Max McLaughlin sat in the lead at the halfway point of the Billy Whittaker Cars 200 last year. His car, strong. His confidence, high.
Then, he watched most of the field behind him pit.
“They all pitted behind me, and I saw that and was like, ‘Damn.’ I knew it was gone there,” McLaughlin said, having to settle for third after his strategy to pit later was foiled.
While it was a strategy that didn’t work for him then, this year, he knows it could go either way with the new pit stop format for Super DIRT Week 51 (giving drivers the option to stop for fuel at/or around laps 75 and 125).
“Strategy hurt us last year, but now I think it’s like… boom, boom. Eighty (laps in) could be too early, 120 could be too late,” he said. “It definitely brings a different aspect. You have to think about a 100-lap race, there’s no one pitting on Lap 20 to go back through the field in a normal race. That definitely changes the aspect a lot.”
The Mooresville, NC resident also shared his excitement for the changes this year, including no more two-way radios between drivers and their crews.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “I think the racing is going to be a lot better. It’s going to make your pit stops a little confusing as far as what to change. Crew guys are going to have to be all instant like it is on a Friday or Saturday night. I think the racing is going to be awesome. I’m looking forward to it a lot.”
In addition to his general excitement for the race, McLaughlin boasted about hitting on a new setup in time for the upcoming big events.
After winning the opening night of Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals in February, McLaughlin and his Heinke-Baldwin Racing team struggled to find a rhythm, and the top 10, throughout the Super DIRTcar Series’ championship season. Then, a DIRTcar Big Block Modified win at Brewerton Speedway in late August changed his outlook.
“We had to change something,” McLaughlin said. “We put a new frame under us, which isn’t much different but like a basic fresh start. And the guys at Dig Race Products were able to come over and kind of took the reins on the setup deal. Really took over. Something that we talked about for a long time… I was at the point where I was just like, ‘Dude, let’s just try it.’ It’s not really normal so we were a little leery to try it when we were running better. We but were like, let’s try it, and we had speed all night. From Hot Laps to Heat Race to Feature.
“It’s a whole different shock package and spring package. It’s not too far out. It’s just more like a factory reset, almost. I think sometimes you need that… I think we have a good baseline to go off of now. We’ll see if we can screw it up before DIRT Week.”
The reset was not only for McLaughlin’s car but his mind, too. He admitted that bad run after bad run had him frustrated and emotionally tired. But with a supportive team behind him and newfound confidence, he’s found a healthier mindset in time for the biggest races of the season.
McLaughlin had a career-best performance at Super DIRT Week last year, finishing second in the DIRTcar 358 Modified Salute to the Troops 150 – in his first attempt – and third in the 200. He’ll compete in both divisions again for Super DIRT Week 51 at Oswego Speedway, Oct. 2-8.
Before then, he’ll have one more shot at locking himself into the Billy Whittaker Cars 200 if he wins at Albany-Saratoga Speedway on Saturday, Sept. 23, with the Super DIRTcar Series during the Malta Massive Weekend Super DIRT Week Qualifier.