The script was written perfectly for “Hollywood” Dan Holtz, who took the lead role Saturday night in the SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series’ first visit to Tucson Speedway (AZ). Holtz led 121 laps en route to his first SRL series win and second Southwest Tour win overall.
Holtz was able to hold off a late-race charge from Bobby Hodges and then Blaine Rocha to secure the win in the seventh race of the SRL season.
The day began with Blaine Rocha the quickest in practice, of the 17 cars on hand. Ryan Cansdale set fast time in qualifying, with a quick lap of 15.322 on the progressively banked 3/8-mile paved oval. It was an automatic track record for Cansdale, in the series’ first visit to the facility. It was also his third career quick time effort in his second season on the tour. He was followed by Holtz, Carlos Vieira, Bobby Hodges and Derek Thorn.
Cansdale would pull a five for the invert, putting Thorn on the pole for the feature. The event would end up being a race of strategy, on the abrasive racing surface, with several cars acting as rabbits while the remainder of the field followed in a tight pack far behind the leader. The initial start saw Hodges jump to a quick lead, as Thorn shifted into conservation mode. Hodges’ lead was short–lived, as Holtz made his way by on the outside on lap 3, as Hodges was also in conservation mode.
When asked about his strategy, Holtz was confident that his car could take the rapid pace.
“I knew I could drive the car really hard and aggressively and that the car would hold up really well”, Holtz told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I drove it so hard in practice today, in the heat, and I just beat it to death. It handled it so well that I knew it could handle the pace. Duane Sharpe, and the guys, just gave me an incredible car. I knew that I was just in a really amazing place, and I could drive it like that, and the tires would hold up.”
The race went green until lap 47, when Andre Prescott slowed with mechanical problems. The SRL officials slowed the action to check for oil, as Holtz led Bobby Lyon, Luke Hall, Brandon White and Bobby Hodges. When the green reappeared, Holtz took off again, showing the strength that his Beverly Hills Rejuvenation Ford had shown all weekend.
The red flag was displayed on lap 64, as a broken track bar ended Carlos Vieira’s night, with heavy damage to his 51 FIFTY Energy Drink ride from the turn one wall. It was a tough weekend for the Campbell Motorsports driver, as he had to go to a back-up car after a practice accident in his primary machine earlier in the day. At that point, Hodges had progressed to second ahead of White, Lyon and Rocha, who had made his way to the front of the pack, which was racing in the middle of the field.
When the green reappeared, Holtz reassumed the lead, with the remainder of the field beginning to step up their intensity. Hall and White battled side by side for many laps, arguing over third, with Rocha lurking behind.
As the field hit lap 100, several drivers began to make their move forward, trying to close the gap on the speedy Holtz. On lap 105, Hodges pulled even with Holtz in the lower grove, and battled side by side for multiple laps to the delight of the crowd. Holtz eventually prevailed, and Rocha closed and passed Hodges a few laps later for second. Cansdale also set sail for Hodges, with 2015 SPEARS Southwest Tour Series Champion Jacob Gomes close behind.
As the field took the closing checkered flag, Holtz was able to hold off a hard-charging Rocha, with Hodges hanging onto third, ahead of Cansdale and Gomes. Christian McGhee rallied from deep in the field to finish sixth, followed by Mike Mendenhall, Keith Spangler, Brandon White and Luke Hall.
In all, 14 cars finished the event, with 10 on the lead lap. Derek Thorn was the first car one lap down, in an uncharacteristic event for the two-time series champion.
Even though it may have looked easy for Holtz, for a good portion of the event, the race came down to the wire, with Hodges taking the lead for a few laps near the completion of the feature.
“You know what, I did get worried a little bit”, Holtz recalled. “Anytime that it gets that close you know you can’t make any mistakes. I didn’t think he would be able to get around me, but I had to be very careful to not make a mistake. I knew if I could keep him on the bottom that he would heat up his tires, and get sideways. I just needed to keep him in the bottom groove, and sure enough, after seven or eight laps, he heated up the tires and it was all over for him. Bobby did a great job, and he gave it such a hard try…… we just had such a good car, and we were out there in the preferred groove, so it’s just hard to do anything with someone out there.”
For Holtz’s crew chief, Duane Sharp, it was a special win following the recent loss of his father.
“It just feels really good to get this win and dedicate it to my dad, Rich Sharp,” Sharp stated. “He struggled for a long time with pancreatic cancer, and we lost him about a month ago, so it is just great to be able to dedicate this to him.”
Finishing second, for his best finish of the season to date, was Blaine Rocha. Rocha’s season began to turn around in the last event at Redwood Acres Raceway (CA) where he finished third. Rocha drove a conservative race, for a good portion of the event, and tried to play the strategy game to bring home a victory.
“We really played the strategy game this time, because last time we were here (at the Chilly Willy 150 in February) we kind of waited too long,” Rocha explained. “It was a really interesting race, where we had to pace ourselves. I tried every restart to try to pick off a few guys, and then cruise again. When we got down to about 30 to go, and I had a lot of car left I was definitely catching him, and I got up to second, but I just ran out of laps. We had a really good race car all weekend. We changed a few things today, but it was really dominant. I’m really happy with that finish.”
Bobby Hodges, the eventual third-place finisher, was also a participant in the track’s Chilly Willy 150 in February.
“We really learned a lot at the Chilly Willy and that really paid dividends tonight,” Hodges said. “I think we really had the perfect strategy, but we just came up a little short. I really have to thank Mike Naake, and everyone at Naake-Klauer Motorsports. We have really come on strong in the second half of the season, and I think that it is going to continue to the end of the year. We were just a little to free, but the car was great. I just used it a little too much. It is what it is, and we are happy with the finish, so we will move on to the next one at Kern (County Raceway, CA).”
Ryan Cansdale was fourth, and his experience was typical of those drivers outside the top three.
“This was definitely one of the most strategic races I have ever been in,” Cansdale explained. “It was just a game of strategy. We just had to try to save our tires, for as long as we could, and have a plan. Dan (Holtz) just did a better job of saving tires. We went all-out, but we just couldn’t get there.”
2015 SPEARS Southwest Tour Champion, Jacob Gomes, was the final car in the top five, and had an adventurous time running near the back of the lead lap cars, and then trying to make his move to the front near the end. It involved several four-wide incidents with drivers who didn’t have as much tires left, and was fun, yet nerve-wracking at the same time.
“Our strategy was to hang out near the rear, and just race hard enough to stay on the lead lap. When the leader got near to me, I would take off a little bit,” Gomes recalled. “We got a caution and I cruised again. We got a red and I cruised again. I figured we would get another caution, and would move my way up to around seventh, but we never got another one. I just saved too much.”
The event was somewhat of a return to normalcy for the series, with only two slow-downs after the wild event at Redwood Acres Raceway. Seven of the last nine events have had two cautions or fewer.
The SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series will take a six-week break and return to action at Kern County Raceway on October 29 for the penultimate race on the schedule. Look for a large group of contenders to make an appearance for the eighth event of the 2016 championship season.
Final Results: 1) Dan Holtz 2) Blaine Rocha 3) Bobby Hodges 4) Ryan Cansdale 5) Jacob Gomes 6) Christian McGhee* 7) Mike Mendenhall 8) Keith Spangler 9) Brandon White 10) Luke Hall 11) Derek Thorn 12) Craig Raudman 13) Bob Lyon 14) Matthew Meech* 15) Andre Prescott* 16) Trevor Huddleston* 17) Carlos Vieira
*Registered Rookie of the Year Competitor.
-By Kevin Peter, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com