The SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series opened its 17th season Saturday night at Irwindale Speedway (CA) with a surprise winner in victory lane following a torrid late-race battle for the win. Bobby Hodges picked up his second career victory, and his first since 2011 at Roseville’s All American Speedway (CA).
Hodges, the 2016 SRL Most Popular Driver, won a race-long duel with three-time SRL champion Derek Thorn and late-race combatant Willie Allen to score the popular victory. The win was as much of a surprise to Hodges as it could have been to anyone in attendance, after his admitted struggles at the half-mile speedway.
“Oh man, I just can’t stop thinking about how pure this win was,” Hodges told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I’m just so grateful to Mike (Naake) and Ron (Strmiska) and all the guys. They work so hard, and it means a lot to me, to be able to punch through and get them the win they deserve.”
For Hodges, the win came at a track where he has struggled and has experienced bad luck. That made the win even more satisfying and surprising.
Before the race, Speed51.com powered by JEGS, caught up with Hodges.
“You know, we have always struggled and have had bad luck here at Irwindale,” Hodges began. “I really like the track, but we can never get a good finish here. I really hope we will be able to race in the high line because I just can’t seem to get the bottom figured out here.”
It was an ironic statement, as Hodges made the winning move in that bottom groove. It was not an easily task, however, as the Carson City, Nevada driver began to wonder if he could ever get it accomplished.
“There was a time on about lap 80 when we had crossed over each other about three times. I started to think, how in the heck am I ever going to get around this guy? But I knew we were good, and I could see he was getting looser and looser. I just figured it was just a matter of time,” Hodges stated. “It was a great feeling to be racing someone like that. To be able to win a race like this at our worst track just shows how far this team has come. If you want to race for a win, you want it to be against someone like Derek. He is the best in the West, for a good reason. It was such a privilege to be racing with guys like this. For us to be racing three-wide like this, and barely touching, or just a quarter inch apart, you just can’t ask for anything better than that.”
For Thorn, it was a fun but frustrating race, as four second-place finishes accompany his only victory in his last five starts at Irwindale. He did all he could to hold off Hodges, but came up just a little bit short.
“About halfway through the race, I could tell he (Hodges) was a little bit better than me,” Thorn explained. “He started rolling the bottom really good, and had a good run on me in one and two, and got by us with a little slide job. Then coming off of two, I got a good run and got back under him to take the lead back, in three and four. We did that a couple more times, before he finally got by us. I think we were three wide a couple times, with the 89 (Hodges), 4 (Allen) and myself. These guys (Campbell Motorsport crew) worked really hard on this car, but Irwindale is just really tough.”
Thorn continued, “We had a really great car, but it changes from night to day and just really rubbers up. I guess it just doesn’t fit my driving style, or we need to adjust the car a little bit differently. I can’t thank Byron and Carol Campbell enough, for this opportunity to drive this car. It was a great race with Hodges, and I want to say congratulations to him. He drove a really great race. He drove really clean, and he has paid his dues, and it is good to see him pull off a victory tonight.”
Bon Aqua, Tennessee driver Willie Allen got to the lead with about 18 laps to go, but couldn’t quite seal the deal to bring home the victory.
“We started eighth, because we drew terrible, with those guys on the front row”, Allen stated. “We ran to the front and, got to the top three early. The car was really good on the long runs, but wasn’t very good on the short ones. We got by Bobby there, and then we got to Derek and made contact. I think we led a lap, but the contact made me turn sideways, and it slowed both of us down, and we lost our momentum. I dropped back to third with overheated tires. I thought I could get him, but after that I just got too tight in the center. It was probably the most fun I’ve had in a race, as far as being able to drive three wide and side by. It was a lot of fun.”
The afternoon began with 23 Super Late Model Tour cars in the pits. Bon Aqua, Tennessee driver Willie Allen was quickest in practice, followed by Eric Schmidt, Blaine Rocha, Craig Raudman and Christian McGhee. Thorn was an unusual seventh, with Hodges only 14th. The field was cut to 22 cars when Chris Clyne swapped ends in turn one, and ended up in the outside retaining wall.
Qualifying found Derek Thorn setting a new track record, at 17.272 for his record 40th career Rockwell Time Fast Time Award. Willie Allen, Blaine Rocha, Craig Raudman and Bobby Hodges rounded out the top five. The fastest eight redrew for position, putting Thorn on the pole with Ricky Schlick joining him on the front row. Hodges would line up third with Donny St. Ours, Trevor Huddleston, Rocha, Raudman and Allen following.
Thorn got the jump on the initial start with Hodges following him up to second in the lower groove. Thorn built up a fairly-comfortable lead over the first portion of the race, while the field behind him battled for position. The first caution came out on lap 28 for a spin by Keith Spangler, with Thorn leading Hodges, Allen, Schlick and Huddleston.
The ensuing restart saw Thorn get the jump again, but Hodges stayed within striking distance with a car that seemed better on the long runs. A spin on lap 45 by 2009 SRL Champion M.K. Kanke’s son Cale saw the field close up again for a lap 48 restart.
The only serious incident of the event followed on the restart, with series rookies Jack Wood and Luke Hall being involved in the incident with Scott Sanchez and Christian McGhee. All four cars were eliminated with McGhee getting the worst of it with a destroyed race car. The scary incident led to a red flag and extensive cleanup.
Upon resumption of the race, Thorn led again as he and Hodges pulled away from third-place runner Allen. This time, however, Thorn could not distance himself from Hodges, as the two drivers battled side by side with Thorn holding the preferred high line. On lap 69, Hodges finally led a lap with an inside move on Thorn, but Thorn pulled a cross-over move to wrestle the lead back.
As the leaders battled back and forth, Allen closed in on the lead duo and made it a three-car battle for the lead. After a few more lead swaps, Allen trapped Hodges on the bottom and advanced to second. Allen then challenged Thorn for the lead, taking the top spot for a lap before losing momentum in the lower groove.
Hodges made his way by Allen a lap later and put a dive-bomb move on Thorn on lap 9 to take the FLUIDYNE High Performance Move of the Race and the lead. Both Thorn and Allen pressured Hodges with repeated moves to the bottom, running three-wide at times as the final caution flew on lap 97.
Hodges was able get a good restart and led the final three laps to take the victory, ahead of Thorn and Allen. 2001 NASCAR Southwest Tour Series Champion, Craig Raudman, was able to make a last corner pass on Blaine Rocha to take fourth, with Toni McCray advancing steadily to secure the sixth position. Ricky Schlick hung on for seventh as the top finishing rookie, followed by 2006 SRL Champion Eric Schmidt, Donny St. Ours and 2016 SRL Champion Jacob Gomes rounding out the top 10. Fifteen cars completed all 100 laps, with 18 of the 22 starters seeing the checkered flag.
The SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series will now travel to Kern County Raceway Park (CA) on April 22 for the “Bulwark ‘FR / Timberland Pro presented by 51 FIFTY Energy Drink.”
Fans can find on-demand coverage of Saturday’s SRL and K&N West event at Irwindale by visiting Speed51.com’s Trackside Now coverage: http://speed51.com/trackside-now-kn-west-and-srl-at-irwindale-speedway/
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
Unofficial Results: 1) Bobby Hodges, 2) Derek Thorn, 3) Willie Allen, 4) Craig Raudman, 5) Blaine Rocha, 6) Toni McCray, 7) Ricky Schlick*, 8) Eric Schmidt, 9) Donny St. Ours, 10) Jacob Gomes, 11) Toby Becker*, 12) Jeff Bischofberger, 13) Trevor Huddleston*, 14) Keith Spangler, 15) Carlos Vieira, 16) Darrell Midgley, 17) Matthew Meech, 18) Cale Kanke, 19) Christian McGhee, 20) Jack Wood*, 21) Luke Hall*, 22) Scott Sanchez, DNS Chris Clyne.