LAKE HAVASU CITY, Arizona — It’s hard to turn a race into a runaway and still make it suspenseful but Austin Barnes did it Saturday night at Havasu 95 Speedway.
The young man from Escondido, California, was the fastest qualifier for the K&N Filters 100 presented by E3 Spark Plugs, started third in the 24-car field, took the lead on a caution flag restart on the second of 100 laps around the quarter-mile oval and with 30 laps to go was 8 seconds ahead.
A lot of the fans still were on the edge of their seats with wonder, however, as they waited to see if the two-time champion of the Lucas Oil Modified Series presented by RAM Mounts could lap the field.
The suspicion was yes, he could, but no one will know because with 26 laps to go, Barnes 9.242 seconds ahead and only three cars on the lead lap the third of four caution flags waved. So Barnes had to be content with easily staying out front to the finish and winning by 1.938 seconds over pole-sitter Blake Rogers, Taylor Miinch, Dylan Cappello and hometown favorite Larry Gerchman.
Then Barnes, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday on March 16, offered a classic understatement.
“It was good,” he said. “I was really clear on the outside there after that caution. I sat there on the high line. I had tons of bite for the first four laps and got it done up there and just cruised home from there basically.
“The car was just running perfect. It did everything I wanted it to and never seemed to fade too much. The car had been good all weekend. After the first few laps I knew it was good and the only thing I worried about was after 20 laps was I going to be good or was it going to be junk?
“It was perfect all through the race. We had that red flag there with 26 to go and it was like the first lap of the race. It had tons of grip and did everything I wanted it to do.”
The win was the 16th in eight seasons of Hoosier Tire West championship competition for Barnes, who was winless in his first two seasons in the series and again last year, when he ran only seven of the 10 events and finished 17th in the point standings.
The 2012 and 2015 champion wasn’t the only one with a reason to celebrate, though.
Rogers, an 18-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, had by far the best weekend of his two-plus seasons in the series, qualifying third, starting on the pole thanks to the invert, and racing in the top five all night.
Eric Hamilton, a 20-year-old from Hanford, California, had his best qualifying effort and would have been the quickest of all had not Barnes taken his 32nd quick time award with a 15.317-second lap that trumped Hamilton’s 15.385. His race didn’t go as well, however, and he finished 12th.
A total of 31 cars made qualifying attempts to help open a season that will continue April 8 at Tucson (Arizona) Speedway.
Race Results (100 laps) – 1. Austin Barnes (51A), Escondido, Ca.; 2. Blake Rogers (4B), Yuma, Az.; 3. Taylor Miinch (4T), Blossom Valley, Ca.; 4. Dylan Cappello (11), Peoria, Az.; 5. Larry Gerchman (25), Lake Havasu City, Az.; 6. Shelby Stroebel (24), Meridian, Idaho; 7. Jim Mardis (51), Yucaipa, Ca.; 8. Michael Womack (3), Troutman, N.C.; 9. Mike Mitchell (77), Loomis, Ca.; 10. Kyle Cline (98), Hesperia, Ca.; 11. Travis Thirkettle (5T), Newhall, Ca.; 12. Eric Hamilton (11H), Hanford, Ca.; 13. Scott Winters (24A), Tracy, Ca.; 14. Jason Irwin (9i), Albuquerque, N.M.; 15. Dustin Tilbury (17D), Edgewood, N.M.; 16. Linny White (99), Colton, Ca.; 17. William Camara (57), Fremont, Ca.; 18. Chris Cook (2) Tabiona, Utah; 19. Eddie Secord (84), Oak Hills, Ca.; 20. William Guevara (55), Lake Havasu City, Az.; 21. Cameron Morga (54), Albuquerque, N.M.; 22. Wes Miller (98X), Turlock, Ca.; 23. Dave Arce (5), Santee, Ca.; 24. Doug Hamm (9X), North Las Vegas, Nevada.
Margin of victory – 1.938 seconds. Average speed – 26.481 mph. Lead changes – 2 among 3 drivers. Caution flags. – 3. Fast qualifier – Barnes, 15.317 seconds/58.758 mph.
-Lucas Oil Modified Series Press Release
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com