(03-27-10) - IRWINDALE, California - BY TIM KENNEDY - Eleven years ago to this exact date, Irwindale Speedway opened with a night of USAC open-wheel competition in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,500+. The track, now known as Toyota Speedway @ Irwindale, began season 12 of NASCAR series point racing Saturday with seven classes and 101 racing vehicles in action. After a mid-80s afternoon, about 5,000 spectators attended the first of 30 weekly races with a 100-lap NASCAR AC Delco Super Late Model race on the progressively banked half-mile the featured attraction. Nick Joanides, a 17-time main event winner at Irwindale last year and 2009 double track champion in the SLM and Auto Club Late Model series, started twelfth and became the fifth race leader on lap 84. He won the 100-lap, 49 minute contest that had one red flag and six yellows. It was the 35th feature triumph at the track for the personable Woodland Hills resident. He now ranks fifth among all-time feature winners at the track. It was also his seventh consecutive victory in 100 lap special event races.

Twenty SLM cars took the green flag at 8:27 in the third of seven main events. The six fastest qualifiers occupied the first three rows in the order they finished a six-lap "King Taco Six Pack Trophy Dash", a race won from the pole by sixth quickest qualifier Ryan Reed. The 16-year old Bakersfield resident and 2009 TS@I Legends champion was competing in the first SLM point race of his rookie SLM season in the premier TS@I weekly series. Starting from pole position, Reed led into turn one, but outside front row starter Scott Dodd, 22, led the first two laps. Tim Huddleston, the 39-year old three-time Auto Club Late Model track champion, took command in his first SLM start aboard the Speed Wong Racing No. 89 Chevy. Huddleston led through lap 15 when fastest qualifier Ryan Partridge, 21, charged from fifth grid position into the lead on lap 16 via an inside move through the third and fourth turns.

The yellow flag flew on lap 24 for a single car spin. Shockingly, leader Partridge's Eshleman Racing No. 88 Chevy lost its left rear wheel leaving the fourth turn under caution. The wheel rolled into the infield and Partridge stopped in the low groove at the fourth turn exit. A wrecker towed his car to the pits and he returned after missing four yellow flag laps. The potential winner regained two laps via the "lucky dog" free pass around the 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid pace car; he finished 11th with 98 laps. With Partridge in the pits, third starter Justin Johnson, 24, inherited the lead. The Las Vegas resident, in one of three Vision Airlines entries, enjoyed his first SLM lead at Irwindale so much he held it through lap 83, despite intense pressure from Dodd, Andy Allen, Rip Michels and Joanides. At lap 50 crossed flags, Johnson's No. 90 led Allen, Michels, Randel King, 18, Joanides, Dodd, Reed, David Beat, Kevin Thompson and teammate Jimmy Parker, Jr., 23, of Las Vegas, in his first race at Irwindale aboard the Vision Airlines No. 92.  

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A seven-car crash on lap 59 in the second turn involved third and fourth place Allen and King. Beat, Parker, Dusty Davis, Dennis Schlarbaum and Ron Esau also were involved and stopped. Only six cars escaped the wreck unscathed. Joanides narrowly snuck between the Allen and King cars without contact after pitching the car sideways to angle himself between them. The green flag waved on lap 62 for the 13 remaining cars. Michels, the all-time Irwindale main event winner (61), pressed Johnson intensely from the inside groove from lap 65-77 and even bumped the back of Johnson's No. 90 at the starting line on lap 68. Joanides soon made it a three-way duel with Johnson and Joanides in the outside groove and Michels 

attacking from the inside. On lap 78 Joanides took second from Michels. On lap 84, with 12 cars on the track, ninth place Reed spun low in the fourth turn, causing a caution. With double file restarts after cautions, Joanides started outside of leader Johnson and shot into the lead at the lap 84 green flag.  

King passed Michels for third on lap 86 and as Joanides opened a 40-yard lead the second through fourth place battle intensified. Michels retook third from King on lap 96 and a lap later Michels passed Johnson on the inside entering the first turn. Joanides won by 2.150 seconds over long-time rival Michels. "That Nick is something," Michels said when interviewed at the finish line. "He was playing possum 'with everybody. He just hit the switch and drove by everybody." Joanides, the 2009 SLM track and California State champion, and third in NASCAR Whelen Weekly Racing Series National standings, admitted he was saving his tires for the closing laps. He praised the level of competition. Johnson withheld King's closing attempts to take third and finished 3.165 seconds behind Joanides, with King fourth, 3.414 back. Newcomer Parker, who started 16th in his Irwindale debut, charged into fifth by lap 80 and finished fifth, 4.251 seconds in back of Joanides. Dennis Schlarbaum, Dodd, Esau, Reed and 18-year old Christian Copley, a truck and modified veteran, rounded out the top ten. The top eight drivers completed 100 laps.


(03-27-10) Just a week and a half ago, driver Nick Joanides, was not going to be racing at the season opening event. The team had not been able to find sponsorship for the two-time reigning championship driver. After becoming the first driver to win championships in the top two series at Toyota Speedway, in the same year no less, Joanides planned on watching from the sidelines and spending time to help his protégé, 11 year old Christian McGhee, in his Bandolero.

Last Thursday, Nick got the call that team owner, Loyd McGhee, had found sponsorship to compete in the first two Super Late Model events and the first Late Model event. With little time to prepare, the team was not able to do any pre-season testing and the results showed in qualifying. They posted their worst qualifying effort in more than two years.

The Jackson Race Cars team relied heavily on their experience for the race setup. Joanides felt confident that with 100 laps to race, he could move his way to the front. He had in fact won the past six 100 lap special event races. Furthermore, he was currently riding a streak of 33 consecutive weeks atop the point standings. This being the opening night event, the only way for that to continue, was to win. He also had a streak of 22 consecutive top 5 finishes and 41 consecutive top 10 finishes on the line.

From the drop of the green flag, all of the streaks appeared in serious jeopardy as Joanides ran in the 12th position through the first 20 laps. With cars bouncing off of each other in front of him, Joanides wanted to remain patient, however as the laps wore down, he knew it was time to make a move. He simultaneously passed the 10th and 11th place cars and did so just in time as one lap later, both of those cars wrecked each other.

Three laps later, he took over the 9th position and stayed there through lap 36. By lap 40, he picked off another two positions to move up to 7th. After a five lap side by side battle, he took over the 6th position for good on lap 46 and took 5th just three laps later.

The 3rd and 4th place cars were in a heated battle for position through the next 12 laps. Joanides stayed close but left himself a little breathing room, just in case! That decision proved to be the winning move. On lap 61, the two cars made contact and spun. As one car spun low and the other high, Joanides was hard on the brakes to avoid them. The field behind was closing in fast with three cars behind spinning to avoid the wreck.  Joanides then gassed it up, pitched the car sideways to the right to avoid the high car, then pitched it back sideways to the left to avoid the low car, narrowly missing both cars as four more cars behind piled into the wreck. “That has to rank as one of the best saves I’ve made in my 20 years of racing” Joanides said.

All time Irwindale win leader, Rip Michels, was in a heated battle with Justin Johnson for the lead. Joanides laid back to try and let them sort it out. While still in a side-by-side battle, at lap 75, Joanides decided it was time to go and joined the fray to make it a three-car battle for the lead.

He moved by Michels on the outside at lap 78 to take over the 2nd position. He chased down Johnson and made the winning pass on the outside at lap 83. He pulled out to a large lead and took the checkered 2.150 seconds ahead.

“Of my 35 wins in the past two years, this is the one I’m most proud of” said Joanides. “It was no gimmie and we had to work hard for it, coming from the back. That was one of the most competitive Super Late races I think I’ve ever seen here”. The stats back up Joanides’ claim as there were six different leaders and twelve drivers ran in the top five at one point or another.

 Joanides and his team will head back to the track for the next two events and hope that somehow they can find funding to continue beyond that and chase an unprecedented third consecutive championship.

Meanwhile, Bandolero driver Christian McGhee returned for the start of his second full season. With a new crew chief, the results were promising. McGhee was among the fastest cars in practice, however only posted the 7th fastest lap in qualifying. He steadily moved his way toward the front. While gaining on the leader, he was in a heated side by side battle at the finish and fell just 0.019 seconds short of a second place finish.