Utica-Rome opening night recap

J.J. Michaels Flies to Opening Night 2001 Win at Utica-Rome Speedway VERNON, NY - J.J. Michaels of Baldwinsville came from the twelfth starting position and claimed the 40-lap season opener for the DIRT 358-Modifieds last Sunday night at the ...

J.J. Michaels Flies to Opening Night 2001 Win at Utica-Rome Speedway

VERNON, NY - J.J. Michaels of Baldwinsville came from the twelfth starting position and claimed the 40-lap season opener for the DIRT 358-Modifieds last Sunday night at the Utica-Rome Speedway in front of a capacity crowd. Michaels took over the lead from Jack Johnson on lap 21 and held off defending track champion Ron Holmes for the popular win, worth $1,800.

Also taking home checkered flags in the first races of the 2001 season were Tim Clemons in the DIRT Sportsman, Jerry Holmes in the DIRT Pro Stocks, Jeff Pastorella in the Pure Stocks, and J.J. Courcy in the Slingshots.

By virtue of a heads up start, Ron Holmes and John Barker led the mighty DIRT 358-Modifieds down to the green flag from Starter Chip Burdick, with Holmes jumping out to the early lead. After only one lap was completed, the first yellow occurred in turn one with rookie driver Wayne Reutimann and Jeff Kotary, with Reutimann going high in the air and ripping the roof off the Kotary machine. Luckily, both drivers were uninjured in the hair-raising incident.

On the restart, Holmes continued his lead but yet another yellow came out on lap 2, when Aaron Excel broke in turn four. When the action resumed, 18-year old rookie sensation Matt Sheppard, coming off a second place earlier in the day at Weedsport against the Big Blocks, leaped into the third position as Jack Johnson took over fourth from Mike Hulsizer. Sheppard then went to work on the Barker machine, moving into second by lap four. Holmes was out in front by ten car lengths but there was no doubt that Sheppard was closing in, as Johnson took over third from Barker on lap six after a great side by side battle. Just as Sheppard closed in on the back bumper of the Holmes No. 82, a yellow came out for Jason Barney who slowed with a flat left rear tire on lap 7.

On the restart, Sheppard bobbled and Johnson went right on by for the second spot. Three laps later, eventual winner J.J. Michaels moved into the top five, as Johnson began reeling in the Holmes machine. On lap 13, Johnson was right there behind Holmes, as Sheppard also closed on it. A great story was developing as you had the defending champion, an ageless veteran, and a young teenager all going for the huge 40-lap win.

Just as the action got very intense, a yellow came out on lap 15 as Mike Hulsizer and Bill Shantel got into the third turn wall. As the green was once again unfurled, Sheppard again had a slow start, as Michaels took over the third position and Johnson jumped into the lead over Holmes. The next yellow came out for Sheppard, who slowed on lap 17 with a suspected flat tire. He returned to the speedway without any flat tires on the No. 9s, and himself out of contention for an upset victory. He would eventually finish seventh.

On the restart, Michaels hit the hammer and went right around Holmes for the second position and set his sights on the orange Johnson No. 12a. An entertaining battle for the lead ensued, with Michaels and Johnson thrilling Utica-Rome fans with an all out duel for the top spot. Michaels would take over on lap 19, but Johnson kept right there to lead the 20th circuit. However, Michaels was just too fast for Johnson as he retook the lead on lap 21.

At the halfway mark, the top five was Johnson, Michaels, Todd Burley, Holmes, and Barker.

Then on lap 24, Johnson blue smoke trailed behind the Mopar powered Johnson No. 12a, and he pulled into the pit area in a disappointing end of the night for the popular veteran.

As the race wore on, action in the top five heated up as Michaels pulled away. Ryan Baye, in one of his best Utica-Rome races ever, took over third on lap 31 from Todd Burley. But, Burley would not give up in his new Troyer No. 89b machine as he retook the spot several laps later after a great battle.

With just three circuits to go, Holmes began closing in on Michaels, who seemed to bobble as the two lap sign came up from Starter Chip Burdick. As the white came out, Holmes was right there and even pulled a bonsai last corner move, but Michaels held off the defending champion for the huge victory. After Michaels and Holmes, it was Burley, Baye, Roger Phelps, Steve Hulsizer, Matt Sheppard, Gus Schmidt, John Barker, and Paul Jensen.

In victory lane, a very excited J.J. Michaels did a roof dance on his Troyer No. 31 with three fingers raised into the air, saluting late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, who was memorialized earlier in the evening.

"You gotta love this place," said Michaels. "We had an awesome car tonight, but it felt terrible in the heat and it just didn't wanna go. I was just picking my way to the front, and it worked out well. It's tough to win here. You've got Jack, Burley, Ronnie, and that young Sheppard kid, and it was really tough to get to the front. I'd like to dedicate this win to Dale Earnhardt, and also to my dad."

The win for Michaels was the nineteenth of his career at the spacious Utica-Rome half-mile oval, moving him up to tenth on the all-time modified feature win list, tying him with the legendary Jerry Cook. In addition, the win was the fourteenth at Utica-Rome for the old-faithful Michaels Racing 1997 Troyer machine.

DIRT 358-Modified heat races were won by Holmes, Barker, and Steve Hulsizer, while Barney copped the consi.

Tim Clemons of Gloversville used the second starting spot to his advantage and led the entire distance of the season opening 20-lap DIRT Sportsman feature event. Jamie Christian, Tony Ross, Willy Decker, and defending track champion Kevin Crave followed Clemons across the line. The win for Clemons was his fourth career Utica-Rome Sportsman triumph.

Decker, Clemons, John Christian, and Jamie Christian claimed wins in the DIRT Sportsman heat events, while Billy Trexler and Shane Donath won the consis.

Jerry Holmes of West Winfield dominated the 15-lap DIRT Pro Stock feature event for his first victory of the new season. Rounding out the top five was Wayne Archer, a hard charging Bret Belden, invader Denny Smith, and Dave Moyer. Holmes, who started on the outside pole, is now tied with Rick Miller as the all-time Pro Stock feature winner at the speedway.

Holmes, Archer, and John Pietrowicz won Pro Stock heat races.

Jeff Pastorella of Westmoreland started fifth and passed defending track champion Dave Mannise on lap 7 of the 15-lap Pure Stock feature enroute to his first victory of the season. Mannise was second, followed by Jim Thomas, Herm Staats, and Waylan Wilczek.

Dave Mannise and Bobby Newman won the Pure Stock heat races.

J.J. Courcy of Mexico used lapped traffic to his advantage and went around leader Denny Tilison on lap 8 of the 15-lap Slingshot feature to score his first victory of the new year. Rookie Ken Stafford was second, followed by Mike Waterman, early leader Tilison, and Randy Marsh.

Courcy also won the lone Slingshot heat event.

Coming up this Sunday May 13 at the Utica-Rome Speedway, the Sunoco Race Fuels 358-Modified Super DIRT Series will be in town for the 100-lap NICE N' EASY GROCERY SHOPPES Mother's Day special. Also in action will be the Dig Safely New York Sportsman Super DIRT Series with a 30-lap event, and both races are expected to draw the top names on the DIRT Motorsports circuit, as each event will kick off the opening of the 2001 Super DIRT Series. The gates will open at 4pm, with 358-Modified time trials taking the green at 5:30pm and racing kicking off at 6pm.

For more information, contact the speedway office at (315) 829-4557 or log onto the official website at www.newuticaromespeedway.com.

Notes - 114 cars, including 27 358-Modifieds, 36 Sportsman, 24 Pro Stocks, 18 Pure Stocks, and 9 Slingshots filled the Utica-Rome pit area to near capacity on the beautiful Sunday evening with near perfect conditions. The Slingshots will NOT be in action next Sunday as previously announced. The memorable salute to American Motorsports icon Dale Earnhardt went off well just before the start of the Sportsman feature, and there was many a tear in the Utica-Rome grandstands. Special thanks goes to SWEET'S FLORAL STATION on Route 8 in West Edmeston for the balloons, Ed and Betty Biittig for the music, and track chaplain Brother Kevin Westcott for the moving tribute.


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About this article
Series Stock car
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Wayne Reutimann , John Barker