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Slate wins final Thursday Thunder race

JUSTIN HUBBARD/Staff With smoke billowing from behind his car, Rafe Slate celebrates his win at last week’s Thursday Thunder race with a lengthy burnout.

It took 408 days, but Rafe Slate finally took his car to victory lane again in the Thursday Thunder summer racing series at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Slate’s most recent win in the series entering last Saturday’s championship round was on June 22, 2017. This summer, the Eatonton-based driver of the No. 8 Vizitech USA Legends car had a couple of near-wins, including a race about midway through the season in which he led all but the last lap.

It was apparent to Slate entering Saturday’s final race of the 2018 series that he was unlikely to win the Pro series championship. Points leader Dawson Fletcher and second-place driver Cody Hall had enough of a lead that, unless they both crashed out of the race, Slate could only race for the third spot in the points standings.

As such, he qualified first and chose to keep the car in that position. The end result was a dominant win, in which Slate led every lap – this time finishing the strong run with a victory.

“For most of the race, I felt like I was hanging on,” Slate said. “I definitely was not the fastest car, but I felt like I got everything I could out of it. I was just really, really tight in the race. I kind of had a feeling it was going to be like that because the car was perfect in qualifying and practice and stuff during the day and, usually, when the car is really good in the race, it’s not as good during the day in practice and qualifying. I just kind of had to hang on and get as much out of the car as I could.”

Saturday was not a leisurely cruise to the checkered flag despite the fact Slate was in control from the start.

A handful of cautions re-stacked the field and forced Slate and the other Pro division drivers into restarts. Restarts after cautions were a thorn in Slate’s side all summer long, particularly two weeks ago when they stymied his efforts to overtake the leader.

Last Saturday, Slate had the advantage of restarting near the bottom of the track, which is typically the strongest lane on the surface.

“I knew I was really good on the restarts going into turn one, and I was able to get a pretty decent gap,” Slate said. “[The restarts] really didn’t make me that nervous. I just felt confident about the whole race, for the most part.”

Being the leader across all forms of racing can be a precarious position. On one hand, drivers are happy to pace the field and have a good shot at winning. Conversely, it also means they must protect their spot and not allow any competitors to pass them.

Slate had to drive watching his rearview mirror a good bit. He had the likes of Fletcher, Hall and Russell Fleeman on his rear bumper throughout the race.

That meant Slate had to carefully navigate around the AMS “Thunder Ring” in order to keep them all behind him.

“The main thing was I had to get as much out of the car as I possibly could,” Slate said. “When somebody got behind me, I wasn’t blocking and I really wasn’t trying to chop anybody or cut anybody off – I was just kind of running defensively, making sure I came out of the corner really low so they couldn’t get a good run on me coming out. It’s better for somebody to push you coming out of the corner than to get up under you.”

Once Slate crossed the start/finish line for the final time Saturday, it was time to celebrate.

Slate is not typically a flashy driver on the track but, because he had so many close calls and heartbreaking finishes this summer, he allowed himself to enjoy the moment and do a burnout on the trioval at AMS.

Slate spun his car for several moments, causing smoke to billow up from the rear wheels before climbing out to do an on-track interview with a Thursday Thunder official. Afterward, Slate drove to victory lane and took several pictures with his family and friends.

The burnout took its toll on the car, though – it took several attempts for Slate and his dad, Shawn, to get the car started again.

“It was really cool,” Slate said regarding his celebration. “The burnout was probably my favorite part of the night. It felt really good when I was doing it.”

That might be the last the Thursday Thunder series sees of Slate. He said earlier this week he does not plan to run the series full-time, if at all, next year.

AMS hosts several U.S. Legends races yearround and, usually, Slate is a regular competitor. That could change after this year, too, as he looks to expand the platform of himself and his family-owned team Solid Rock Performance Racing.

“We’ve talked about probably not coming back full-time next year,” Slate said. “If we run anything in the Legends, it’ll be a few races in Charlotte at the summer shootout. That’ll be really big for us. We’ve been in Atlanta the whole time, and there’s really not a whole lot of publicity down here, but you’ve got a lot of NASCAR people up in Charlotte watching the shootout.”

It’s the natural evolution for drivers who compete in the U.S. Legends series. The list of former Legends competitors features drivers who made it to NASCAR’s highest levels, including the likes of Joey Logano, William Byron and Reed Sorensen.

Slate said he hopes to move on to late model racing sometime in the near future, which could further catapult his career.

This weekend, he will return to Sunny South Raceway in Grand Bay, Alabama, which was the site of his most recent overall win prior to Saturday in early May.

He will do so with a fresh victory in his back pocket.