Story By: NICK GRAZIANO / DIRTCAR – OSWEGO, NY – Open the NAPA Super DIRT Week record book to a random page and blindly lay your finger down anywhere. There’s a good chance it rests on the name Stewart Friesen.
However, it’s visibly absent in one section.
The Northeast Modified star, turned NASCAR Truck Series championship contender, holds the second most Billy Whittaker Cars 200 victories with five. In the last 11 years of the event, he’s only missed the podium twice. And of his five wins, he holds two of the most prestigious victories in the history of the event – he won the final 200-lap Super DIRTcar Series race at the Syracuse Mile and won the event’s first race hosted at Oswego Speedway.
But of all his NAPA Super DIRT Week accomplishments, he’d never won the DIRTcar 358 Modified Salute to the Troops 150. He finished second four times, but never stood atop the podium. He changed that Saturday night at Oswego Speedway.
Having locked himself into the prestigious $20,000-to-win, 150-lap, race as one of the six fastest drivers in Thursday’s Tim Trial sessions, Friesen lined up fourth on the starting grid and methodically planned out his quest to accomplish the feat that’s denied him year after year.
To get to that point, he had to duel with a stellar cast of 358 Modified drivers. Billy Dunn, the 2021 DIRTcar 358 Modified champion, had earned the SRI Performance Pole Award and 2021 DIRTcar 358 Modified Hoosier Tire Weekly champion and defending Billy Whittaker Cars 200 champion Mat Williamson was on the Low-E Insulation Outside Pole. Rising Modified star Tim Sears, Jr. started to the inside of Friesen and seven-time Salute to the Troops 150 champion Billy Decker was one spot behind him.
There was going to be nothing easy about picking up his first Salute to the Troops 150 title.
When Dave Farney showed the 40-car the green flag for the first time, Williamson launched ahead of Dunn to take the lead, while the red #49 faded from the pole to fourth. The long race was halted early when Peter Britten’s night ended on Lap 3 after an incident put him in the Turn 2 wall.
Williamson, who had won every NAPA Super DIRT Week Feature event this week, held command out front for the first quarter of the race. It wasn’t a comfortable 60 laps on the throne, though. Sears kept the pressure on him the whole time, occasionally peaking his nose underneath the red #6 for a pass. During this time Friesen had fallen out of the top-five.
A caution came out with about 90 laps to go and several lead drivers like Williamson, Larry Wight – who had charged his way up from seventh to third – and Friesen decided it was the right time to pit for adjustments. That handed the lead to Sears and placed Dunn in second.
When the race commenced, Sears maintained a steady lead over Dunn and Michael Maresca, now in third. The top-three at the time were each separated by about two car lengths and rarely gained or lost time to each other. Only when a mistake was made, or a rut was hit wrong were they able to close the gap. At one point Dunn was able to sneak underneath Sears when he missed his line going into Turn 1 but failed to make the past. Shortly after, Dunn had his own misstep, which allowed Maresca to steal second place.
Friesen, Wight and Williamson were slowly making their way back to the front after their pit stop. Williamson had restarted 22nd and didn’t crack the top-10 for another 26 laps. Friesen restart beside him in 21st but had better luck with his march back to the front, finding the top-10 in a 15-lap span. Wight restarted 15th and only needed six laps to get to 10th.
The sixth caution of the night came out on Lap 90 for Rocky Warner, who slowed on track with an issue. Officials decided it would be their competition caution. Sears and Anthony Perrego, who was third at the time, were the only two top runners to take advantage of it. With them pulling off, that placed Maresca in the lead, Danny Johnson in second, Wight in third, Friesen in fourth and Williamson in fifth.
By this point in the race, Friesen had found his groove around the high side of the track. He stuck to it, and it never failed him.
“It was a little dirty early,” Friesen said about the top lane. “Just tried to clean it off and the top started getting better and better and better. Then, I was able to set sail up there. Got through a couple cautions. Maresca was super-fast. It was a pretty nerve-wracking 150 laps.”
He got by Wight for third on Lap 94 and then past Johnson for second on Lap 95. Ten laps later, Wight suffered a right rear suspension failure that eventually took him out of the race.
When the race resumed, Friesen continued to work his high lane to perfection. With it conforming to his liking he was able to power to the outside of Maresca and pass him for the lead on Lap 115.
The record books will show the Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario native led every lap from that point on to claim the elusive victory, but Maresca did not let him breathe easy. He kept the pressure on the Halmar #44 for those closing 35 laps, holding Friesen close enough to pounce if he made a mistake. And with two laps to go, it almost happened.
“That last couple got a little crazy,” Friesen said. “My spotter said good job guys, while I hooked down in the middle and almost flipped. Everyone said keep going, keep going, one more lap. We had a great race car. Enough to get it done.”
Friesen saw the duel waving checkered flags first with Maresca on his bumper at the line.
However, when the race concluded, Maresca was found to be more than 20 pounds light at the scales and disqualified, placed 40th in the finishing order. That moved fellow Canadian Williamson to second and Jimmy Phelps into the final podium spot.
“We had a good car, just had to survive there,” Williamson said. “I was really surprised there that Michael (Maresca) was able to make it on fuel. He had a good car. I feel bad for them guys. He was definitely up there battling for a win. That sucks for them guys. You don’t want to finish second this way, but we’ll take it.”
Phelps was the Penske Racing Shocks Hard Charger, picking up an extra $500, with his incredible run from 35th to third. He had to race his way into the main event through a Last Chance Showdown and then lap by lap picked his way through the field in his #98H machine.
“Obviously, attrition helped a little bit. We had a car that stayed together,” Phelps said. “It shows how good these guys are.
“I’m not going to lie. I was half tempted to pull in early. I couldn’t see. It was rough as hell. And they’re not the easiest to drive with a full load of fuel. But as the race went on, the guys made some good changes during the pit stop that helped me get more comfortable. When the fuel burned off, I was able to move around a little more and find some speed.”
An 11th place finish for Dunn wasn’t the result he envisioned after starting from the pole, but with most of his body panels off the car after getting involved in a wreck late in the race, he was proud to finish. And in doing so, he clinched the 2021 DIRTcar 358 Modified championship.
“I wanted to finish the race,” Dunn said. “We had a pretty competitive car there for a while. I was trying not to have this happen, but we finished the race, and I got the points championship. That’s all that matters.”
When Farney went to congratulate Friesen in Victory Lane, the first thing the newly crowned Salute to the Troops 150 champion could say was, “Wow.”
“It’s all about the troops,” Friesen said. “The men and women who serve north of the border and here in the United States. I’m proud to be here. We’ll celebrate this for an hour or two, get to bed, and then try to do it again tomorrow (on Sunday, Oct. 10, for the Billy Whittaker Cars 200).”
NOTES: St. Lawrence Radiology Last Chance Showdowns ahead of the Salute to the Troops 150 Saturday night completed the fields for Sunday’s Super DIRTcar Series Billy Whittaker Cars 200 and DIRTcar Sportsman Chevrolet Performance 75.
For the Billy Whittaker Cars 200, Keith Flach won the first showdown over Erick Rudolph while Jimmy Horton took the second over Gary Lindberg. Both winners took home a cool $1,000 for the wins.
In the DIRTcar Sportsman showdowns, Tyler Murray, JJ Courcy and Nick Heywood emerged as victors and were each awarded $500.
FEATURE — 1. 44-Stewart Friesen; 2. 6-Mat Williamson; 3. 98H-Jimmy Phelps; 4. 83-Danny Johnson; 5. 91D-Billy Decker; 6. 111-Demetrios Drellos; 7. 42P-Pat Ward; 8. 31W-Lance Willix; 9. 12-Darren Smith; 10. M1-David Marcuccilli; 11. 49-Billy Dunn; 12. 28M-Jordan McCreadie; 13. 215-Adam Pierson; 14. 58M-Marshall Hurd; 15. 713-Tommy Collins; 16. 38-Jason Parkhurst; 17. 39-Ryan Bartlett; 18. 2A-Mike Gular; 19. 3J-Marc Johnson; 20. 25-Erick Rudolph; 21. 44P-Anthony Perrego; 22. 99L-Larry Wight; 23. 62X-Tim Sears Jr; 24. 3-Justin Haers; 25. 63R-Billy VanInwegen Jr; 26. 98JS-Rocky Warner; 27. 60-Jackson Gill; 28. 66X-Carey Terrance; 29. 34S-Rusty Smith; 30. 11S-Steve Lewis Jr; 31. 32R-Ronnie Davis; 32. 20K-Kyle Inman; 33. 15-Todd Root; 34. 19-Tim Fuller; 35. 36-Ben Bushaw; 36. 27W-Nick Webb; 37. 55-Matt Woodruff; 38. 8R-Rob Bellinger; 39. 21A-Peter Britten; 40. (DQ) 7MM-Michael Maresca