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Johnson wins Winter Classic

 

Roby Helm, Special to The Dispatch

 

Ronnie Johnson, of Chattanooga, Tenn., won the NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series Winter Classic on Saturday night at Columbus Speedway. 

 

The National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame Inductee made the winning pass on lap 27 of the 40-lap race to post his third Winter Classic win in the last four years. 

 

Johnson started ninth and worked his way up to third by the eighth lap. He was in contention for the lead by the halfway point, and raced side-by-side with early race leader Rick Rickman, of Columbus, for several laps. 

 

Johnson and Rickman swapped the lead three times before Johnson took the lead for good and pulled away to a full straightaway lead at the checkered flag. 

 

"The track was great tonight, as I could just pick my groove and race wherever I needed to," Johnson said. "After having to start ninth, I would have told you before the race I''d be good to finish fourth or fifth. I just looked for racing room and went where the car in front of me wasn''t, found the passing lanes, and went to the front." 

 

NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series National point leader Brad Hall, of Knoxville, Tenn., finished after Rickman found to be light at the scales during the post-race weigh-in. 

 

Hall''s second-place finish followed a win in the NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series season opener on Jan. 3 at Talladega Short Track in Eastaboga, Ala.  Hall leads the points chase by 10 points over Johnson, who used Saturday''s win to climb into second place. 

 

The 2007 Winter Classic champion, Jay Blair, of Angie, La., finished third, James Cline, of Oxford, Ala., was fourth, and Derrick Rainey, of Powder Springs, Ga., was fifth. 

 

Billy Franklin, of Calera, Ala., finished sixth, Brian Rickman, of Columbus, started 22nd and finished seventh, and Eric Cooley, of Fulton, took eighth. 

 

Blake Koenigsberger, of Columbus, grabbed the Maximum Signs ninth-place award.   

 

Along with Hall, Brian Rickman and Koenigsberger put three GM Performance 602s in the top 10 at the finish.  Larry Boutwell, of Baker, Fla., rounded out the top 10. 

 

Rick Rickman out-timed the 53-car field with a lap in 14.225 seconds to earn the McLeod Construction Fast Time award. He took the lead at the drop of the green flag followed by Hall, two-time NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series national champion David Gentry, of Lewisburg, Tenn., and Chris O''Connor, of Cantonment, Fla. 

 

The first of three caution flags came out on the second lap when Hall spun in the second turn. Officials ruled that Gentry spun Hall, so Hall restarted second and Gentry went to the end of the field.   

 

Blair got by Hall for second on the double-file restart, and Rainey passed O''Connor for fourth. 

 

On the sixth lap, Chase Washington, of Houlka, tagged the wall coming off the fourth turn to bring out the second caution flag.  

 

Jerry Inmon was done for the night, but he earned the Sunoco Race Fuels Rookie of the Race award.   

 

Back under green flag racing, Johnson moved into the top five by passing O''Connor on lap seven. 

 

A lap eight multi-car pile-up on the front straightaway involving O''Connor, Frank Ingram, of Woodstock, Ga., Jason Hiett, of Lincoln, Ala., Marcus Minga, of Shannon, Boutwell, Koenigsberger, and Gentry turned the caution lamp on for the third time. 

 

Hiett and Gentry were done for the night, and Hiett earned the Dominator Race Products Hard Luck award.  

 

Rick Rickman led Blair, Hall, Rainey, and Johnson down for the double-file restart. Hall drove around Blair for second, and Johnson made a big move from fifth, passing Rainey and Blair to move up to third. 

 

At the halfway point of the race, Johnson battled Hall side-by-side for second.. By lap 22, Hall and Johnson closed in on Rick Rickman, and a three-way battle for the lead brought the crowd to its feet.  

 

Johnson drove around the outside of Hall for second on lap 23, and then began to challenge Rick Rickman wheel-to-wheel for the lead. 

 

Johnson nosed ahead of Rick Rickman to lead lap 25, but it was Rick Rickman reclaiming the point on lap 26. 

 

Johnson was able to take the lead for good on lap 27, and began to pull away from Rick Rickman.   

 

In preliminary action, the four 12-lap B-Main Races were won by Jody Knowles of Tyrone, Ga., Boutwell, Johnson, and Ingram. 

 

 

 

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