After 149.75 laps of the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, Dion Ciccarelli was running in the top ten, a great accomplishment for the Severn, Maryland driver completing his first full season racing in the NASCAR Grand National Division, Busch East Series. But in that last quarter-lap, Ciccarelli was crashed as caution flew, leaving him helplessly spun out within sight of the waving checkers as the field drove by. He wound up seventeenth.
This race, the annual showdown between the top East Series and Autozone West Series drivers, was the first race that Ciccarelli's Jamerson Motorsports/Star Sales Ford had a NASCAR spec engine, and he credited that with his being more competitive as he raced with series champions and winners in the first of two fifty-lap qualifying races. He finished that race seventh, giving him the thirteenth starting position in Saturday's feature event.
"I had a great time," he said. "Our car was tight in practice and we really struggled with that, so we freed it up expecting the track to be tighter during the race, and we were really loose. I had the best time racing Joey McCarthy, we went at it lap after lap and we had a really good night.
"The engine's making a big difference to us, we're happy with the horsepower," Ciccarelli continued. "We were loose, but once I got the car set I could get on the gas and power off the corner. We have to work on the setup to get our handling right, but we're still about as competitive as we've been yet. We're racing good cars out there so I think we're making progress."
Carrying in-car cameras for the live race broadcast on SpeedTV, Ciccarelli started Saturday's 150-lap race from the sixth row. He immediately took part in the side-by-side racing that is an Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway trademark, working traffic to get to eleventh by lap 35. He was tenth as the event crossed its halfway point and improved to eighth when caution came out on lap 98. After two laps of caution, the pits opened and the field took advantage of a scheduled ten-minute break to pit their cars. Happy with the car, the team didn't change anything except for changing the tires and topping off the fuel.
"Knowing the car started out tight and needed fifty laps to come to me, we put sticker tires on the car and added fuel, but didn't really change anything," he said.
When the race went back to green with fifty laps to go, He spent the balance of the race battling the likes of East Series standouts Mike Olsen and Brian Hoar as well as West Series regulars Tim Woods III and Peyton Sellers to remain in the top ten as laps wound down.
As the leaders were heading around the final two turns of the race, the third place car sent the second place car spinning. Caution came out and Ciccarelli slowed, but he was run into and spun into the stopped car in turn four. He sat stalled on the track as the rest of the field came by to finish the race, sending him back to seventeenth in the final rundown.
Despite the poor finish, Ciccarelli and the rest of the Jamerson Motorsports team was encouraged by the team's competitiveness in a high-profile race against the best of the East and West Series.
"Most of the guys I was racing with and passing tonight, I couldn't come close to racing at the beginning of the year," Ciccarelli said. "We got some advice from Andy Santerre today and with that advice we went from struggling in practice to having a really good car in the race. Tonight the car started out really tight, but fifty laps into the race it started working really nice. It freed up and I could race with some really good cars. We were racing Brian Hoar and Mike Olsen, two drivers I really respect, and we were having a great night."
As good as the racing was, the finish was quite a disappointment. The end result was a bent rear clip and a good chunk of the rear bodywork completely torn away.
"I was in tenth with the checkered flag in sight," he explained. "I saw the yellow flag come out and the 8 car, in my opinion, turned me. We got hit and bent the rear clip. We're pretty disappointed that the car is tore up. I'm angry that it happened after the race was over, but what can you do? The car's tore up, and no matter what we do or say now, we can't do anything about that. We had a real tenth place finish just a couple hundred yards from the checkers after a race where we had raced against some great competitors. It really shows how far we've come in one season."
Ciccarelli, who wound up second in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, tried to put the wreck behind him and look at his first full season of Busch East racing as a whole.
"I have to thank Beth and Larry Jamerson," he said. "They gave me this opportunity and invested in the spec motor for this last race. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't' for their support. They put a lot into it and you can tell by how excited they get when we're racing. This finish is a tough thing to swallow, but we'll get over that.
"I just want to leave here with the memory of racing good cars. Larry turned me loose and let me race the car. We ran the whole year on a real tight budget and I admit to being pretty conservative at times, but tonight I got to race and we mixed it up and had a good time. It was a good night. We had some guys come by and tell us we did a great job, so we're definitely making progress," he continued.