Teen Late Model driver Connor Okrzesik outduels Kyle Busch at SpeedFest
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
The 2019 asphalt stock car season got off to a glorious start Saturday with the 15th running of SpeedFest at Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele, Georgia.
The event attracted some of the biggest names in asphalt short-track racing, as well as NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch and Harrison Burton. But in the end, it was young Connor Okrzesik outdueling Busch to get the biggest victory of his career.
A large crowd packed the grandstands on a sunny but cold afternoon to watch a 125-lap Pro Late Model race and the 200-lap Super Late Model feature.
Georgia’s Casey Roderick, who had hoped that a solid start for GMS Racing in an Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway last year would lead to more NASCAR starts, hasn’t had his calls to NASCAR power brokers returned, but he answered every challenge in winning the Pro Late Model feature.
In the 200-lap finale, Late Model regular Brian Campbell was one of the early favorites, but spun on his own while leading on Lap 49. Polesitter Steven Nasse reassumed the lead, but soon lost it to Burton, the NASCAR Truck Series driver and son of retired NASCAR driver Jeff Burton.
Burton led until the halfway mark, but lost the lead to Busch, who had worked his way forward from the 10th starting position.
While many at the track were expecting Busch to motor away from the field, Okrzesik (pronounced OH-krezik) had other ideas, and took the lead from Busch on Lap 110 with a gentle nudge to his bumper in Turn Two.
The 17-year-old driver from Grand Bay, Alabama, dominated the second half of the race, losing the lead briefly when several drivers stayed on the track during a round of pit stops.
But Okrzesik, whose No. 14 Chevy is prepared by chassis whiz and former NASCAR Cup driver Mike Garvey, would need more heroics to defeat Busch, as two late caution flags allowed Busch to restart alongside the youngster. But each time, Okrzesik pulled away, and at the finish he was three car lengths ahead of Busch, with Burton finishing a close third over ARCA regular Chandler Smith and Nasse.
In his winner’s interview, Okrzesik said he tried to not be intimidated by the sight of Busch’s No. 51 Toyota in his rear-view mirror.
“I didn’t pay attention to who was behind me,” he said, adding that his stunning victory “feels amazing, unbelievable.”
Busch sounded impressed by the youngster. “Connor was really, really fast; his car was on a rail,” he said. “Second was all we had.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin, who watched the race online, tweeted his comments about the young winner: “Okay @connorokrzesik you have my attention. Masterful driving young man. Congratulations.”
Burton seemed happy with his podium finish.
“It’s a great way to kick off the year, with a top-three finish,” he said. “Anytime you’re racing with Kyle Busch, you’re doing something right.
“Now we need to go out and win some races.”
Photo: Kyle Busch drove the No. 51 Late Model Toyota Camry to a second-place finish behind Okrzesik./Twitter.com/KyleBusch