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Strong start boosts C.J. Johnson to URSS victory

WaKEENEY, Kan. — For C.J. Johnson, it was all about the start.

That good start led to the first-place finish Sunday night in the United Rebel Sprint Series feature at WaKeeney Speedway, giving the series' winningest driver another notch in the victory column.

Johnson, who started outside the second row, bolted into turn one and sailed round the front row of Brian Hardman and John Webster into the lead. From there, nothing but lap traffic and a red flag could slow down the Quinter driver.

“I needed to get in the lead early,” Johnson said. “They watered that top, and we rolled it and it felt like it had a lot of grip. And it did. It had plenty of grip. I got the jump and tried to run through the middle where the rubber was. Then I kept getting lower and lower. I think, honestly, I was faster if I would have stayed up, but until I actually saw somebody up there, I felt like I needed to protect the bottom as best I could.”

Johnson protected the entire track en route to the win on the big 3/8-mile dirt oval. He led all 25 laps of the feature in front of a large crowd.

“It felt really good,” Johnson said. “We didn't tighten the car up very much, and maybe we should have. But later in the race, it worked out good for us.”

WIth temperatures in the 90s and a gusty wind from the south, the track dried out quickly. But track officials watered the top of the track prior to the start of the URSS feature.

That top part of the track would prove to provide a passing line for some drivers as the feature wore on.

Dodge City's Brian Herbert, who started sixth, moved into second on the second circuit, with Hardman, Mark Walinder and Luke Cranston rounding out the top five through the fourth lap.

Craig Jecha spun in turns three and four on lap five, bringing out the caution. On the restart, a car spun in the middle of the pack in turns one and two, causing drivers to hit the brakes.

Jeff Radcliffe, who started seventh, came to a stop after avoiding contact, only to have Reed Bernbeck clip the front of his car after not being able to stop. Bernbeck flipped after the contact, then Taylor Velasquez — who battled engine issues all night — hit Radcliffe's car, sending it another 25 yards and knocking the wind out of Radcliffe.

Velasquez was taken to Trego County-Lemke Memorial Hospital for X-rays, but he was released with only a sore leg after the collision.

That red flag gave Cranston a chance to survey the top side once the cars were push-started again and he caught back up to the field.

“I knew they watered, and I knew there was a little bit of rubber down below that,” Cranston said. “It wasn't gripping up really good in one and two. After that red, I thought I might as well go up there and give it a shot, and it felt pretty solid. I ran it in there on the restart, and it was really fast.”

Cranston sling-shotted around Hardman and Walinder into third coming out of turn two on the restart, with Johnson holding the lead and Herbert in second. Herbert continued his bid to run down Johnson and closed the gap for a bit, but then Cranston entered into a battle for the runner-up spot.

“They might have found the rubber a little bit before I did, especially coming out of two,” Herbert said. “I was trying that high line. Getting in to one it was good after the red flag, and I thought that was my only chance to get C.J. And it worked good for a couple laps, then I think I just screwed myself staying up there too long. That's the breaks sometimes.”

Cranston got by Herbert on lap 12 after the two drivers staged an epic battle for a few laps. By that time, Johnson had set sail and built a comfortable lead before entering lap traffic.

“You get in a rhythm and drive where you want to drive,” Johnson said. “Then when you catch traffic, you can't go where you want to go. But you can't wait for it either. You take some shots. I went high in one and passed three or four cars at one time. It was really good up there. And probably if I would have stayed up there and raced up there, I probably could have gained even more ground.”

Johnson swiftly moved through the traffic, and Cranston tried his best to follow suit. But the Quinter driver was quicker through the traffic and rolled to the win.

“C.J. always does such a good job in lap traffic, and I thought that we were going to get him,” Cranston said. “But he was flying through those lap cars, and he never gave us a chance. He definitely deserves the win tonight.”

“I knew Herbert was right behind me, and I figured Luke would get up there fairly quick,” said Johnson, who became the seventh different winner in seven races this season in the URSS. “I know Luke likes to run the top, and I figured if anyone would be coming it would be them and they'd possibly be gaining speed on top. But I had to protect the bottom as best as I could.”

Cranston finished second, with Herbert in third. Walinder was fourth, and Ray Seemann — who started 13th — finished fifth.

Heat race winners were Cranston, Herbert and Walinder.

The Keizer Aluminum Racing Wheels Hard-Charger Award went to Koby Walters, who moved up 14 spots to finish eighth.

Feature results

1. C.J. Johnson, 2. Luke Cranston, 3. Brian Herbert, 4. Mark Walinder, 5. Ray Seemann, 6. Zach Blurton, 7. Kris Miller, 8. Koby Walters, 9. Kade Hagans, 10. Jared Kern, 11. Darren Bowman, 12. Ken Lutters, 13. Zac Taylor, 14. John Webster, 15. Craig Jecha, 16. Butch Hardman, 17. Brian Hardman (DNF), 18. Richie Dewell (DNF), 19. Shawn Radcliffe (DNF), 20. Jordan Weaver (DNF), 21. Jeff Radcliffe (DNF), 22. Reed Bernbeck (DNF), 23. Taylor Velasquez (DNF).


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