PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. -- It's not just the ACT Late Model Tour championship on Scott Payea's mind. It's not Brian Hoar, who overtook Payea for the point lead last Sunday. It's not last year's loss of the championship by a single point. It's not the 11th-place, lap-down finish Payea had at Thunder Road last week. It's all of that.
"I've just got to go out and run the best I can. I've got to get out there and go for the win every time," Payea said. And with just two races left in the ACT championship, including this weekend's Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Fall Foliage 300 at Airborne Speedway, it's his only choice.
Payea was the first ACT driver to win on the new Airborne track, which was redesigned in April to include racier, progressively banked corners, taking the Spring Green 100 there in May. But at mid-season, at a time when Hoar hit his stride on the ACT Tour, Payea faltered, if ever so slightly. Hoar has finished sixth or better in each of the last five races. During that same stretch, which began at Kawartha Speedway in July, Payea had three third-place finishes but also slumped to ninth at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway -- a race Hoar won -- and 11th at Thunder Road last week.
Payea led the ACT point standings after 10 races had been run this season through last Friday's race at Twin State Speedway. But Hoar's fourth-place finish at Thunder Road on Sunday -- combined with the implementation of the ACT "Pick 10" format in which each driver uses his or her ten best point-tallying results toward the championship -- vaulted him past Payea for the lead by 16 points.
No driver has earned more top-five finishes than Payea this season -- seven, all of which were finishes of third or better -- but the difference is in bonus points. Hoar's lead for the championship is equal to the number of bonus points he has outscored Payea, primarily through qualifying heat finishes, which pay five points to win.
"Twin State is a good example," says Payea, who entered and left the event with a five-point lead over Hoar. "I beat [Hoar] in the race -- I was third and he was fifth -- but he won his heat and we were even after it was over. It all comes down to heat points. It sucks. I can beat him in the [feature], but he's doing well in the heats." Payea says that if he is to win the ACT championship and avenge last year's loss, he only has one option: win, "or at least hope he finishes behind me."
After learning a tough lesson about tire conservation during an unprecedented 181-lap stretch of green flag racing at Thunder Road last Sunday, Payea thinks Airborne Speedway might be the place to get back on the right track. "We learned a lot about racing long distance events," Payea said. "Last week was crazy. A hundred and eighty laps [without a caution] at Thunder Road? No one guessed that would happen, and it taught us some stuff about the setup and what I need to behind the wheel. We've put a 22-gallon fuel cell in the car for Airborne, but obviously we'll still need to pit for gas and fresh tires. Three hundred laps is the longest race of the year, and Airborne is a big track, too. You have to think about it differently [than a 100-lapper]. And obviously last weekend showed us not to gamble and take chances."
And on top of the new knowledge Payea's team gained, they also might have the upper hand at Airborne.
"[The Spring Green victory] certainly does help with confidence going back to Airborne, and we didn't even really get to show how good the car was until the last five laps," said Payea. "We've got good notes and a lot of confidence, and it's not like I'm going out there and pussyfooting around. We're going over to win, and that's all we can do."
(PHOTOS: 1. Scott Payea is thinking "Win" at Airborne Speedway; 2. Payea takes the checkered flag in May's Spring Green at Airborne. Photo 1 by Justin St. Louis/VMM; Photo 2 by Leif Tillotson)