GATOR CHAMPS: Strickler Wins Gator Championship Feature from 17th, Nicely Crowned DIRTcar Nationals Points Champion

Lining up 17th on the starting grid, Kyle Strickler said he thought he had “no chance” in winning the Gator Championship Feature Saturday night.

Thirty trips around Volusia Speedway Park later, he had passed every car in front of him, led the field back around to the checkered and pulled into Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals Victory Lane to claim his $5,000 grand prize and the fourth Gator Championship trophy of his career.

In his post-race interview on DIRTVision, the 39-year-old Strickler was visibly out of breath, stunned and nearly in tears as he uttered some words to describe one of the deepest-starting Gator Championship wins in DIRTcar Nationals history.

“I can’t believe this happened,” he said.

Strickler, a winner on Tuesday night, did not get the Feature result he was looking for in the Gator Qualifiers on Friday, swiping the third and final transfer spot late, which meant a 17th-place spot on Saturday’s starting grid. And once he got on-track for Saturday’s main event, more issues arose during the race.

Tyler Carr Photo

“I told everybody that – I said it’s gonna be impossible to win this thing from 15th, and then I forgot that they were doing it with [three Friday transfers], so that put me 17th,” Strickler said. “I’m like man, it just keeps getting worse. Then, my Raceiver wouldn’t work, so I had no clue what was going on.

“Of all the bad luck I’ve had through Speedweeks, it all came back to pay me back today.”

Crossing the finish line second after Strickler came Tyler Nicely, who clinched his first career DIRTcar Nationals Big Gator points championship after a drive from the 10th starting spot. In six starts throughout the week, Nicely collected four Feature wins and no finishes worse than sixth, earning him enough points to capture the weeklong points title – worth the giant golden gator trophy and a $1,000 bonus check.

Nicely will take the big gator back home to Owensboro, KY, as the 12th different UMP Modified driver to win it and the first from the state of Kentucky.

Tyler Carr Photo

“When they put up the added points fund and all that, it gives us drivers an incentive,” Nicely said. “I really was gonna be disappointed if we didn’t come out of here with the big gator for the points after winning four (Features) this week.

“It feels good. Maybe gives me a bit more motivation to come back to try and get that big gator on Saturday.”

Before their crowning moments on stage, both drivers had several opponents to pass in their way.

Polesitter Dustin Sorensen showed the way in the opening laps while Strickler and Nicely began mounting their charges. By Lap 10, Strickler had already cracked the top-10, and from there used the cautions to his advantage to pick-off multiple cars on the restarts.

He worked his way up into the top-two with a pass for second on Michael Leach on a Lap 13 restart and began mounting a charge for Sorensen as the laps clicked off. When Leach and Strickler were racing for second in the final 10 laps, Leach went around, handing third over to Nicely for the ensuing restart.

When the green came back out on the final restart, Nicely tried to get a run on Strickler around the top but was unable to match his speed down low.

“I thought I had a good enough run coming off the hill that I could’ve made it interesting,” Nicely said. “But everybody was fighting for the bottom over here in Turns 3-4, so you couldn’t really poke your nose down in there unless they knew you were actually all the way at the bottom.”

Meanwhile, Strickler had leader Sorensen in his crosshair after getting a good takeoff on the restart. They came back around to complete Lap 26, and that’s when Strickler pulled the trigger with a full-throttle charge into Turn 1.

Tyler Carr Photo

“That first lap when I caught Dustin, I could see he was getting really tight,” Strickler said. “I just said I’m gonna hold [the pedal] to the wood and never check it until I got to the grip coming off of (Turn) 2 and it all worked out.”

Strickler raced into the lead out of Turn 2 and turned on the jets, racing back around to collect the checkered ahead of Nicely, who also moved past Sorensen for second.

Strickler’s fourth Gator Championship Feature win ties him with Nick Hoffman for most all-time.

“To have four Saturday wins and add to my gator count, it’s huge,” Strickler said. “I like the history of it. Trying to catch Nick here, if he doesn’t run the Modified any. I think I’ll be coming down here with the Modified for a while.”

Sorensen, winner of two Features during the week, crossed the stripe in third but knew his mistake on the final restart.

“I saw Strickler coming on the board and I knew he started deep,” Sorensen said. “I figured he was running the top. Then I saw Michael Leach get back by him on the scoreboard, so that kinda got in my head. I just changed my line too much, and they got around me.”

Feature (30 Laps): 1. 8S-Kyle Strickler[17]; 2. 25-Tyler Nicely[10]; 3. 19-Dustin Sorensen[1]; 4. K9-Will Krup[8]; 5. 18L-Michael Long[11]; 6. 5-Jonathan Taylor[3]; 7. 777-Trevor Neville[23]; 8. 96M-Mike McKinney[15]; 9. 5CS-Curt Spalding[13]; 10. 36-Kenny Wallace[32]; 11. 10Y-Trent Young[21]; 12. 95-Michael Altobelli[16]; 13. 77-Ray Bollinger[22]; 14. 49-Brian Ruhlman[20]; 15. 3-Josh Sanford[34]; 16. 114-Jordan Koehler[26]; 17. 21CZ-Cole Czarneski[33]; 18. 23Z-Austin Self[24]; 19. 09-Michael Leach[2]; 20. 97-Mitch Thomas[14]; 21. 35-David Stremme[12]; 22. 24-Zeke McKenzie[5]; 23. 4TW-Tim Ward[4]; 24. 6-Ryan Ayers[29]; 25. 17N-Dillon Nusbaum[18]; 26. 114B-Clayton Bryant[28]; 27. 13-Charlie Mefford[31]; 28. 18K-Brandon Kinzer[19]; 29. 12L-Lucas Lee[7]; 30. 17T-Tyler Evans[9]; 31. 11X-Tom Berry Jr[6]; 32. 90-Jason Beaulieu[27]; 33. 3F-Rob Fuqua[30]; 34. 9-Ken Schrader[35]; 35. 7-Justin Allgaier[25]