HAMPTON, GA. – A night after his NEP Grand National Series championship march ground to a halt on the West Coast, Ryan Libby found the best remedy.
Libby charged into the lead late in Friday night’s NEP SuperTruck Series Atlanta 65 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, taking his second win of the six-race schedule.
But top-ten runs for Kenny Kibbey, Jason Ricker and Ryan Salvatore were enough to secure the inaugural SuperTruck Series team championship for Salvatore’s 4 Wide Weaponry alliance.
The celebration was bittersweet for Libby, who spent Thursday’s NEP Grand National Series Auto Club 60 on the sidelines despite entering the race second in points with three races remaining on the schedule.
“It was kind of unfortunate last night, had to work, so I kind of lost the championship for the Grand National division,” Libby said. “Tonight, we started in the back, and just kind of were on the conservative side.”
Libby started deep in the 19-truck field and opted for the slow road, biding his time as Evan Beaulieu took an early lead. Beaulieu, hoping to pull off a team championship update for Win And Party Motorsports, gave way to a hard-charging Dylan Kopec, who spent a few laps at the point before Kenny Kibbey ran him down.
Kibbey was in the lead when Ricker scraped the outside wall off turn two, stacking up the field and collecting fellow 4 Wide Weaponry teammate Wyatt Alexander. John Peters wrested the lead from Kibbey and Beaulieu on the restart, putting his Toyota out front, but the run was short-lived as Kibbey and Beaulieu made contact off turn two. Kibbey spun to the infield and avoided damage of his own, but a caution flew as Matt Kentfield crashed hard trying to avoid the spinning Kibbey.
Beaulieu moved into second alongside Peters for the next restart, but as Kopec made a move for second, he and Beaulieu made contact in turn two. Beaulieu hit the outside wall, and as Kopec tried to gather up his truck on the apron, he turned Kyle Casagrande entering turn three, collecting Alexander and vaulting the #96 Toyota into a spectacular turn-three backflip, ending his evening shortly before halfway.
Kopec made a run at Peters on the restart, but only succeeded in opening the door for David Arute, who moved to second for FieldFillers Motorsports. Arute’s teammate Zane Ferrell slipped past Kopec for third with 25 laps remaining on the scoreboard. Kopec held on for another two laps before scuffing the backstretch wall, colliding with teammate DJ Girard and bringing out another yellow.
Peters and Brent Roy remained on the track while the rest of the field, gambling on a green-flag run to the finish, pitted for a second set of tires. While those on fresh tires battled a resilient Roy for second, Peters was able to pull away. But contact between Mike Hopkins and Ryan Salvatore on the frontstretch sent Salvatore spinning through the grass, sent Hopkins for a spin of his own off Ferrell’s front bumper, and brought out another yellow flag.
Peters and Roy again chose not to pit. This time, Roy was not so fortunate, falling back on the outside as Peters tried to hold the pack off on the inside. Beaulieu, clear of Roy, moved into the outside line, holding Peters down to the apron and finally completing the pass for the lead with ten to go, while Beaulieu’s Ford associates split Peters’ Toyota down the backstretch.
Libby, who restarted eighth, had held his ground just behind the lead battle, but once Peters fell back, Libby dug in.
In the final seven laps, Libby turned the heat up, following Kibbey past Ferrell for third, then swinging past Kibbey for second. Beaulieu had built a modest lead, but Libby ran down Beaulieu as well, making the pass for the lead with only three laps to go.
“I kinda had a little strategy of saying hey, you know, I’m starting in the back anyway, so why don’t I just kind of conserve some tires and see what I got for the end? I kind of wanted to save my last set of tires for ten to go, but the way the cautions were kind of rolling, it really wasn’t working in my favor.”
The final caution came out with seventeen laps remaining. “I told myself, it’s now or never, it’s time to go now,” Libby said. “So we put the four tires on, and got some damage fixed, and ended up in victory lane.”
Beaulieu led 17 laps and, for a second straight evening, looked to be in the catbird’s seat closing in on the checkered flag. “Libby pitted just a few laps after we did,” he said. “It’s amazing what a couple laps’ difference on tires is. I was hoping I could hold him off, but it wasn’t enough.”
Kibbey’s third-place run was yet another strong result for the Michigander, whose consistency placed him first in the driver’s standings despite not taking a race win for himself. “We had a lot of speed in our #4 Toyota,” he said. “We started kind of mid-pack and worked our way right to the front. We had a little contact with Evan racing hard up front, managed to save the truck. I don’t know how we didn’t hit the inside wall.”
Ferrell crossed the line fourth with Libby’s Team BBY teammate Austin Boelke fifth. Ricker was sixth, with Charles Lewandoski seventh and John Peters fading to eighth. Salvatore finished ninth and DJ Girard placed his Team Student Drivers entry tenth in the final running order.
Kibbey’s run set the tone for the entire 4 Wide Weaponry team, with the team’s championship essentially secured at the drop of the green flag. Salvatore, who also serves as race director for NEP’s Grand National Series, was elated to celebrate with Kibbey, Ricker and Alexander.
“We actually started out really well with Michigan and I think that kind of set the tone,” Salvatore said. “Being able to do very well working together, and kind of talking strategy with each other, and that kind of kept happening at every track. We would always be talking about strategy, and trying to see what would work better, and bouncing ideas off each other at each track. And it definitely paid off.”
Salvatore was quick to credit his teammates, drafted shortly before the start of the season. “I can’t say enough,” he said, “because we had what, six races, and I only took my finish twice. So I picked a really good team!”
“We had a really good group of guys,” Ricker said, echoing Salvatore’s comments. “Kenny, Wyatt, Sal, and I’m relatively new to this whole iRacing thing, so they were good to bounce ideas off of and work with.”
The NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series and NEP Super DirtCar Series still have events scheduled to complete their seasons, while the organization’s focus will begin to shift to the NEP Endurance Series, to be announced in further detail.