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 Touring west coast-based stock car series—NASCAR K & N West and the Spears Mfg SRL Southwest Tour—visited Irwindale Speedway Saturday for a unique doubleheader. They raced three 100-lap features on the banked half-mile. K & N teams ran in the first and third events and SRL SWT drivers competed in the middle race. The event attracted 4,370 spectators to the main grandstand and pit bleachers on a partly sunny day with dark clouds in the late afternoon. Weather forecasts predicted a 20% chance of rain, but it did not fall and temperature remained in the mid-60s.
Third generation driver Todd Gilliland, a 16-year old living in North Carolina, flew to So Cal with his father/NASCAR Cup driver David, and made the trip worthwhile. The 2016 NASCAR K & N West champion & rookie of the year drove the same No. 16 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Camry owned by northern Californian Bill McAnally. He won both ends of the twin 100-lap mains and made it three K & N victories in a row at Irwindale. The home-schooled teen and McAnally plan to race in all K & N West and East Series 2017 races and keep cars on both coasts.
The “Spears Manufacturing 100” SRL SWT race was the sensational race of the night. Many said it was the best race in the 17-years of SRL-SWT racing. A three-way battle for the lead lasted for the final 50-laps with the outcome in doubt to the checkered flag. Fastest qualifier Derek Thorn, from Bakersfield, Bobby Hodges, from Carson City, NV, and first-time Irwindale racer Willie Allen, from Tennessee, thrilled spectators with their car-control and frequent passing each other and lapped cars with minimal contact.
Thorn, a three-time Spears SRL SWT champion (2012, 2014 and 2016), also won the 2013 K & N West championship driving Bob Bruncati's Sunrise Ford No. 6. He set his 40th SRL SWT fastest qualifying time--a new track record--during 5:00 pm time trials. Both of his laps bettered his year-old mark of 17.440 (103.211 mph). His new record is 17.272 and his second lap of 17.311 also beat his old mark. Thorn, 30, drove his usual Byron and Carol Campbell-owned Victory Circle No. 43 out of Bakersfield.
Allen, the second fastest qualifier, also beat the April 2016 track record with his 17.437. The 36-year old visitor drove Brian Richardson's No. 4 entry, also from Bakersfield. Hodges, 27, a 16-year racing veteran, has been an infrequent Spears SRL SWT driver until 2016. Last year he chased points, finished fourth, and was voted the series most popular driver. Hodges scored his lone SRL SWT victory in 2011 at the third-mile All-American Speedway in Roseville. He drove his usual No. 89 Nevada Automotive Test Center Chevrolet owned by his father Henry and backed by businessman Mike Naake.
SRL SWT 100: Thorn, who has won the most main events in Spears SRL SWT history, started from pole position in a 22-car field. The fastest eight qualifiers drew pills for their starting positions. Unfortunately, second fastest Allen picked eight. One car scratched after contacting the wall during practice. Hodges launched from inside row two and Allen from outside row four. All three drivers led the race at some point and exchanged the lead seven times during the dramatic race. They charged around the track nose-to-tail and side-by-side in close proximity virtually every lap during the final 50 circuits.
Thorn led the first 69 laps in the outside groove. Hodges challenged from the inside. Once Allen took third position on lap 49 he joined the fun. On lap 70 Hodges made an inside pass in turn two and made it stick on the inside in the fourth turn to lead by a nose. Thorn retook the lead on lap 71 with the top three drivers in a tight pack.
On lap 79 Hodges shot quickly to the inside entering the first turn and emerged with the lead on that lap. On lap 80 Thorn recaptured the point with a cross-over move and resumed leading in his favored outside groove. Allen dropped Hodges to third place on lap 81 with an inside pass in the second corner and another in turn four after Hodges fought back on the outside.
Allen made light contact with leader Thorn on lap 83 and quickly passed him on the inside exiting the fourth turn. Allen led by a nose as the top ten scoring pylon recorded him as the lap 83 leader. Thorn regained the lead on lap 84 as the top three thrilled onlookers each lap. The leading trio remained in a tight pack and Hodges took P. 2 from Allen on lap 87 as the leaders raced around the progressively-banked wide track three-wide at times.
On lap 92 Hodges made an inside pass in turn four for the lead. During lap 97 the approaching leaders evaded a spinning lapped car on the backstretch and continued as the yellow light flashed. A single-file restart followed for the final three laps. Hodges opened a steady ten-yard lead and beat runner-up Thorn by 0.544. Allen trailed Thorn by five yards (0.321). Hodges ran the fastest lap of the race at 17.859 (100.790 mph) It was his first victory at Irwindale; he earned $5,000 from the Tim Huddleston-promoted event.
When interviewed at the finish line Hodges told the crowd, “This is as sweet as the first one (2011 in Roseville). It's such a great feeling. We were three-wide there.” Infield announcer Jason Galvin called the victory “a career-defining win.” Disappointed Thorn, a past multi-feature winner at Irwindale in Spears SRL SWT and NASCAR super late models, told the crowd, “That was some of the best racing I've ever seen. We'll go back and try to make it (his car) a little better.”
Craig Raudman, NASCAR 2001 Southwest touring series champion and recent SRL SWT crew chief, returned to driving. The 55-year old drove Dave Reed's No. 2 from seventh starting to fourth place. He took P. 4 by 0.038 with his last lap, fourth turn pass of Blaine Rocha, from Oakdale. Rocha had run fourth from lap 49-99. Rounding out the top ten in a 22-car field were: Toni McCray, series rookie Ricky Schlick, Eric Schmidt, Donny St. Ours, and 2016 series champion Jacob Gomes, who trailed the winner by only 4.101 seconds. Eighteen drivers finished and 15 completed all 100 laps in a 56-minute event.
The race had three yellow flags totaling eight laps for spins. It also had a red flag that lasted 16-minutes after four cars crashed entering the third turn on lap 49. Disabled cars of Christian McGhee (P. 11), Jack Wood (P. 17), Scott Sanchez (P. 18) and Luke Hall (P. 19) were towed from the scene by tow trucks or on the back of a roll-back. All four drivers escaped injury.
Spears SRL SWT will return to Irwindale on August 19 for race five of nine this season. Talented Thorn finished in the top ten three times aboard the Campbell Motor-sports No. 43 at the prestigious Snowball Derby during December in Florida. It attracts more than 60 nationally known drivers each winter. He drove his same Campbell No. 43 to the greatest victory of his career earlier this season. Thorn won $30,000 from the $180,000 third annual Winter Showdown six weeks ago at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield. The 46-car field included NASCAR Monster Energy Cup star Kyle Busch, his protege Eric Jones, Willie Allen, and two-time Winter Showdown winner Bubba Pollard, from Georgia.
Hodges said earlier the KCRP half-mile is his favorite track and he never has much success at Irwindale. In the SRL SWT feature last April at IS, Hodges started tenth in his No. 89 Chevy and finished seventh, the last driver on the lead lap. Past Irwindale winner Thorn finished second by 0.772 to Ryan Cansdale (No. 57) in that 100-lap race. High school senior Cansdale is taking a year sabbatical this season and Ricky Schlick, 19, is driving the Cansdale Chevy, now No. 48. LBTV staff taped the exciting March 25 SRL SWT race and is selling DVDs for $12 via the website.
NASCAR—1st 100: With 22 K & N cars present, 21 started at the 7:10 pm green flag. NAPA teammates Gilliland and 2015 K & N West champion Chris Eggleston, 27, shot from row one and dueled closely for half of the race. Race-long leader Gilliland opened a 35-yard (2.398 second) victory margin over Eggleston's No. 99 NAPA Filters Toyota.
K & N West rookie Garret Archer, 20, from Washington, started fifth and finished third, 9.558 seconds off the lead. He drove the No. 27 Jeff Jefferson & Jerry Pitts Ford (the ex-No. 26 Gene Price-owned Greg Pursley ride). Nicole Behar, a 19-year old from Spokane, WA started her No. 33 Toyota and drove forward rapidly with inside passes two cars at a time in pack-racing. She took fourth position on lap 83 as cars in P. 4-10 exchanged positions frequently. She placed second in the K & N feature at Irwindale two years ago in the same car owned by her father Mike.
The 41-minute race included three caution flags totaling 22-minutes. Rookie Will Rodgers, 22, from Solvang, started eighth and finished fifth in the No. 7 Jefferson-Pitts Racing Ford. Michael Self, Blaine Perkins, John Borneman III, Matt Levin, and second-year K & N West driver Julia Landauer, 25, from New York, completed the top ten. All logged 100 laps. Eighteen of 21 starters were racing at the finish. One of the 22 entrants scratched after practice.
Winner Gilliland ran the fastest race lap of 18.551 (97.030 mph). He had set the fastest qualifying lap of 18.054 (99.701 mph).during 4:25 pm qualifying. NASCAR used three groups of seven cars at a time and all drivers had five minutes to run fast laps. Each driver ran at least three or as many as eight laps. Gilliland's grandfather Butch Gilliland, the series 1997 champion, set the existing Irwindale K & N Series track record at 17.781 (101.232 mph) on June 19, 1999 during the IS initial season.
NASCAR—2nd 100: Gilliland and Eggleston, from Erie, CO, again occupied the front row with Eggleston on the pole. Gilliland shot into the lead and increased his advantage to 40-yards by lap 80. A single-car spin on lap 92 caused a five-lap yellow flag. A two-by-two restart enabled K & N West season opening Tucson (AZ) 150 winner Eggleston to challenge intensely for the lead and victory during the final three green flag laps.
Eggleston held the lead briefly on the backstretch during laps 98 and 99. However, Gilliland used a cross-over move on both laps to reclaim the lead. He led all 100 laps officially and beat his teammate by 0.415 seconds. M. Self drove Bob Bruncati's Sunrise Ford dealership No. 9 Ford from seventh starting slot to third place, 0.971 in back of the winner.
Derek Kraus, a 15-year old K & N rookie and Wisconsin-based super late model winning driver in his home state, started sixth and placed fourth in Bill McAnally's No. 19 Carlyle Tools Toyota. The personable teen started sixth and was in P. 4 on lap 18 of the first 100 when a flat tire caused him to spin out on the backstretch. He returned nine laps down and placed 18th.
W. Rodgers, Stanford 2014 graduate J. Landauer (in No. 6 Bruncati Ford), rookie G. Archer, N. Behar, B. Perkins and Todd Souza completed the top ten. All ran 100 laps in a 38-minute event. All 20 starters were racing at the finish. Only Dan O'Donnell scratched his No. 91 Ford after a mid-race tangle on the backstretch in the first 100. Gilliland's 18.818 (95.653 mph) was the fastest lap of the second race. The former Chino Hills, CA resident said he and his dad were flying out of LAX at 6 am Sunday to return home to North Carolina.
NAPA offered a K & N Series first incentive of $100,000 and titled “NAPA 500 (lap) Challenge”- Four races in eight days”. A $100,000 bonus was available for any driver who won all four K & N West races from March 18 (Tucson 150) through March 25 (Irwindale twin-100s). Gilliland came close by winning three of the four races. He finished second at Tucson to Eggleston and won the Thursday night, March 23 150-lap race at KCRP in Bakersfield using the same car he drove in Irwindale.
Gilliland had to settle for a $10,000 NAPA bonus for finishing in the top three positions in all four of the K & N West season-opening races. Eggleston and W. Rodgers both earned $5,000 from NAPA for finishing in the top five in all four races. Eggleston placed in P. 1-4-2-2; Rodgers finished fifth three times and third once. N. Behar also earned “NAPA 500 Challenge” bonus money by finishing in the top ten in all four races. She earned $1,000 in NAPA bonus money for her P. 10, 7, 4 and 8.finishes.
The K & N West Irwindale event, which offered $400,000 in prize money, point fund money and bonuses, will be telecast by NBCSN on Saturday, April 1. The first 100 will air from 4:00 to 5:00 pm PDT. The second 100 will follow directly from 5:00 to 6:00 pm.
The next Irwindale NASCAR Whelen All-American Racing Series event will be Saturday, April 8 with racing beginning at 7:00 pm. Featured will be twin 50 lap main events for NASCAR late models, Irwindale Race Trucks, Racecar Factory Spec Late Models (former S2 class), INEX Legend Cars and INEX Bandoleros.