ROUDGEMONT, N.C. (April 8, 2019) – In a wild finish to the richest Late Model Stock Car feature in history, both Josh Berry and Adam Lemke had chances to bank the $30,000 winner’s share of the CARS Racing Tour’s Old North State Nationals at Orange County Speedway. In the end, however, Lee Pulliam cashed the big check and Lemke and Berry were third and fourth, respectively, at the finish.
Berry, who started third in the 200-lap feature, was a player all day, running second for the first 93 laps and taking over the top spot on lap 94 with a crossover move on race-long leader Taylor Gray. The 2017 CARS Late Model Stock Car series champion held that lead until lap 151 when the caution waved. Under the rules for the race, drivers could change two tires once over the 200-lap distance, and Berry chose to come down for his fresh rubber under this caution.
Meanwhile, Lemke had taken his earlier at lap 84 and was riding for the finish under the watchful eyes of spotter Ernie Mayo and team manager Bryan Shaffer. The fact that he took his tires with 116 laps remaining required the 16-year-old California driver to take care of them for the remaining distance. By pitting as late as he did, Berry had the freshest tires for the remaining 49 laps along with Lee Pulliam, Corey Heim and Gray.
The restart lineup saw Trevor Ward as the leader with Lemke to his outside on the front row, the team cars of Timothy Peters and Bobby McCarty in row two and Berry and Pulliam in the third row. When the green waved, Lemke was late to the upshift and stacked up the outside line, which allowed Berry to sneak through to third place on the low line. The start was waved off because Ward left early, so they lined up to try again.
Lemke got away clean on the next green flag, but Peters took the lead by the end of the lap with Berry digging the low line under Ward to emerge in second place. By lap 162, Berry was catching Peters and got to the bumper two laps later. Pulliam had joined the fight at the front and was nose-to-tail with Berry as the laps wound down, while Lemke was hanging solid in fourth.
It stayed that way until lap 187, when Peters had a tire let go and crashed in Turn 2 to bring out the final yellow of the day. On the restart, Berry and Pulliam raced side-by-side for the lead, with the JR Motorsports driver edging ahead to lead laps 188 and 189. With 10 laps to go, the switch flipped and Berry and Pulliam clamped down, fighting for every advantage.
With eight laps remaining, Pulliam crossed underneath Berry’s All Things Automotive Chevrolet and ran the Tennessee native up a half-groove in Turn 4. It was enough to put Berry’s right-side tires into the accumulated marbles at the top of the corner, and that slowed Berry enough to compromise his exit. Pulliam wiggled past, taking Gray and Lemke past him as well.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed. I was running Lee up, and he crossed me over and ran me up just high enough that he caught me in the marbles,” Berry said after the checkered. “After that we were history. It’s just hard racing. I wasn’t going to crash the guy; I wanted to race hard and he’s just really good at racing hard like that. He’s one of the best at it. We went wheel-to-wheel with him and came up a little short.”
Berry said the late tire change cost him a bit of handling, and that was a factor in the late-race shuffle.
“We lost a little bit of turn when we put those new tires on, and when we were racing there at the end, I just couldn’t turn underneath him (Pulliam) like I could earlier in the race,” Berry said. “We were just racing like hell. I know that I’m too nice in these races and it showed right there. I hate that it slipped away. We dropped back to fourth and we were in the hornet’s nest at that point. We just couldn’t get clear. When we put those two tires on—we had 151 laps on the left-sides—it tightened up a bit. It couldn’t turn down like it had the previous run and we just got beat.”
Lemke, who did a nice job hanging onto the tires on his Slick Products-sponsored No. 98 Chevrolet, was right there to take advantage when Berry faltered off Turn 4. The young driver knew his teammate was behind him and knew he had to stay where he was or drop rapidly down the order.
“I just knew I had to stay up top,’ he said of the final eight laps. “If I went low, I knew they were going to freight-train me. I stayed committed to that top line and wasn’t going to let anyone move me out of the way.”
The track-position gamble of pitting early for tires paid off, he said. “We put the new tires on, and I knew I was going to have to take care of them to have any shot at winning. We did that for track position, and I knew we had a car capable of finishing in the top five. We ended up finishing top-three with older tires, in front of cars with newer tires. I see that as a pretty good day.“
Lemke recovered from an early spin in Turns 1 and 2 just 13 laps into the event. “I went down to the bottom that lap and the 63 (Tyler Matthews) got into me,” Lemke said. “I didn’t see it coming and couldn’t save it.”
Pulliam won the event and the $30,000 winner’s check, while Gray, Lemke, Berry and Brandon Pierce rounded out the top five.
Next up for the JR Motorsports team is an April 27 trip to Motor Mile Speedway (Radford, N.C.) for twin 50-lap NASCAR Whelen All-American Series races. The next CARS Racing Tour event is set for May 3 at Ace Speedway in Elon, N.C.