Leach Stars During East Bay Winternationals

Leach

Michael Leach (center) in victory lane at East Bay Raceway Park on Thursday night. (Tyler Carr photo)

GIBSONTON, Fla. – Drivers never forget their first feature win, and Michael Leach won’t forget his breakthrough at the controls of a DIRTcar UMP modified anytime soon.

The 20-year-old from Sun River, Mont., charged from 14th on the starting grid, took the lead with five laps left and held on for his first career UMP Modified Winternationals victory Thursday night at East Bay Raceway Park.

The big smile couldn’t be wiped off Leach’s face in victory lane as he began to soak-in his achievement, adding his name to the winners list at the historic track in the final running of its famed Winternationals.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons we came – it’s because we knew this place was shutting down and we had to come run it,” Leach said. “I’ve been watching people run at this place my whole life. To be here and race it – a tricky track like this, I didn’t know it was so difficult – is really, really cool.”

To come from seven rows back, Leach needed a big jump on the start and got exactly that, driving from 14th up to ninth in only two laps. From there, he began picking cars off one-by-one – and by lap eight, had already broken into the top five.

At the head of the field was 18-year-old Cole Czarneski, who took the lead in the opening laps and quickly established himself as a serious contender. A few caution flags before the halfway point restacked the field multiple times, aiding in Leach’s charge to the front.

“Everyone left the top open, so we just went where everyone else wasn’t,” Leach said. “We were lucky enough to get the restarts when we did.”

A restart on lap 12 gave leader Czarneski his first test in keeping the top spot. Tuesday and Wednesday night winner Lucas Lee found speed on the top lane and zoomed past Czarneski on lap 13, but Czarneski held strong on the bottom, finding the grip and passing Lee back for the lead on lap 15.

Lee’s sudden challenge sparked speed from Czarneski’s No. 21cz, as the young Wisconsin driver went on to open up nearly a full-second advantage on the field. However, by that time, Leach had completed his charge to the front and had only Czarneski in his sights with half of the race left.

For the next 10 laps, Czarneski paced the field around the third-mile oval and soon entered lap traffic, with Leach starting to close in. As he began to sort through the slower cars, Leach drew closer to his rear bumper.

When Czarneski came up on a car directly in his lane on the bottom, he stumbled, allowing Leach to shoot by underneath for the lead coming out of turn two.

“I couldn’t get around that lapped car on the bottom, and that pretty much ruined that deal for me,” Czarneski said. “He was able to sneak by; I had no clue he was coming. It’s part of racing.”

Leach was able to get by Czarneski and the lapped cars quickly, speeding off with the lead and the win with over a full second gap by the checkered flag.

“[Czarneski] had us a little bit; it was gonna be tough to pass him,” Leach said. “Thank God that lap traffic came. If it wasn’t for that [slower] traffic, I don’t know if we would’ve been able to get it done.”

Czarneski held on for second, while Lee completed the podium. Behind them was a pair of hard chargers in Kyle Strickler, who came from 15th to finish fourth, and Minnesota’s Ryan Gierke, who drove from 19th to finish fifth.

UMP Modified Florida Speedweeks continues Friday night with another full Winternationals program at East Bay Raceway Park.

The finish:

A Feature (30 laps): 1. 09-Michael Leach [14]; 2. 21CZ-Cole Czarneski [3]; 3. 12L-Lucas Lee [6]; 4. 8S-Kyle Strickler [15]; 5. 26G-Ryan Gierke [19]; 6. 88-David Pollen [9]; 7. 20-Brian Skaggs [7]; 8. 0-Damian Kiefer [13]; 9. 25W-Allen Weisser [12]; 10. 205-Travis Varnadore [8]; 11. 17-Chris Wilson [1]; 12. 2-Devin Dixon [2]; 13. 33-Jeff Mathews [23]; 14. 6ST-Joseph Thomas [24]; 15. 33W-Rodney Wing [18]; 16. 7-Brad Deyoung [21]; 17. 27T-Michael Turner [17]; 18. 77-Ray Bollinger [16]; 19. 8-Jimmy Lennex [11]; 20. B69-Bryan Bernhardt [4]; 21. 64-Austin Sanders [10]; 22. 99J-Treb Jacoby [22]; 23. 8A-Austin Holcombe [5]; 24. 72-Todd Neiheiser [20].

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