It was a tale of two halves when the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series visited Kern County Raceway Park (CA) on Saturday night. David Mayhew led the spirited battle to the lap 75 halfway break, but Derek Thorn prevailed in the second half to bring home the $5,000 winner’s prize and strengthen his hold on the championship battle in the series’ penultimate event.
Thorn led final practice after losing a transmission only a few minutes into the session. His Campbell Motorsports crew went to work and busted out the back-up car, which ended up being even faster than the primary machine.
“I just can’t thank Mike Keen (crew chief), Byron and Carol Campbell (car owners) and the team enough for the car and the equipment. as well as the man hours that are put into this. To be able to pull a backup car out, run 10 laps, be as close as we were, put it on the pole, and lead a lot of laps, just says a lot about Mike Keen and the whole team,” Thorn told Speed 51 presented by JEGS.
Thorn went on to set a fast time of 17.611 on the high speed paved half-mile oval, with 16 of the 25 qualifiers running laps in the 17 second bracket. Current championship runner-up Ryan Cansdale managed a sixth-place effort, after getting no practice and borrowing a rear end from the Campbell Motorsports team. It was an admirable display of good sportsmanship to their chief rival. Former K & N West Champion Eric Norris also lost a rear end in final practice and had to tag the tail end of the field for the 150-lap race.
The unique event saw an eight minute halfway break on lap 75, with a can draw for the top eight qualifiers to set the front of the field. Blaine Rocha drew the number one can to start on the pole for the event, with Mayhew drawing can number two to start in the preferred outside groove. The reminder of the top eight positions consisted of Brian Richardson, Cole Moore, Jacob Gomes, Derek Thorn, Christian McGhee and the unfortunate Cansdale.
On the initial green flag, Mayhew jumped to a quick lead over Rocha with Thorn quickly advancing to third by lap 5. The first yellow flew on lap 15 when Luke Hall made contact with the wall and pitted for repairs.
A few laps after the restart, Thorn was able to get under Rocha to advance to second, and take up the chase of Mayhew for the lead. The majority of the first half of the race saw Thorn consistently challenging Mayhew for the lead in the bottom groove, leading several laps, but with Mayhew successfully fending off all his efforts in that outside groove.
Lap 73 saw Thorn make his final bid for the “His Works Gift Basket Company” $1,000 halfway bonus, but once again Mayhew was able to fend him off after Thorn was able to draw even. The halfway running order consisted of Mayhew, Thorn, Holtz, Christian McGhee, Johnny White, Ricky Schlick, Carlos Vieira, Blaine Rocha, Ryan Cansdale and Bobby Hodges.
“The first half of the race went really well,” Mayhew explained. “We got a really good pill draw and started second. We just kind of held our own, and gave him the bottom, hoping that he would wear his stuff out. We hoped that it would pay off later in the second half, but we just never got that far.”
Mayhew once again got the jump at the restart following the break, but the field was slowed by a debris caution on lap 80. On the restart, a chain reaction incident occurred, eliminating Eric Norris from the 11th position, and sending Blaine Rocha to the rear after repairs.
When the green reappeared, Mayhew jumped out to the lead again, but two laps later, Thorn was able to get to the outside of Mayhew’s MMI Chevrolet and wrestle the lead away on lap 84. From there, Thorn was able to open up a comfortable lead.
On lap 113, the complexion of the race changed when Mayhew lost an engine, and the field closed up behind Thorn. On the ensuing restart, Thorn jumped out front, from the outside line, taking Vieira and Gomes with him. Vieira, his Campbell Motorsports teammate, would challenge him briefly, but Thorn would eventually ease his way to a one second lead.
Thorn would finish 1.1 seconds ahead of Vieira at the checkered flag, with Gomes only a couple of car lengths behind second. Rocha would come back to win the battle for fourth, followed by Cansdale, Holtz, McGhee, Buddy Shepherd, Schlick and Hodges, who rounded out the top 10.
When asked about the winning pass, Thorn was complimentary of his main rival for the win.
“Mayhew and I go quite a ways back, and I really respect his driving ability. I tried really hard in the first 75, but I just couldn’t complete the pass. I think it was just a little bit of blind luck on that pass for the lead. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket,” Thorn joked.
“I was banking on the fact that he would run a pair of laps on the bottom, like he did before. I just thought if this is the time he will run the bottom, then I’ll run it in there deep. Going into one, I was just high enough, and he was just low enough. When we came off two, I wasn’t completely to him, and he could have cut me off, so I have to tip my hat to him and (Steve) Portenga for racing me clean and giving me room. It is not often you get a perfect car, but I’d have to add this one to the list.”
Mayhew had a similar observation on Thorn’s pass for the lead.
“It kind of surprised me that he got up there that quick,” Mayhew recalled. “On the restart we would run the bottom for a few laps, and then move up. He got a really good restart, and I didn’t know he was there until the last minute. I tried not to get into him. It was still early in the race and we had a long way to go. It was too early to be racing that hard, and to be getting into each other and wrecking each other. We both had good cars, and I was just trying to get to the end at that point.”
Finishing a career-best second was Carlos Vieira in the 51 Fifty Energy Drink Chevrolet. Vieira started 14th and methodically made his way to the front.
“The race was a lot of fun,” Vieira began. “The car started out a little loose, so I just tried to hang on and hold it together until the halftime break, knowing we could make some changes to the car. After the break, and the adjustments, the car was just really solid. We just started picking them off one by one. I got behind Derek on that restart (lap 115), and I had the opportunity to jump from fourth into second. From there I just held on, held my line and the car stayed underneath me allowing me to get a good finish.”
2015 SRL champion Jacob Gomes had a tough first half of the race, but rallied to a third-place finish in the end.
Seventeen of the 26 starters completed the highly competitive event, with 13 cars still on the lead lap. Christian McGhee was the Rookie of the Race for the eighth time on the season. Carlos Vieira earned the Hard Charger Award for improving the most positions in the event, charging from 14th to second.
The final race of the season, for the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour, will be on November 19 at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The special $10,000-to-win event will be in conjunction with a non-points event for the Lucas Oil Modified Series. The West Coast Short Track Championships will also include the USAC HPD Midget Series Championship finale. A full field of SPEARS Southwest Tour cars is expected, with the 2016 series champion to be crowned that night.
Results: 1. Derek Thorn, 2. Carlos Vieira, 3. Jacob Gomes, 4. Blaine Rocha, 5. Ryan Cansdale, 6. Dan Holtz, 7. Christian McGhee*, 8. Buddy Shepherd*, 9. Ricky Schlick*, 10. Bobby Hodges, 11. Eric Schmidt, 12. John Moore, 13. Doni Wanat, 14. Justin Westmoreland, 15. Lance Wilson*, 16. Andre Prescott*, 17. Cole Moore*, 18. David Mayhew, 19. Brian Richardson, 20. Eric Norris, 21. Johnny White, 22. Keith Spangler, 23. Donny St. Ours, 24. Bob Lyon, 25. Brandon White, 26. Luke Hall*, DNS. Matthew Meech, DNS. Cole Cabrera
* Rookie of the Year competitor
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com