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Sunday will mark the 18th running of the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park, the final Late Model Stock Car races of the season and the last of the majors.
Because the Classic is the last of the four major and typically has a smaller field than the races at Martinsville and Myrtle Beach, it often takes a back seat to LMSC enthusiasts — but it should be front and center because it is the most organic of the majors.
While all of the big races require skill, Martinsville is a gimmick-filled race that often features a host of shenanigans in the closing laps while Myrtle Beach features pack racing because tire management is the game. The Thanksgiving Classic is run without the gimmicks and is also more similar to other venues such as Ace, Caraway, Dominion, Motor Mile and South Boston.
The NASCAR season concludes at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile track which shares characteristics with the type of track that dominates the season schedule — although Homestead-Miami Speedway is also very different.
If the three biggest races of the season were compared to NASCAR’s most prestigious events, Myrtle Beach would be like Daytona and Martinsville would be compared to the All-Star Race while the Thanksgiving Classic would be like the Coca-Cola 600 or Southern 500.
Sunday’s Thanksgiving Classic will feature all the elements that make a great race.
Tire management — check While Southern National is known for speed, the track’s surface has become quite gritty in recent years and tire management has become a bigger factor in races, though not to the extreme of Myrtle Beach.
Speed — check. Like Martinsville, Southern National has long straightaways, but the 17 degrees of banking in the corners allows the drivers to carry more speed around the four-tenths-mile track.
Survival — check. While the Thanksgiving Classic is more purist than other big races, that does not mean it doesn’t have its fair share of attrition. Races don’t need a late race competition caution to come out for havoc to be unleashed. In 2014, the entire second half of the race ran caution free, spoiling strategies. In 2016, on the other hand, Justin Johnson was involved in a late-race incident with a lapped car which triggered a sequence of events ultimately allowing Tommy Lemons Jr. to score the victory.
Since Michael Diaz, a former Legends racer himself, reopened the track, the Thanksgiving Classic has produced a different winner every season. Greg Edwards, a multi-time Langley Speedway champion, won in 2012. Ronnie Bassett Jr. won in 2013. In 2014, Brayton Haws scored an upset victory then went on the following season to win the CARS Response Energy Tour championship. In 2015, Lee Pulliam finally won the Thanksgiving Classic, completing the “Grand Slam.” In 2016, Lemons was victorious and, last year, Matt McCall triumphed in the most controversial Classic in recent memory.
Fans of racing should appreciate the Thanksgiving Classic most for what it is — a big-money Late Model Stock Car race without gimmicks. Not to mention, it will be the final race of the season before a cold winter without racing.
Andy Marquis is the managing editor of Race22.com, joining the team in 2011. He has covered ARCA, INDYCAR, NASCAR, AMA and IHRA Drag Racing.