By Dan Hodgdon
Photos by Brandon Zumbach

As the sun set over Southern National Motorsports Park on Saturday, defending CARS Super Late Model Tour champion Matt Craig was spraying champagne in Victory Lane. That celebration has become a familiar sight on the Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour recently, with Craig having now won three of the series’ last four events dating back to last year. He also kicked off 2020 with an impressive PRA Tours triumph at Southern National. But on this winning weekend at the 4/10-mile track in Lucama, North Carolina, he led all 150 laps of the season-opening FURY Race Cars 150 to score his sixth career CARS Tour victory in dominant fashion. In many ways the race was a runaway; the race saw only three yellow flags in the form of competition cautions every 40 laps and Craig bolted away to the lead on each restart.

Matt Craig in Victory Lane
Matt Craig celebrates in Victory Lane at Southern National Motorsports Park. Photo by: Brandon Zumbach

However, after starting second and taking the lead on the first lap, he fought off an ever-changing cast of competitors in his rearview mirror. Some of the running order shakeup was due to tire management on the worn track in the eastern part of the Tar Heel State, but part of the ever-evolving rundown was simply due to the fact that the field featured some of the nation’s best Super Late Model drivers.

“This is closer to home than most of the people in the field and we’ve just raced here a lot,” said Craig, who hails from Kannapolis, North Carolina, and has won five times at the track with a Super Late Model tour. “I’ve got a lot of laps here, a lot of races under my belt at this track, so I think that just helps out a lot.”

Indeed, drivers from eight states and one Canadian province were represented among the 15 in the field, coming from the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest. Among them were winners of the Snowball Derby, All-American 400 and Winchester 400, as well as other major races and championships.

Like Craig, runner-up finisher Trevor Noles from Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, used his extensive knowledge of the track to bring home a second-place finish after starting on the pole, dropping back to save tires, and making a furious charge near the race’s completion.

“I love the CARS Tour, they run a good series and I just can’t thank them enough for putting this show on,” Noles said. “They’ve got really stout competition too, so I enjoy coming to run this CARS Tour and especially here. This is my home track so I feel like I can run here about as well as anywhere else.”

Five Super Late Models do battle
Stephen Nasse (51) and Trevor Noles (22) battle with Bubba Pollard (26), Kodie Conner (45) and Austin MacDonald 13. Photo by Brandon Zumbach.

Several drivers noted the CARS Tour’s new Rowdy Manufacturing Super Challenge as a reason for the diversity and level of competition throughout the field. The program features a bonus for drivers who have won a major Super Late Model race or championship in the last year, meaning they will compete for no less than a $10,000 winner’s purse at each event on the CARS Tour this season.

Among those who mentioned the program was Stephen Nasse of Pinellas Park, Florida, one of the more aggressive and polarizing racers on the Super Late Model circuit today. For a time it looked as if he and rival Bubba Pollard of Senoia, Georgia, would challenge for the race win after saving tires as laps wound down. However, Pollard was relegated to 14th-place due to a flat tire and Nasse settled for third after he finding himself in a precarious position and made a concerted effort to not be involved in a potential late-race accident.

Nasse expects to feature prominently in several CARS Tour races in 2020.

“My whole career has just been chasing competition,” he explained.  “I’ve never went anywhere and cherry-picked in my whole life. My dad’s always wanted me to race against the best and he said that will make me the best. So that’s what we’ve done, and I don’t shy away from the competition. Knowing Craig comes out here and dominates, trying to come out here and beat him and beat some of those other fast guys definitely makes the purse a little sweeter.”

Meanwhile, 2019 Snowball Derby winner Travis Braden of Wheeling, West Virginia, who recently moved to Charlotte with girlfriend Jess in an RV, was making his first start in a CARS Tour race and his first at Southern National. He battled for the lead with Craig at the race’s one-third mark before ultimately finishing fourth as his car grew tighter. He noted that the mentality is a bit different in the Southeast as opposed to other parts of the country, as huge budgets and deep resources make the competition level that much higher. He was making a one-off start with Lee Faulk Racing and Development at Southern National but plans an extensive Super Late Model schedule with his familiar Team Platinum in 2020.

Mike Hopkins and Traivs Braden
Mike Hopkins (15) and Travis Braden (77) nose to tail on track. Photo by Brandon Zumbach.

“The plan is to run as many of the bigger races as we can in every series,” he said. “We had a lot of fun last year and felt like we really got the program at about the highest level we’ve ever been. We want to take advantage of that and stay on it.”

Mike Hopkins of Hermon, Maine, was also among the competitors making his first start at Southern National, and the 2019 Pro All Stars Series national champion has filed a full-season entry with Gary Crooks and Port City Racecars, while also planning to still compete in the Northeast.

“There’s not a lot of cars here today in the Supers, but you look at the list of people that’s on [the entry list] and there’s some of the best there ever was,” he said before going on to finish seventh. “You’ve got Nasse and you’ve got Bubba and you’ve got Travis Braden. There’s a lot of guys that have done a lot in the sport.”

Solid Rock Carriers 300 – Super Late Model Finishing Order
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Solid Rock Carriers 300 – Super Late Model Qualifying Order
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