WEST SALEM — The way Steve Carlson and Nick Panitzke have gone back and forth this season, it’s only fitting the track championship be decided at the final race.
Local race fans will have to remain patient, however, as the final Late Model feature race won’t be until Thursday, Oct. 5, the first day of the four-day Oktoberfest Race Weekend.
Neither Carlson or Panitzke finished in the top three of the first of two 20-lap features Saturday night at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway, however, as Nick Clements stole the spotlight by hanging on for his first feature won of the season.
Clements, a multi-time Sportsmen Division track champion who has been behind the wheel of a Tobacco Plus Late Model for the past several seasons, was able to hold off a gallant effort for Cole Howland. The race turned into a one-lap sprint to the finish as a yellow flag on Lap 19 forced a restart. Howland got a great jump on the restart and appeared to have swiped the low groove from Clements, but Clements slammed the door entering Turn 1.
Howland tried again coming out of Turn 2, and it appeared Clements bobbled just a bit, but he regained control just in time. Howland reluctantly settled for second, while Brent Kirchner finished third.
“I gave him a little lane,” Clements said, “and going into (Turn) 2 I got a little loose, but he gave me enough room to correct it.”
Instead of taking each other out, the intense battle resulted in a crowd-pleasing finish.
“We did it,” Clements said as he turned to the crowd estimated at 2,500 during an on-track interview.
Howland left no doubt he could taste his first feature win of the season, and came oh-so-close.
“I that last lap I was going to make it interesting one way or the other,” Howland said. “I tried to drive in under him, but couldn’t quite pull it off. It was a good race and a fun race.”
Mike Carlson, the fast qualifier on the night, finished fourth, while Brad Powell took fifth.
Steve Carlson, who started seventh in the first 20-lap feature, didn’t appear to the same level of car he’s had much of the season, as he finished sixth.
Panitzke, meanwhile, took a two-point lead into the first feature, but was forced to start at the rear of the 24-car field. Track officials penalized Panitzke, who was slated to start in the seventh spot, as he failed to show up in time for the starting grid.
Panitzke did make his way from 24th to seventh place, leaving him and Steve Carlson in a virtual lock in the points battle heading into the second 20-lap feature.
The second 20-lap feature was not completed as of Tribune press time.
MOORE AND MOORE: Auto Value Thunderstox Division points leader Adam Moore of Sparta is nearly unbeatable. Again and again.
Moore started in the rear of the field, but was able to make his way to the front of the 14-car field and win his track-best eighth feature.
NEVER TOO OLD: Don “Thunder” Turner is having strong second half to his season as the 72-year-old La Crosse driver won a Tobacco Outlet Plus heat race for the second consecutive week. Turner, also known as Frank Thornton, edged Greg Borchardt at the finish line.
Turner was not as fortunate when it came to the first of two 20-lap features, however, as he was involved in a three-car crash in between Turn 3 and Turn 4, and had to be hauled off the track.
FAST MATTHEW: Matthew Henderson’s car not only looked good Saturday night, but it was equally fast. Henderson won the 6-For-6 dash – the race with the night’s six fastest qualifiers – by beating division points leader Nick Panitzke across the finish line.
LAST TO FIRST: Steve Carlson started last in his Late Model heat race, but in the end it didn’t matter. Carlson went from 10th to first, but it took until the last few feet before he was able to edge Justin Mullikin at the finish line.
TOP QUALIFIER: Mike Carlson continued his hot streak in August as he topped a 25-car Late Model with a qualifying lap of 19.97 seconds, or an average speed of 98.247 seconds around the five-eighth’s mile oval track.
Former track champion Brad Powell had the second-fastest lap (19.992 seconds, 98.139 mph), while Cole Howland was third (20.111 seconds, 97.559 seconds).