Milestone wins highlight opening night

Photo by Gabriel Stovall
McDonough’s Alex Coffey signs autographs for fans before the feature race sessions began.

Photo by Gabriel Stovall McDonough’s Alex Coffey signs autographs for fans before the feature race sessions began.

If Thursday’s kickoff night for Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Thursday Thunder is any indication, then fans and drivers alike may be in for quite a ride for the summer racing series’ 15th season.

After Skip Nichols won his 36th race in the Masters feature, it was the Bandits turn to excite the crowd. Chandler Smith and Zach Leonhardi started the Bandits feature by battling each other back and forth for the lead in the race’s first few laps with Leonhardi seeming poised to create some seperation between himself and Smith in lap seven. But Smith’s nose nudged Leonhardi on the last turn of the eighth lap, and was enough for Smith to recapture the lead.

As Leonhardi fell back to fourth, Joshua Hicks battled up to pass Smith and gain the lead on lap 16. Hicks was able to hold off Smith to record his seventh Thursday Thunder win. Hicks said being able take advantage of --an added double file start rule — where drivers have the option of choosing which lane to restart in after caution flags — was key in being able to keep Smith at bay.

“Chandler is awesome at restarts, so it was really important for me to hold him off and cut him down,” Hicks said.

Though very early in the season, Hicks said it was vital for his own confidence to be victorious in his first time out.

“This win makes me feel better about my season,” said the 11-year-old Senoia native. “But it’s a long season and it was a close race. Seeing all the competition, I know I’m going to have to work hard all season to be where I want to be.”

After William Plemons III — winner of the 2010 Semi-Pro divison — cruised to a virtually unchallenged victory in the Semi-Pro feature, the Shane’s Rib Shack Young Lions feature proved to be a milestone for Riley Thornton.

Thornton took pole and held onto a lead until after a caution flag on lap three. After the caution, it was Evan Bell who took outside position and overtook Thornton until lap six. Thornton made a nice inside move to bring himself back to the lead in lap six, and it was enough for him to hold on for his first ever Thursday Thunder win.

Afterward, the 15-year-old Thornton said that his first win would give him a push he hasn’t had in his previous two seasons.

“This first win feels good and it gives me a great confidence booster,” said Thornton of Peachtree City. “I feel like I have some extra momemtnum going into week two that the other racers don’t have. I’ve never won a Legends race in Atlanta, and this just gives me confidence that I can just out-race people and win. Now I’m trying to just keep consistency.”

Alex Coffey of McDounough had hopes of taking a good first step this week in the Young Lions division, but left the track a bit deflated, but still determined, after crashing out of the race in just the third lap.

“The spindle broke and I just lost control,” Coffey said. “It kind of ruins your confidence a bit, but it’s better to happen here in week one than in the last week when you’re really worried about points.”

Coffey said he hopes a better starting position next week will yield better results.

“I hope to get a good draw so that way I won’t have to get stuck outside and hung out to dry like I did today,” Coffey said. “But we’ve got nine more weeks to make this right.”