief challenge from Ricky Weiss of Headingley, Manitoba — the Canadian surged ahead of Strickler down the backstretch on lap 49 but wasn’t able to officially lead a circuit before retiring with terminal engine trouble on lap 55 — Strickler was a straightaway ahead of Chickamauga, Ga.’s Dale McDowell when a caution flag flew on lap 59 and built an edge of nearly the same distance on eventual winner Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., by the 62nd circuit.
“My car was so good, that when I wanted to go …” Strickler said, his voice trailing off for a second. “Like when Ricky (Weiss) showed his nose, it was time to go, and we were gonna go get us 50,000 with this slow modified team we got here racing with the biggest stars in the country. It was getting ready to be a Cinderella story.
“The only thing that really worried me was the double-file restart (on lap 59). If you just spin the tires or a guy gets a jump on you and I can’t clear him getting into one, that worried me. But our car was so good. I’d run one lap hard and then ease up.”
Strickler didn’t exactly set his No. 8 on cruise control over the final eight-lap sprint to the finish. He was still gunning his Clements engine at full song through the corners, powering around the very top of the high-banked, half-mile oval in a manner that might have looked precarious but felt natural to Strickler.
“I was so comfortable in my car those last five laps that there wasn’t even a thought in my head of getting a flat tire,” Strickler said. “I was trying to keep the nose out of the wall, make sure I got in there and got turned and I didn’t get tight and drive the right front into the wall.”
On lap 65, however, Strickler’s car noticeably faltered off turn two. Guliani, signaling Strickler from inside the backstretch and watching the race’s live broadcast on the track’s video board outside turn two, recognized that his boss was in trouble.
“I seen him slowing down and I thought maybe the motor or something was letting up,” Guliani said. “And then on the white flag (the car) started teetering over (on the right-rear) and I could tell he was getting a flat. I was like, ‘Man!’ It’s happening so fast you don’t have time to think, but I knew.”
Strickler’s lead was large enough that he remained in front on lap 66 despite dramatically falling off the pace, but he couldn’t stay ahead for another lap. His right-rear tire blew out in turn one, causing him to slap the outside wall and slow even more. Davenport shot to the bottom of the track off turn two to assume command and head to victory as Strickler battled his shredded tire to reach the finish line in sixth place.
While Strickler said there was “no tread left of (the tire) to see if it was maybe blistered or something,” he believed misfortune just struck him.
“I cut it on the cushion,” Strickler said of his tire. “You run right around the top there and I think that something just gets swept to the top, and it only takes something so small to cut it.”
Strickler proceeded to admit that he’s going to “run those last couple, five laps, through my head for a long time.”
“I’ve been mentally preparing for this race all week long, just trying to think about all the things to do right,” Strickler commented. “I’m gonna probably second-guess a few things. Our car was so good that I didn’t even really need to run all the way up on the cushion, but it made it easier to not push the nose, so when I’d get in there and get back on the gas I could make sure that I was off the wall and I wouldn’t get sucked in.
“With two to go (the right-rear tire) felt a little soft going into one and two, and then coming off of two and going down the backstretch I could feel it was going down. I went into three and it was really soft then, and then I was just trying to get going coming to the white (flag) and I knew it wasn’t gonna make a whole other lap. There was no way that those guys were gonna be far enough back for me to get there (to win).
“I ran in there (to turn one on the last lap) and just tried to get as much traction as I could on the cushion and then it exploded,” he added. “We still ended up sixth. When I was all over the place trying to go, somebody could’ve hit me and turned me around and wrecked the race car. It could’ve been way worse. Not much, but it could’ve been way worse.”
Guliani generally agreed with Strickler’s reasoning for the flat tire.
“If you make it 65 laps without running something over, it’s hard to believe you’d run something over, but …” Guliani said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s not luck. It’s just part of racing.”
Guliani’s sensible overview of Strickler’s demise didn’t mean he was able to easily deal with the outcome.
“You know, honestly, I think I’m still in shock,” Guliani said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet.
“In the heat of the moment, all night long, all year long, when we’re running good, you don’t really feel it until the next day. Then you can be proud of your accomplishments. It’s the same thing here. The heartbreak, it’ll probably hurt more tomorrow.
“The money is the hardest part,” he continued. “I ain’t worried about it for me and Kyle, but it would’ve helped for our program a lot. I was just looking — it’s $3,500 for sixth, so that’s (nearly) $46,000 (more) we could’ve put towards our program (with a victory). That’s the part that sucks the worst.”
Nevertheless, Guliani, like Strickler, managed to ward off the temptation to sulk over the bitter loss.
“Really, looking back on it, I thought I would be in tears, just distraught,” said Guliani, who joined Strickler on a full-time basis earlier this year after spending recent seasons working for Chase Junghans of Manhattan, Kan. “Well, I guess I’m getting a little older and handling it a little bit better. I’d say 27-year-old me would not be handling this as well right now. You wouldn’t see me right now.”
Guliani allowed himself to relish how impressive what Strickler almost accomplished truly was.
“Jonathan Davenport and Kevin Rumley (the Bilstein Shocks engineer who assists runner-up Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y.) already come up to talk to us,” Guliani said. “My phone has been lighting up; people in the industry, already, they feel for us, but they’re really proud of us. You still get that satisfaction (from the recognition), although of course you’d love to win the race. You don’t everyone to feel sorry for you.
“We’re just really proud of that part of it. We still have one car, and it’s an older car. That’s what makes me really proud, when my peers come up to me and tell me how good of a job we’re doing. That’s what means the most.
“But at least they knew we were here,” he added. “That’s what my dad texted me — he said, ’I know it’s cliche, but they knew you were there.’ ”
Strickler also found solace in the fact that he made a major impact in just his fourth trip to Eldora for a marquee Dirt Late Model event. The richest of his four career Dirt Late Model victories came at Eldora — the first preliminary feature of June’s Stream Invitational, worth $10,000 — and Saturday marked the second finale crown jewel finale that he’s led (he paced 34 laps of last year’s Dream).
“For us to come here and run as good as we do at these crown jewels and these long races … we’re not supposed to be this good, this soon,” said Strickler, who plans to enter Tuesday night’s $15,000-to-win DIRTcar-sanctioned One for the Road event at Fairbury (Ill.) Speedway. “And with being underfunded … I mean, I eat, breathe and sleep this place. I make jokes about calling (Scott) Bloomquist my dad, but I’ve been down there (visiting Bloomquist in the pits), and when he speaks, I listen. I talk to him about tires and try to learn as much as I possibly can about managing the race. When I ran the Dream (last year) and Scott was light (after a heat win) and didn’t make it, I went up (after the feature) and asked him, ‘What do you think I could’ve done to be better?’ He said, ‘You were doing great until Davenport got alongside you and then you started driving like an effin’ idiot.’ I was thinking about that tonight.
“I think we turned a lot of heads,” he continued. “I think if we weren’t already on somebody’s radar, we sure as hell should be now. People knew me as a gasser and I could go out there and bang the cushion and win short races, but I hope that I’m showing ’em how I matured and how I’m ready to go to the next level and go win crown jewels.”
Dealing with the loss was a bit easier for Strickler because he is so new to the Dirt Late Model ranks. He understands he’s setting the stage for future success.
“I give Vinny a hard time because I won a $50,000-to-win modified race in Farley (Iowa) and he likes to give me a hard time about the modifieds,” Strickler said. “I said, ‘Look, you can not make fun of my modifieds until we have a bigger check to hang on the wall for this Late Model.’ Well, we were about a half a lap away from having one with the Late Model that would equal it.
“It’ll come. I want to do this just as much, if not more, than everybody else, and we’ll get there. I’m just a dirt racing kid that wanted to do this for a long time. I put a lot of emotion into this, my heart and my soul, so if it didn’t matter to me then I don’t belong here. It means so much to me for a reason. It’s because I’ve been wanting to do this for so long, and had so many people along the way tell me I couldn’t do it … and there’s been a lot of people who told me I could do it.
“So we’re here now, and hopefully we’re owed one now,” he added. “Like I told (DirtonDirt.com’s Michael) Rigsby, maybe I lost this one because I’m gonna come back and win the 50th World 100 next year.”