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Erickson and Love win on opening night

Matt Erickson and Jesse Love IV split the co-features during the season opening event for Late Models at Madera Speedway.

Erickson claimed $5,000 in the RPM Mortgage Pro Late Model Series, while Love’s victory came in his debut in the 51FIFTY Jr. Late Models on Saturday night.

The 2017 season at Madera Speedway opened in a big way with nearly 60 Late Models in the pit area and more than 200 laps of Late Model action on the one-third mile asphalt oval.

Erickson’s victory kicked off a title defense after six wins in eight races season in 2016 in the MAVTV televised Pro Late Model Series. He out-dueled 2015 series champion Buddy Shepherd for the win.

Third generation driver Ross Strmiska led the 26-car starting field to green after time trials and a 20-lap B Main set the starting order. Shepherd set quick time but drew 10th in the redraw. He quickly charged around the outside lane to run fifth at the conclusion of lap two.

Strmiska, Logan Zampa, and Joey Licata, Jr. anchored a three-car breakaway before the first caution on lap 11. Shepherd made some crafty moves to inherit second on the restart. A lap 20 caution gave Shepherd the opportunity to charge underneath Strmiska to take the lead. Shepherd led comfortably through lap 28 before an eight-car melee in turn one ended the evening for Racin Vernon, most notably, and caused damage for Carl Pearce and Austin Herzog, among others. Shepherd had to head to the infield to top off his radiator for overheating issues, relinquishing the lead back to Strmiska. Garland Tyler also surrendered track position to pit with a flat tire.

The restart was a wild one with Erickson getting into Jason Romero with several cars sliding and spinning to avoid. Erickson and Romero had to restart at the tail end of the field as a result of the incident.

After a lap 38 caution for Zampa spinning from third, Shepherd had already moved forward from 23rd into fifth. When Licata tagged race leader Strmiska on lap 54, Shepherd took over the lead in an amazing roller coaster race.

A lap 62 caution ended the first 75-lap segment prematurely with teams heading to the pits before returning for the conclusion of the 125 laps scheduled. Shepherd led Erickson and Dillon Tucker when racing resumed later in the evening, while Licata and Jeffrey Peterson battled behind them for fourth.

An incredible sequence unfolded after a lap 88 crash that ended the nights for Glenn Cook and Howard Holden. Shepherd and Erickson traded the lead multiple times with intense sideways racing. Shepherd made a dive bomb maneuver into turn three only to slide up the hill with Erickson taking the lead and Tucker moving in for second. Zampa spun right behind them and collected Strmiska and Elliott Sterjne to end those two drivers’ evenings.

The race went green over the closing laps with Shepherd getting shuffled back to fourth and taking on Romero in a stirring battle for third, before racing with Tucker. Shepherd began to claw at Erickson, but the race ended prematurely, at lap 120, for curfew with Matt Erickson opening up his title defense in victory lane ahead of Shepherd, Tucker, Romero, Peterson, and Ryan Hart having a solid performance in sixth.

In the 51FIFTY Jr. Late Models, it was a totally different experience.

More than 20 competitors ages 10-16 took to the track for the expanded 75-lap feature for MAVTV. No one would stop 12-year-old Love IV, who led the entire way in his first career start. The overall USAC HPD Midget champion of 2016 made a big statement to begin his 2017 season.

Twenty entries took the green with Austin Edwards suffering rear gear problems early in the event to eventually relegate him to the pits for repairs. Love anchored a lead pack that included his teammate Hailie Deegan in the early stages. A spin for Lilly Mead brought out the first yellow on lap five.

Fast-time qualifier Kolby Berry drove from fifth starting position up to third by the fifth lap of the race. A nice battle ensued in the middle teens laps when Tanner Reif was freight trained by Dezel West, Austin Herzog, and RJ Smothermon to drop Reif to seventh. The caution flew again on lap 18 and Berry used that to his advantage to take over second from Deegan on lap 23.

West used a series of good restarts to continue to put himself in a good position but it was all for naught. West and Herzog collided in a scary incident off of turn two, with both cars sliding hard into the track entrance gate before coming to stop. Each vehicle suffered serious damage but the drivers were uninjured. Another grinding crash involving Reif, Anthony Guiamano and Allison Gay in turn three brought the race to its lap 50 break early on lap 46 with Love earning the five point bonus and leading Berry into the break.

After 10 minutes for repairs and adjustments, the cars returned to the track. Except for a few brief cautions the second half of the race was fairly uneventful. The race ended on a five-lap shootout to the finish, but Love proved too tough as he outlasted Berry to take his first victory. Deegan ran third ahead of Jesse Burks and first timer Eric Nascimento, Jr.

Dave Lander led all 25 laps for the Modified Super Toyota season opener after winning the heat race as well. Bert Stephens and Zachary Cook were the top-three.

The Toyota Sedans had a nice nine-car turnout with heat race theatrics of their own. Tim Curtis claimed a scant .196 second victory ahead of Kyle Fortney and Dean Gould in the 25 lapper.

Madera Speedway’s 2017 season continues Saturday with the 75-lap PCS Super Late Model Series, Western Winged Super Sprints, Legends of the Pacific, Race No. 1 of the Super Hobby Stock Series 50 laps, and USAC HPD Midgets.

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