Tuesday, June 26, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Local fan favorite earns popular dirt series win

Leader sportswriter

There were several extended cautions and a few hurt feelings, but at the end of the 35-lap Comp Cams Super Dirt Series feature at Beebe Speedway on Friday, there was a capacity crowd that cheered the popular victory of Curtis “Hollywood” Cook, the local kid who has made good in the regional late-model series as a major contender in the season points race.

Cook, the Vilonia driver who earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors in CCSDS last season, grabbed the lead from outside polesitter Timothy Culp on the seventh circuit and held on to the lead despite repeated charges by Culp and fast qualifier Jon Kirby of Russellville.

Kirby, fast qualifier for the event, got by Cook on one late restart just as one of the series-high seven cautions at Beebe came out for the crashed car of Tommy Surrett, which forced the field back to the last completed lap with Cook back out front.

Kirby did not get the same chance on the final restart as he was forced into a battle for second with Culp, who claimed the runner-up spot on the final circuit as Cook crossed the line for what turned out to be a victory that was decidedly spectator approved.

Cook stood atop his Lawson Farms 601 machine in the winner’s circle to a collective roar from local race fans who packed the stands in what was easily the biggest crowd at the quarter-mile oval in years.

“I’ve never been more up on the wheel in my life,” Cook said. “It didn’t take too strong at all, and it would go up the racetrack. You had to make sure to get it slow enough but not just stop. I’m worn slap out.”

The battle between Cook, Culp and Kirby was plenty contact oriented, and some of the battles behind them were even more heated as Jon “The Catman” Mitchell and Floral’s Brandon Smith made contact on lap 15, resulting in Mitchell’s 5 car spinning in turn four.

Mitchell, who came into the race as the series points leader, pulled alongside the defending series champ under the yellow to voice his displeasure before joining the back of the field for the next restart. Mitchell qualified fifth and was running in the fourth spot when the incident with Smith occurred.

Things did not get any better for Mitchell, who was involved in an incident with Russellville driver Dewaine Hottinger one green-flag lap later that resulted in heavy damage to Hottinger’s car. Hottinger followed closely behind Mitchell under caution before entering the pits, and the final straw for Mitchell came on lap 32 after getting caught up in a multi-car spin and bringing out his second caution of the night.

That meant he was required to go off the track, but with a tight points battle and good runs by his main season foes apparent, Mitchell disputed the call at the flag stand before being ordered off the track by series director Chris Ellis.

Mitchell declined comment following the race and was credited with a 14th-place finish.

As for Cook, it was his second CCSDS victory of his career and the first of the season. Mitchell’s bad luck also handed Cook the championship points lead.

“There’s no greater feeling,” Cook said. “We’ve been trying hard the last couple of years, and we’ve had some strong runs. We went through last year and were just up and down. We won some heat races, but we might run second one night and 16th the next night. We’ve been real consistent over the last couple of months here, maybe we can stay consistent like this and come home with that points championship.”

The race was also the second of six Rice-Tec Summer Series events, which gave Cook the points lead in the mini-series over Kirby and Smith.

Cook’s move around Culp on the outside of the third restart broke an early-race pattern of drivers trying to get to the bottom, with two and sometimes three-wide battles breaking out through the turns in the middle stages of the race.

“I seen them battling for the bottom,” Cook said of Kirby and Culp. “We got underneath Kirby there one time, and I knew we weren’t going to get that done without some pretty good contact. So we got that one restart, and I felt like I could get some go up there. We got a good charge there on the outside, and I couldn’t help it – we’re going for broke, let’s get the lead.”

Some drivers went high just below the upper cushion of the track while others such as Smith went way up on the rough stuff to gain position. The strategy worked out for Smith, who earned hard charger for the race with a fourth-place finish after starting 11th.

Baytown, Tex., driver Kevin Sitton completed the top five while Gary Christian of Broken Bow, Okla., was sixth. Allen Murray finished seventh and Austin driver Chandler Petty gained ground in the rookie-of-the-year standings with an eighth-place run.

Keith Lawson and Missouri driver Mason Oberkramer completed the top 10. Bryant driver Joseph Long was 11th while Cabot’s Stacy Taylor finished 15th and Kenneth Jackson of Beebe retired early in the 18th spot after a scary crash on the turn 2 fence in hot laps that required his car to be turned over by track workers.

The Comp Cams Super Dirt Series will return to Beebe Speedway in a few weeks with the 100th race in series history on July 13 before going back to another tour mainstay at Northeast Arkansas Speedway the following night for a doubleheader of Rice-Tec Summer Series events.