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Driving gearing up for next Thunder season

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Skip Nichols is one win away from collecting career win No. 50 at Thursday Thunder, but he will have to wait until next season. (Photo by Derrick Mahone) McDonough native Alex Coffey finished fourth in the Young Lions division at Thursday Thunder. He was 56 points out of first place. (Photo by Derrick Mahone)

HAMPTON — All the cars and equipment had yet to be loaded on the trailers, but the conversation inside the Atlanta Motor Speedway garages was focused on next season.

As some drivers talked about what had just transpired on the track, others where looking for a fresh start with next season.

The 16th season of Thursday Thunder is now in the books, and the focus for AMS employees is turning to upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup’s AdvoCare 500 during Labor Day Weekend.

But for the drivers in the grassroots racing series, the talk is about next season.

And some have plenty of reason to be optimistic about their chances in 2014 after a solid race season.

Stockbridge’s Connor Younginer is emerging into a top driver after finishing third in the Bandits division in his third season of racing. The 11-year-old says he is ready to become a contender in side the quarter-mile Thunder Ring at the track.

“Next season I should be challenging,” Younginer said. “I did pretty good this season, and I knew I didn’t have the fastest car out there.”

Just being out on the track last Thursday in the season-finale was big for Younginer.

The previous week, he flipped in his Bandolero car causing some damage. Younginer’s father, Mark, said he was driving in last week’s race with a bent shock.

But the elder Younginer was happy to see his son didn’t show any mental scars from the crash.

“Last year when he had a crash, he was a little reluctant to engage with other drivers on the track,” Mark said. “It took him half a year to really get back to where he needed to be. I saw him mature out there in this race. He was in there fighting for second place.”

Connor said he wasn’t holding back in the final race of the season.

“I went ahead and raced my race,” he said. “I have two months before the next season of racing. If I trashed it, so be it. Next season, I want to be competing in the national points race.”

During the offseason, the Younginers will break down the car to work out the kinks front he crash, and race in the Winter Flurry series at the track.

Masters division driver Michael Sauer is also looking towards next season.

The Germany native will sport a new car as he continues to line up sponsors. He finished 13th overall in his second season of competing in the Thursday Thunder series.

“I’m working on being a middle-of-the-pack driver,” he said. “I think I had a good year.”

After getting her first two wins in the Masters division this season, Tina Johnson said she is preparing to make another run for the title. She finished runner-up to Skip Nichols in the division race, which came down to the final race last week.

Johnson finished third as Nichols captured the title with his 49th career series win.

“Just beating Skip one time this season was an accomplishment,” Johnson said. “I thought I was more competitive this season with a new setup on the car.”

Next season is setting up to be a big year for Nichols and his family at the track.

The Albany native is one win away from a milestone 50 wins in the series. He will also welcome his grandson, Wilder Etheredge, into the racing circuit. The eight-year-old got his first racing car three weeks ago, and will start racing next season in the Bandits division.

“I’m real excited about that,” Nichols said. “We are definitely ready for another season here at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It should be a lot of fun.”