Story By: CAMDEN PROUD / OSWEGO SPEEDWAY – OSWEGO, NY – Just two years removed from one of the most unbelievable drives in Oswego Speedway history, Michael Barnes ‘The Hustler’ did the unthinkable on Championship Night of 2016, charging from worst to first to take his ninth career win and first ever track championship at the controls of the Syrell Racing No. 68 Supermodified.
Last season, Barnes, always a fan favorite, was back for more, but not nearly as much went in the Mexico, N.Y. driver’s favor, who has finished in the top five over forty times in his Supermodified career including on four more occasions last season.
Unfortunately, this time around, Barnes’ efforts behind the wheel were only good enough for a fourth place result in the overall point standings. However, things tend to change very quickly at the ‘Steel Palace,’ and that could certainly be the case in 2018 as Barnes will be back behind the wheel of the Furdi’s Homes 68 that he has driven for the past three seasons, not to mention the fact that there is also something pretty big in the works for Syrell Racing.
Team owner Gary Syrell has a new independent front suspension Supermodified on order at Hawk Jr. Chassis which should be done towards the closing stages of the speedway’s 2018 season. Barnes is certainly excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.
“We have a good car and we have a good team, so we are looking forward to being ready to go for the Opener,” Barnes said. “The new car is coming along, but when it’s done, it’s done and hopefully it’s even better than what we’ve already got.”
Some fans may wonder what causes guys like Barnes or Otto Sitterly, who have both dominated for virtually entire seasons in the past, to be just a little bit “off” the next year or the year after that?
Michael attributes a lot of it to the even competition the division has to offer. The cars are so stout, so close, and sometimes the smallest factor can make the biggest difference. “Luck,” he says, is also a very big part of success at Oswego Speedway.
“The competition is really tough out there,” Barnes stated. “There are a lot of good guys and a lot of good teams. We struggled a little bit last year, they changed the tire around on us which seemed to cause us to have a hard time. Then, any night we were good or a threat to win, either the car broke, or the driver broke. All in all I don’t think we were that far off, just had a little bit of bad luck here and there. Overall we ran good for the most part, just had some bad nights, sometimes setup, sometimes driver, but we should be good this year no matter what car we have out.”
Despite a lot of frustration, Barnes wound up on the podium on a handful of occasions in 2017, but at times you could still hear the dejection in his voice. In one podium interview, Michael could be heard saying that he felt he was simply chasing specifically the “blue cars” of eventual season champion Dave Shullick Jr. as well as Sitterly.
Shullick, in his first ever full-time Oswego campaign for car owner John Nicotra, won the 2018 championship by a comfortable margin driving to four feature wins plus the Budweiser International Classic 200 in the Sitterly wrenched independent front suspension No. 2.
While the field seemed to be chasing Shullick for the majority of the season, Barnes isn’t quite sure just how much of an advantage that the independent really gives you after all, but he knows one thing for sure; Nicotra Racing has a top notch stable. Competing with the 2 and 7 is no easy task.
“I’m not sure how much of an advantage it gives you but it seems to be the trend to go with at this point,” quipped Barnes. “I haven’t ever driven one so I don’t really know how much better it is, but when our car is done hopefully it will be better than what we’ve got. If that’s what the big trick is or not, I don’t know, but DJ and the whole Nicotra deal is pretty top of the line with Otto and everyone involved, so they are tough to beat regardless. Our car is great in the cleaner air, we’ve been fast. You just have to be able to be on your game every week and last year I was off a little bit and then the car was off a few times too. Little things like that make a big difference. But, I think at the end of the year we were getting a little better and starting to hit on some stuff, so we’ll have to see how the start of this season goes.”
Whilst driving to those aforementioned nine wins and forty plus top five finishes since his Supermodified beginnings in 2006, Barnes has never won the Budweiser International Classic 200, although he did win the pole for it in 2015.
And oh, he’s finished second in the past three runnings to Bobby Bond, Jeff Abold, and most recently Shullick. You could say the ‘Hustler’ is certainly knocking on the door for the first Classic victory of his already decorated Oswego career.
“Yeah we’d really kind of like to move up a spot,” Barnes laughed. “Three years in a row finishing second is no easy task, that race is a lot of luck and honestly we’ve had good luck the last three years finishing second because to finish on the podium three years in a row and finish all 200 laps is pretty good. When the race is that long, anything can happen really early on to ruin your day. Anything stupid can happen, sometimes as simple as a flat tire. Everybody wants to win the Classic, it’s the biggest race to win in Supermodified racing and that’s really the most important thing to accomplish in my opinion, so that’s what we are going to keep trying to do. It’s just a tough race to win and there’s a lot of great drivers who have accomplished a lot more than me that have never knocked that off, so it’s not easy, but what it’s all about is the Classic. That’s just why you go there, so obviously I’d love to get it done.”
Barnes is also encouraged by the sudden resurgence in Supermodified car counts, which includes 33 total cars registered for action including 19 commitment teams and three new rookies in the speedway’s headlining division. Mike has been around Oswego his entire life and says that “new blood” is exactly what the track needs to survive.
“It’s definitely encouraging to see all these guys come back,” Barnes mentioned. “Honestly, it’s kind of a relief. I won’t pull punches, the way things were looking at the end of last year and the attitude of everyone, myself included, wasn’t really all that great, and we’re getting some new blood coming in on both sides now. You have to have a full field of cars there, period. New cars are even better because it shows interest long term. You look at the core field of people and there’s people that have been there since before I was even around. You need to get the new people to get involved in the sport and you just want to see everything survive and grow and it looks like some good things are happening with the Supers as far as that goes and that’s a good sign.”