At no point in Monday Night’s MNR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway did Collin Fern look like he could steal a win to find his way into Monday Night Racing’s Championship 4, which was problematic as the driver of the No. 86 machine was in a must-win situation coming into the race.
At the beginning of the race, it simply seemed as if he didn’t have the speed that the other playoff contenders had. Then, when it looked like he was making up time on the long runs, cautions would come out stalling his run. And the final blow for Fern seemed to be when a caution coming to the white flag derailed his strategy while he was leading the race, forcing him to pit with nothing but an overtime finish to get back to the front.
But somehow, someway Fern will be racing for the Season Five Interstate Batteries Monday Night Racing Championship next week as he put in a miraculous comeback to score the race win.
The race started off with chaos. Right off the bat, Brett Baldeck would spin his tires on the initial start, causing a multi-car pileup. Real-world NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor Ryan Vargas was involved and fell to 29th. While it was bad that he fell to the rear of the field, it was double-trouble for Vargas, who was basically in a must-win situation coming into this race.
Immediately again on the restart the MNR field failed to make it through turn one, as Will Rodgers took Justin Melillo and DJ Cummings three-wide. Another big crash ensued as they couldn’t maintain it through the corner.
The next restart would occur on lap 13, and the field made it through cleanly. James Bickford, Anthony Alfredo, and David Schildhouse would take the top three spots.
By lap 20, Ryan Vargas had already rebounded up to P7. All of the playoff drivers except Fern were placed in the top 8 at this point in the event.
On lap 24, Noah Lewis got loose and wrecked, collecting Devon Henry as well, to bring out the caution.
Most of the field would pit, except for a few under this caution.
The playoff contenders would waste little time eating up the drivers on older tires to get back to the lead immediately. Schildhouse would get the top spot, but Alfredo would get side by side with the TobyChristie.Com driver as the caution came out for another crash. Will Rodgers and DJ Cummings would be involved in a four-wide incident on the backstretch. MNR race control ruled Schildhouse had the lead at the time of caution.
The race would restart and Schildhouse would maintain the lead on the start. But Alfredo kept the pressure up, and forced Schildhouse to run a high defensive line.
On lap 44, Alfredo finally cleared Schildhouse for the race lead. At this point, Vargas had worked himself up to fourth; right behind the three leaders.
Things unraveled for Brandon Brown on lap 46, as he would wreck on the frontstretch to bring out another caution. Most of the field would pit again except for Garrett Smithley. Smithley would quickly fall back on the start, but not without consequence as Smithley would impede James Bickford and allow Vargas to get up to third.
Vargas used his speed to immediately chase down Schildhouse and take second place. By lap 55, Vargas was fighting with Alfredo for the race lead. The side-by-side racing for the lead allowed Corey Hiem, Rodgers, and Nick Olsen to close up on the front pack, and Hiem would be the next driver to move into the lead.
Shortly after though, Will Rodgers would challenge for the lead. At this point, the front pack had opened up to nine cars.
By lap 65, Rodgers had actually opened up a little more than a half second lead. But, by lap 67, Bickford had run him down and caught up to his back bumper. Off of turn four, Bickford got Rodgers loose and sent him into the outside wall. Rodgers would fall through the field, and without a fast repair, it meant the end of the day for the driver of the No. 55.
A caution came out for Rodgers getting onto pit road, but the caution may have been unnecessary in retrospect. This caution hurt Collin Fern and Adam Cabot a lot as they were the two fastest cars on the racetrack at the time of caution, and were gaining on the leaders.
Bickford would hold the lead on the lap 74 restart with Alfredo in second. It would only take Alfredo two laps to take the lead away. Just a few laps later however, Nick Olsen would find his way back to the front of the field. Robby Lyons would follow through to second.
With just 40 laps to go, Lyons would scrape the outside wall, which would allow Hiem to get side-by-side for second.
With 34 laps to go, it had shaken out that six of the seven playoff drivers occupied the third through eighth positions on the racetrack, and engaged in an amazing battle for position. Right in front of them, Hiem and Olsen engaged in a side by side battle for the lead.
After being passed by Hiem, Olsen would begin to fall rapidly throughout the field. Meanwhile, back at the front, Cabot began to search for a way around Hiem for the lead.
With 25 laps to go, green flag stops began to take place. Hiem was the first driver onto to pit road, but would receive a black flag for speeding on pit road.
As pit cycles happened, Schildhouse and Cabot were the first two off of those who pitted, and the two had an amazing battle for position. With nine laps to go, Schildhouse got through to what was third on the racetrack. However, at this point, Collin Fern and Justin Melillo, who were in front of him and Garrett Smithley, who was right behind him in fourth, had yet to pit.
No one, not even the Podium eSports commentary booth, believed there was any way Fern could stretch his fuel to the end of the race.
With seven laps to go, Cabot got by Schildhouse to take what was believed to be the eventual race lead and he would quickly begin driving away from Schildhouse.
With three laps to go, the gap between Fern and Cabot was just 2.5 seconds. Cabot at this point was making up about a second a lap, and had closed the gap to under a second and a half with less than a lap and a half to go. However, as Fern came around to take the white flag with over a second lead, Garrett Smithley would spin all alone in turn one to bring out the caution.
It was completely unprovoked, and it seemingly eliminated Fern’s opportunity to win the race. Fern’s phenomenal and nearly championship-changing strategy had seemingly failed due to a heartbreaking spin. But it wasn’t the end.
Fern would have new tires and two laps to try and get back to the front from 11th position.
Adam Cabot would inherit the lead, and with the way the playoff positing stood, this would place David Schildhouse, who was restarting second, out of the Playoffs. Cabot would get the lead off the jump as Schildhouse would be challenged by those behind him.
By the time the white flag had flew, Fern, incredibly, was working on Schildhouse for fourth. Somehow, someway, Fern not only made up two spots in turns one and two, but managed to maintain the momentum on exit and swing to the outside of Cabot to steal the lead.
Fern would lock himself into the Championship 4 for the second year in a row. Cabot would come home second and one spot short of a Championship 4 spot, with Smithley, who had also pit at the final caution, Alfredo, and Bickford rounding out the top five.
James Bickford, Presley Sorah, and Anthony Alfredo will join Fern in his hunt for the championship, as a late race fade from Schildhouse dropped him from 2nd to 6th, allowing Alfredo to point his way into the final round of the playoffs.