Blaine Rocha took advantage of the misfortune of two late-race leaders to score his second SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series victory in three races on Saturday night at Kern County Raceway (CA). Rocha, a freshman at Fresno State University, led the final nine laps to score the $5,000 win and continue a streak of six consecutive top-five finishes.
Rocha was followed across the line by 2017 Rookie of the Year leader Ricky Schlick, 2017 points leader Bobby Hodges, 2017 Pacific Challenge Series (PCS) season opener winner Carlos Vieira and 2015 PCS Rookie of the Year Cole Moore.
“I didn’t think we had anything for the two in front of us (Derek Thorn and Christian McGhee), but bad luck happens, and luck was on our side for once this time, and it was a great birthday present to bring back home”, Rocha told Speed51.com powered by JEGS.
The bad luck that Rocha referred to was a lap 139 accident between the two leaders, three-time SRL Champion Derek Thorn and 2016 SRL Rookie of the Year (ROTY) Christian McGhee. Up until that point in the race, it was an accident-free event with only a couple of minor spins and debris cautions.
A spin by 2017 ROTY candidate Toby Becker set up a double file restart on lap 139. Thorn chose the preferred high line, with McGhee on the bottom. Thorn got a good start at Noel Dawson’s green flag, but McGhee climbed to Thorn’s door down the back straightaway. He was then able to take the lead coming off turn four, but moved up the track at the start/finish line and missed clearing Thorn. The resulting contact turned McGhee hard into the front stretch wall, destroying the front of his J&M Racing, Millennium Reinforcing Chevy. Thorn continued, but was put to the rear for contact with the leader, which resulted in a spin or accident, per the SRL rulebook.
Neither side in the conflict was pleased with the outcome of the incident, as it cost both teams dearly.
“On lap 139, I got the restart that I wanted; I definitely had the best car out here,” McGhee began. I got called clear and he drove back up, and he wasn’t giving an inch. I gave him plenty of room the whole race, so as a driver I think he would have backed out, and if he was better than me, he could have got me in the next corner. But I don’t think he was fast enough to get me. He didn’t do anything intentional. It’s hard to say if I would have done the same thing in the same situation. I don’t really know. I’d like to think I would have given an inch, given the fact that I had raced him clean the entire race.”
On the other side of the fence, the Campbell Motorsports team was not happy with the outcome either. The SRL rule in question pertains to spinning the race leader. It is a rule that is designed to take intent out of the equation, and make the decision black and white.
The rule states: 1. Any contact between competitors will be determined by SRL Race Control if any penalty will be imposed. If a driver is penalized for rough driving, he/she will restart at the tail end of the field behind all cars for immediate restart after the penalty. 2. Any competitor having contact with the race leader, resulting in the leader spinning or being eliminated from competition will be penalized. Race Control has the right to call over the radio to rescind this policy if the leader is considered, only by Race Control, to be blocking, in which case the above Rule #1 under Contact will be in force.
“I really was disappointed with the call on the track,” Thorn told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I was up at his quarter panel and he just turned right halfway down the straight. My crew told me, as McGhee walked back to pit road after the wreck, that he was saying his spotter cleared him. I don’t know what he was seeing, but I had nowhere to go and he just drove up into me. I don’t want people to think that I wrecked him, because there was nothing I could do about it. To be penalized for something like that just isn’t right. We feel like we had a win taken away from us due to no fault of our own. The Byron and Carol Campbell Motorsports Team put a great car under me tonight, and we were better than the 26 (McGhee) after a few laps. Had that not happened, I think we would have had a fun battle to the finish.”
Up to that point, the race had been clean with long periods of green flag racing. Donnie St. Ours started on the pole after each of the top eight qualifiers drew 51 FIFTY cans for their starting positions. Carlos Vieira lined up second, with Cole Moore, Christian McGhee, Bobby Hodges, Ricky Schlick, Thorn and Lance Wilson following. Race winner Rocha, would start ninth, after just missing the redraw, with Johnny White rounding out the top 10 in the car normally driven by David Mayhew.
St. Ours jumped to a quick lead, with drivers jockeying for position throughout the field. By lap 22, St. Ours had a two second lead, but quickly began to fall back with suspension problem that would end his day on lap 32, resulting in a 23rd-place finish.
Thorn took over the lead, but was constantly hounded by McGhee throughout the first 75-lap segment. McGhee could get under Thorn, but could never complete the pass, as the cagy veteran held the young driver at bay. At the lap 75 break, Thorn led McGhee, Rocha, Ricky Schlick and Bobby Hodges. It was an opportunity for drivers such as Rocha and McGhee to make changes to their cars to catch the three-time champion.
“We had a really great race from the beginning,” Rocha stated. “We made up spots really quickly. We started ninth, and were up to third by lap 30. We just started to cruise and save our stuff from there, because I used it up a lot trying to come through the pack. The car was really good, but a little free. I knew we had that break, so we could adjust it a little bit more for the second half.”
As for McGhee, he didn’t need much to make the car better.
“We started off really good, but couldn’t get by the 20 (Cole Moore) and Thorn got by us. We were catching him (Thorn) and we were definitely the fastest car by far. It was pretty obvious I think,” McGhee stated. “I ran him clean the entire race and we made a good adjustment at the halfway break. I just had to wait for the fuel to burn off of it, in the second half of the race. I was just waiting and waiting until we got that lap 139 restart.”
The second half of the race saw little position change in the top five, but the crowd was entertained with a thrilling battle for fifth between Bobby Hodges, Carlos Vieira and Cole Moore. The trio stayed within striking range of the lead foursome and benefited from the caution on lap 137, and the ensuing restart.
The lap 140 restart was single file and had Ricky Schlick leading, followed by Rocha, Hodges, Vieira and Johnny White. On the restart Schlick took off, but Rocha was able to get under him and take the lead by lap 142. Rocha extended his lead to 0.552 seconds at the end to score the victory and the 180 championship points that accompany it.
Schlick finished second, followed by the tight battle for third. Hodges managed to hold off a determined Vieira followed by Cole Moore, Johnny White, Linny White, Jacob Gomes, a charging Derek Thorn and Lance Wilson.
“Ricky was really good on restarts and I knew I was going to have to hit it perfectly,” Rocha explained. “I got a good one and I think he drove it in a little too deep and went up the track a little too far. I drove under him and finally got him cleared coming off of four. It was freaking awesome and I can’t complain about anything.”
Schlick had his best SPEARS Southwest Tour Series finish, and didn’t seem too disappointed with the result, as the advancement to the lead on the last restart was a happy surprise.
“The funny part was when we were in line, my spotter kept saying you are the leader (before Thorn was moved to the back), and I thought it was a joke at first. I was like, no way. I definitely saw what happened in front of me, but I was like all right, let’s take advantage of this. When we took the restart, I was in third or fourth (gear) which I think it cost us the win there, to be honest with you. But I learned my lesson and I had a lot of fun tonight. It was really cool to see the 43 (Thorn), 21 (Rocha) and 26 (McGhee) battling out there. I definitely had a great time.”
Bobby Hodges finished third, but had his hands full all night fighting off a myriad of challengers, especially the No. 51 of Carlos Vieira.
“We definitely had to work for that one. Ron (Strmiska) and the guys did an awesome job at the halfway mark, making some changes. In the first half we were pretty free, and we fell back to eighth or ninth. Ron had some tricks up his sleeve though and he was able to get me to get the stagger back down, and it came back. At the halftime break we made some changes, and it turned out to be a good points night. We weren’t the fastest cat in town, but we will take another top three finish. I didn’t have anything for them at the end, and we weren’t going to do anything crazy.”
Earlier in the day, Derek Thorn set the Rockwell Time Fast Time for the 41st time in his SRL career with a 17.742 second lap. The FLUIDYNE High Performance Move of the Race went to Carlos Vieira for his three-wide pass of Cole Moore and Buddy Shephard, while the Rockwell Hard Charger Award went to Linny White for improving 11 positions.
The SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series will return to action on May 20 for the Blackjack 121 at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Bobby Hodges will once again enter the event with the championship lead at a track where he has had a great deal of success.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
- Blaine Rocha
- Ricky Schlick*
- Bobby Hodges
- Carlos Vieira
- Cole Moore
- Johnny White
- Linny White
- Jacob Gomes
- Derek Thorn
- Lance Wilson
- John Moore
- Travis Milburn
- Colby Potts
- Eric Schmidt
- Cale Kanke*
- Craig Raudman
- Christian McGhee
- Blaine Perkins
- Toby Becker*
- Buddy Shepherd
- Scott Sanchez
- Luke Hall*
- Donny St. Ours