WEST SALEM — It was only fitting that after a season of neck-and-neck racing, including a recent change in the points leader, that Steve Carlson and Nick Panitzke would dominate Saturday night’s twin 20-lap features at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway.
And they did.
Carlson, the four-time defending Late Model track champion who has a shot at becoming the first driver in the history of the division to win five straight, won the first 20-lap feature. Panitzke, who was forced to start in the rear of the 24-car field because his qualifying run was thrown out when he used two new tires instead of one, rallied to finish third.
In the second feature, which was run more than 2 hours later because of heavy rains that swept through the West Salem area, Panitzke held off Carlson to grab the checkered flag.
The big-picture result?
Carlson, who took over the points lead last week and entered the night with a five-point lead over Panitzke, pushed it to 15 points after first- and second-place finishes.
“The thing with Steve, he just doesn’t let up. He will be right there every night,” said Panitzke, who has won four feature races this season. “He isn’t going to give us a break, so we are just going to have to go out and get it ourselves.”
Carlson, who took the lead from Cole Howland on Lap 14 en route to winning the first feature, swiped second place from his son, Mike Carlson, on Lap 5 of the second feature, then dogged Panitzke the rest of the way.
For 15 laps, Carlson pushed his No. 66 car hard, climbing within a car length of Panitzke numerous times. With a caution-free race, he simply had no chance to get past him.
“My car got a little loose later in the run. For a while there, I ran there pretty good with him,” said Carlson, who has won three feature races this season.
“I was trying. It started to get a little loose there and I couldn’t get on the throttle hard enough to get the job done.”
In the first feature, Panitzke had some extra incentive when he took the green flag with 23 cars in front of him. He said he didn’t know that it was against track rules to use two new tires during qualifying. A typical race night has one feature race and teams are allowed to purchase one tire.
“Honestly, being a newcomer, I didn’t quite know (the tire rule for qualifying on double feature nights). You buy two tires on a night like tonight, and you can’t run them right away?” Panitzke said.
“They kind of treat them (double features) separately. They get treated separately for tire wise. I certainly wasn’t trying to pull a fast one by any means. New guy blues.
“I had a little chip on my shoulder (after the penalty). I was giving her all she had. It is a bummer we didn’t get a caution because I think we could have used it.”
With five feature races left in the season, both Panitzke and Carlson expect the points battle to right to the end.
“We have five nights to go,” Carlson said. “We’ll see what happens.”
SPORTSMEN WINNER: Brad Warthan survived a wild Dean’s Satellite Sportsmen Division feature race that started with a crash on Lap 1. Warthan avoided the first-lap mess, then went on to beat Adam Oxborough across the finish line.
It was Warthan’s division-leading fourth feature win of the season.
SCARY MOMENT: Brian Hesselberg had one scary ride during the first lap of the Dean’s Satellite Sportsmen Division feature race late Saturday night. As the field roared down the front stretch, Shawn Lockington’s car appeared to break loose and quickly gathered several other cars in his immediate path.
Hesselberg had no place to go, and was caught in the melee. His car shot across the track and into the inside concrete wall of Turn 1, became airborne, then ricocheted back across the track and collected points leader Randy Humfeld in the process.
The violent collision left Hesselberg’s and Humfeld’s cars with significant damage and both had to be pulled off the track on the hook of a wrecker.
THUNDERSTOX WINNER: Jason Bolster of Sparta made a trip to Victory Lane late Saturday night as he won the Auto Value Thunderstox 15-lap feature race. Bolster held off Kyle Lockington of La Crosse, while Mark Challet took third.
It was Bolster’s first feature win of the season.
HORNET FEATURE: Ben Thurk of La Crosse had a night to remember as he won the Ants Complete Pest Control feature race, beating Patrick Thicke across the line. It was the first feature win for Thurk.
SPORTSMEN QUALIFYING: Brad Warthan, who is having an impressive season, topped the 13-car Dean’s Satellite Sportsmen Division field when he ran a qualifying lap of 21.531 seconds (91.124 mph).
Points leader Randy Humfeld was second (21.702 seconds), while Steve Bachman was third (21.857 seconds).
TOUGH SUMMER: Rain hit the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway — once again — Saturday night. Just as the first of two scheduled 20-lap features was completed, torrential rain hit the track at about 8:45 p.m. It forced track officials to postpone the race as they tried to dry the track.
According to Fairgrounds Speedway general manager Chuck Deery, it was the 13th time in 16 scheduled events that rain has either hit, or cancelled, race events.