Mat Williamson felt the pressure of NAPA Super DIRT Week Thursday evening.
But that pressure had nothing to do with the October event. He and his Buzz Chew Racing team were 1,200 miles south of where it’s even held.
It was the third of five straight days of Super DIRTcar Series racing at Volusia Speedway Park during the 51st DIRTcar Nationals. And after back-to-back sixth-place finishes in the first two races, something needed to change. He knew it. His team knew. So, they treated Thursday’s event like it was the Billy Whittaker Cars 200 at Super DIRT Week.
“Today, you would’ve sworn it was Oswego, Sunday morning, trying to decide what we were going to do for a 200-lap race,” Williamson said. “We took this one pretty seriously and hopefully it leads to some momentum going forward.
“Just because we haven’t lived up to the expectations of how we ran last year. I think we got through the middle of September to Charlotte, we didn’t run out of the top-five. Then, we had two six-place finishes. People expect things. We worked really hard over the winter to build this car, me and Spot. We tried some things we learned over the years and came here wanting to win. That’s kind of what we expected. If you don’t turn things around by Wednesday, you’re going to have a rough week.”
And a rough week he will no longer have.
Williamson drove like he was after his third NAPA Super DIRT Week title, wrestling with Stewart Friesen and Max McLaughlin for 30 laps, emerging the victor by the time the checkered flag was revealed.
His path to collecting a third golden gator trophy looks smooth on paper – qualifying fastest in his group, winning his Heat Race and drawing the #2 pill in the Albany-Saratoga Speedway Redraw – but when it came time for the Feature, Friesen and McLaughlin showed him no mercy.
The St. Catharines, Ontario driver raced side by side with fellow Canadian Stewart Friesen for the first two laps, neither showing an upper hand. On the third lap, Friesen threw an early Hail Mary into Turn 1, crossing in front of Williamson and stealing the lead by the exit of Turn 2. But the speed difference from their choice of line benefited Williamson. He crossed underneath Friesen down the backstretch and catapulted his Buzz Chew #88 back to the lead in Turn 3.
. @DIRTVision HIGHLIGHTS: Check out the highlights from tonight's feature!https://t.co/F5vTMmlRlG
— Super DIRTcar Series (@SuperDIRTcar) February 18, 2022
An early caution lined them back side by side for the restart, setting up a battle that would last the rest of the Feature. Williamson ran high, Friesen low, and the two raced side by side for more than 10 laps. The SRI Performance/Halmar International #44 would nose ahead of Williamson every time Friesen dove it into the corner, but Williamson was always stronger on the exit. Friesen tried another slide job with 17 laps to go, moving himself to the high lane and Williamson low, but Williamson still prevailed.
While they sparred, Max McLaughlin – from seventh – surprised them both, creating a three-car battle for the lead. He snuck underneath Friesen for second and then surprised Williamson with a run through the middle that helped him edge ahead of the #88 for a corner.
“Any time you’re racing with Stewie (Friesen) you know you have to be up on the wheel,” Williamson said. “He never gives up and he gives it his all. I thought that was him on the outside of me down the back straightaway there. I didn’t know that was Max. Max is still pretty young, and God damn, he’s putting together some good finishes down here. He’s going to be tough to beat this year.
“Them two, the race out front was pretty hectic. It kept me on my toes.”
With eight laps to go, Williamson put the final nail in the coffin, getting a run through Turns 1 and 2 that propelled him ahead of McLaughlin and allowed him to drive away.
“We were just really good on the bottom and through the black there in the middle. I don’t know, I might be a little too soft on the right rear. I don’t know,” a visually dejected McLaughlin said after the race. “Just got to get with these guys and see what we got. Late in the run when it started to rubber up there, I had such a good car at the start, but it started to latch down in (Turns) three and four and I couldn’t turn in a 40-acre field.”
Friesen ended up losing third with two laps to go when current 2022 DIRTcar Nationals Big Gator Championship points leader Peter Britten made sure to continue his streak of not finishing outside the podium. So far this week, Britten has finished second, first and third.
“We didn’t fire as well as I had hoped but we had all good cars in front of us,” Britten said. “Just held steady with them at the beginning and later on in the race I felt like they were getting worse, or I was getting better. Either way, I felt good. At the end, I saw those guys coming back to me. I just wish I had another 10 laps.”
Matt Sheppard also got Friesen in the final two laps, moving past him for fourth – his first top-five and top-10 of the week – and forcing Friesen to settle for fifth.
Britten currently holds a 24-point lead over Friesen in the Big Gator Championship points standings. However, Friesen will have to miss Friday’s race due to running the NASCAR Truck Series race at Daytona. The next driver in line is Williamson – 25 points behind Britten.
“The rest of the week is big,” Williamson said. “We’ve got two more big races here and we can leave with our heads held high because we’re going home with a gator. It’s pretty sweet. The rest of the week, the pressure is off.”
Un-Official DCN Point Standings! pic.twitter.com/bEH7B9DwMC
— Super DIRTcar Series (@SuperDIRTcar) February 18, 2022
The Super DIRTcar Series returns to Volusia Speedway Park for its fourth night of racing during the 51st DIRTcar Nationals on Friday, Feb. 18. For tickets, CLICK HERE.
DIRTcar Nationals Feature #3 (30 Laps): 1. 88-Mat Williamson; 2. 8H-Max McLaughlin; 3. 21A-Peter Britten; 4. 9S-Matt Sheppard; 5. 44-Stewart Friesen; 6. 98H-Jimmy Phelps; 7. 1K-Rich Laubach; 8. 30W-Joseph Watson; 9. 99L-Larry Wight; 10. 16X-Dan Creeden; 11. 8S-Rich Scagliotta; 12. 23C-Kyle Coffey; 13. 12S-Darren Smith; 14. 19-Tim Fuller; 15. 3H-Justin Haers; 16. 111-Demetrios Drellos; 17. 2L-Jack Lehner; 18. 35M-Mike Mahaney; 19. 14-CG Morey; 20. 118-Jim Britt; 21. 215P-Adam Pierson; 22. 83-Brian Swartzlander; 23. 25P-Michael Parent; 24. 3J-Marc Johnson; 25. JS98-Rocky Warner; 26. (DNF) 37MD-Jeremiah Shingledecker