CORONA, California — The Weather Channel website promises temperature in the low 90s, most sunny skies and a light wind from the northwest on Saturday (March 11) in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
There’s no direct mention, however, of the small cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Lucas Oil Modified Series presented by RAM Mounts as it begins the 10-race championship season at Havasu 95 Speedway.
That’s not an unusual circumstance. The start of any new season in any sport is fraught with uncertainty – will John Doe be good again, was last year a fluke, how will personnel changes affect a team, who’s going to be a contender and on and on.
What makes this different is the turnover at the top of the Hoosier Tire West point standings, where three of the four leaders either have left the series or plan to run a limited schedule. That group includes 2016 champion Matthew Hicks, runner-up Taylor Miinch and fourth-place Kyle Tellstrom.
Miinch, who won last season’s championship finale on Havasu 95 Speedway’s paved quarter-mile oval, will be among the 30 or so drivers expected this weekend, but doesn’t anticipate being at all 10 events. Hicks, who soon will become a father, and Tellstrom, a student at Boise State University in Idaho, are not competing in the series this year.
There won’t be any problem filling that void, though, not with Scott Winters and Lake Havasu City resident Larry Gerchman returning after top five seasons to lead a field that is knee-deep in potential title contenders.
“We’ve got all the elements in place for another terrific season and it’s exciting to get it started,” Lucas Oil Modified Series promoter Greg Scheidecker said. “We’ve got a great mix of established veterans and up-and-coming young drivers, some strong teams and some great new sponsors and it’s really going to be interesting to watch them all grow and work together.”
Winters, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer from Tracy, California, has led the point standings in each of the past two seasons but finished third in the final standings, behind Austin Barnes and Dylan Cappello in 2015 and Hicks and Miinch in 2016, when only 10 points separated the top three.
Winters, who made his series debut in 2008 but only has run for the title the past three seasons, was a race winner at West Valley City, Utah, last year and has won five times in all. He and the Ferrari/Kramer Racing team debuted a new STR Chevrolet with a second to Barnes in the opener of Spray Nine’s three-event Race of Champions at Bakersfield, California, February 11.
“Grandpa” Gerchman, who’ll celebrate birthday No. 62 on March 22, has been racing in the series since its inaugural season in 2006 and has been in the top 10 in the standings seven times, topped by his runner-up finish to Cappelllo in 2014. En route to his fifth in the points last year the G-n-G Automotive owner had seven top 10s, the best of them a third at Tucson, Arizona.
The rest of the final top 10 are back. That includes 2014 champion Cappello, who had joined crew chief Dean Kuhn at RBK Racing after three seasons with the Mike Garcia team; 2016 DJ Safety Rookie of the Year and two-race winner Travis Thirkettle; and two-race winner Linny White, who took the checkered flag in last season’s opening race at the speedway.
Shelby Stroebel, the road warrior from Meridian, Idaho, is back for his fifth season with the K&N Filters colors on his Phil’s Phabrication Chevrolet. The 44-year-old construction company owner has finished seventh or better in three of his four full seasons but has been plagued by one bad finish each year.
Two-time (2012-2015) champion Barnes, who sat out three races last season, will be a strong contender if he runs all the events this time around. The same is true of Jim Mardis, the series’ first two-time champion (2010-2011), who this year is campaigning with Figure 8 champion Rod Proctor in a team backed by Smart & Final.
Doug Hamm, who’ll be driving for H-Town Racing with Spray Nine support, is on the dark horse list with Eddie Secord who, like Hamm, is consistently fast but has had more than one race ruined by mechanical issues.
Eric Hamilton, a 21-year-old former dirt track star from Hanford, California, finished 10th last year in just his second season on asphalt. He’s the nominal leader of a youth movement that includes William Guevara, 21, of Lake Havasu City; Blake Rogers, 18, of Yuma, Arizona; Garcia Racing teammates William Camara, 21, and Michael Womack, 17; and New Mexico residents Dustin Tilbury, 20; Jason Irwin, 19; and rookie of the year candidate Cameron Morga, 16.
The K&N Filters 100 weekend will get under way with an open practice Friday night. Spectator gates will open at 4 p.m. and racing begins at 6 p.m. Saturday with the speedway’s Street Stocks, Factory Stocks and Outlaw Karts joining the Lucas Oil Modifieds.
General admission tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, handicapped and military personnel and $6 for juniors 6 to 16. A Family Pack that admits two adults and two children for $25 also is available.
-Lucas Oil Modified Series Press Release
-Photo Credit: Lucas Oil Modified Series