Derek Thorn dominated the “Bulwark ‘FR / Timberland Pro 101 presented by 51 FIFTY Energy Drink” at Kern County Raceway during the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series’ penultimate event of the season Saturday night. In doing so, the Bakersfield, CA driver inched closer to his fourth championship in the series at a track in which he used to struggle to find victory lane.
Thorn has now visited SRL victory lane three times this season, and in three of the last four events at Kern County Raceway, including the 2017 Winter Showdown. He won by just over five seconds, in an event that saw no cautions after the mid-race break.
“Mike Keen, and all the guys on this crew work so hard on this team,” Thorn told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I can’t thank Byron and Carol Campbell enough. We have such a great team, and I am so proud to drive for them. It was a great night for us, and the car was really, really, really great in the race tonight. To be able to have a car that good and a lead like that was amazing.”
SPEARS Southwest Tour Series Rookie of the Year contender, Buddy Shepherd, looked to have the car to beat in practice and qualifying, earning the Rockwell Watches Fast Time Award with a quick lap of 17.572 around the paved half-mile tri-oval. It was his first career SRL fast time and followed his $10,000 win at the Short Track Shootout at Madera Speedway, as well as a win in the last SRL event at the same facility. His Wilson Industrial Pumps, VanDoorn Racing Development Toyota led practice on both Friday and Saturday to set up his effort at his hometown track.
The SPEARS Southwest Tour uses a card-draw system to set the line-up for the top eight qualifiers in the feature. 2017 Rookie of the Year leader Ricky Schlick drew the coveted number one card to start on the pole. Blaine Rocha pulled the two, followed by Shepherd, Trevor Huddleston, Thorn, Christian McGhee, Bobby Hodges and Lance Wilson.
At the drop of Noel Dawson’s green flag, the field got off to a fast start with Schlick jumping out to a quick lead on the field. By lap 8, however, Thorn had closed to the rear bumper of Schlick. Over the next several laps, the duo ran side by side before Thorn was able to edge ahead on lap 12. He finally cleared the rookie a few laps later and was never challenged again. It was a maneuver that earned him the” FLUIDYNE Cool Move of the Race.”
The only unscheduled yellow occurred on lap 26 when debris was spotted on the track. The restart saw Thorn jump to the front again with Schlick following closely. Several laps later, Huddleston was able to get to the outside of Schlick and take over the second position. The field ran clean and green to the halfway break on lap 51. At that time, Thorn led Huddleston, Schlick, Shepherd, and Collins Motorsports teammates Rocha and McGhee.
The halftime break proved costly for several contenders, as Huddleston and Schlick both discovered blistered right rear tires. By rule, a tire change would cost the competitor two laps and no “Lucky Dog” awards for the remainder of the race. Schlick took the penalty and Huddleston decided to park the car with no chance at victory.
The restart found Thorn and Shepherd side by side with the three-time SRL champion edging out to a slim lead. As the race began to wind down, Thorn was able to gradually ease away from the field. At the same time, several competitors were making their charge to the front with McGhee, Hodges and Craig Raudman advancing into the top five.
On lap 100, Thorn took the white flag and shortly thereafter Jack Wood went for a spin in turn four. Several drivers had to take evasive maneuvers to avoid the incident with Raudman and M.K. Kanke losing position and certain top five and top-10 finishes. It may have been Thorn’s biggest worry, as he made it to the start/finish line racing to the checkered.
“Luckily that caution didn’t come out,” Thorn exclaimed. “Maybe if Shepherd had a couple-of-laps run, it may have turned out different. We were good on the long run and he was just the opposite. With that wreck coming to the checkered flag, I was concerned that I might get caught up in that. I was hoping we wouldn’t have a caution at the end and it just turned out in our favor.”
Thorn scored his 32nd career SRL victory and fifth at Kern County Raceway in a Super Late Model. He had gone winless in his first four starts but has since figured out how to win at his home track. Thorn was followed by Shepherd, McGhee, Hodges, Carlos Vieira, Jacob Gomes, Rocha, Eric Schmidt, Bob Lyon and Raudman. In all, 20 of the 25 starters finished the event.
Buddy Shepherd was fast all weekend and ended up being close to his second SPEARS Southwest Tour Series victory. He was only beaten by a driver who has mastered Kern County Raceway and has become the most prolific driver on the West Coast.
“Our car was good and I saved the whole first half of the race because I knew it was going to be a shootout at the end,” Shepherd commented. “I feel like I saved enough, but we may have made a change that was too drastic at the end of the break.
“Thorn, he was just a rocket ship tonight. That is all there is to it. They are the “A” Team here, it seems like. I’m just glad we could race with them for a couple of laps before he gassed us. I’d feel much better if we won, but being top two isn’t bad. We’ll get the notebook out, write down everything that we did, and change it up for the (Winter) Showdown.”
Christian McGhee wasn’t happy with his car all weekend, but once the race rolled around he was able to hustle the car to the front and secure his second third-place finish in a row.
“All in all, if you were to tell me before the race that I was going to finish in the top ten, I would have laughed at you,” McGhee stated. “We unloaded about a second off and at this track, you need to unload within a few tenths from whoever is fast. We struggled with the new tire compound, but I am really happy to be here. To gain that much, in that little amount of time, I’m really ecstatic with our finish. Third place is a lot better than 20th.”
The SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series will be back in action on November 18 for the 2017 Season Finale presented by Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse. The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will once again host the final race of the season for the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series. Another large field is expected, as some drivers look to finish off their race seasons, while others prepare for 2018. Thirty-six cars appeared for the event last season with cars from as far as Colorado expected to attend the 2017 version.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
The Finish: 1) Derek Thorn, 2) Buddy Shepherd*, 3) Christian McGhee, 4) Bobby Hodges, 5) Carlos Vieira, 6) Jacob Gomes, 7) Blaine Rocha, 8) Eric Schmidt, 9) Bob Lyon, 10) Craig Raudman, 11) John Moore, 12) Colby Potts, 13) Keith Spangler, 14) Justin Westmoreland, 15) M.K. Kanke, 16) Jim Wulfenstein, 17) Scott Sanchez, 18) Ron Esau, 19) Jack Wood*, 20) Ricky Schlick*, 21) Cole Moore*, 22) Trevor Huddleston*, 23) Lance Wilson*, 24) John Dillon, 25) Nick Joanides
*SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series Rookie of the Year Contender