Derek Thorn played his cards right and notched his first championship victory of the 2017 season Saturday night. Thorn took over the lead early and fended off a host of challenges to win the SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series Blackjack 121 at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (NV).
For Thorn, the win was his 30th career SRL victory and his eighth on the 3/8- mile D-shaped paved oval. The race was eerily similar to the first two championship events of the season where late-race passes and incidents prevented Thorn from reaching victory lane.
“I was driving it for all it was worth,” Thorn told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “It was tough. The 48 (Ricky Schlick) was putting on enough pressure to where I never really had time to just relax out there. Sometimes you get the lead and really get into a rhythm and log laps. Today was a different story. I am just so proud of my team and Byron and Carol Campbell for everything they do and the opportunities they have given me at the races, they are the ones who make me look good. I’m proud to be able to put it in victory lane for them.”
Thorn started the day off with his 42nd career Rockwell Time Fast Time Award in the series with a 14.440 second lap, good enough to best the 19-car field. Ricky Schlick was second, followed by Blaine Rocha, Bobby Hodges and Donny St. Ours. Upon post qualifying inspection, St. Ours was found with an infraction and was forced to start shotgun on the field. With the top eight redrawing for position, Cale Kanke would find himself on the pole with Lance Wilson, Jacob Gomes, Rocha, Hodges, Thorn, Vieira, Schlick, Colorado’s Jace Hansen and Craig Raudman lined up behind.
Upon the initial green, Wilson jumped out to a quick lead with Schlick and Thorn advancing quickly through the field. Thorn reached second with a daring three-wide pass on lap 8 to earn the FLUIDYNE Cool Move of the Race Award. By lap 16, Thorn had chased down Wilson and pulled off an inside move to take the lead on lap 18. Two laps later, Schlick would attempt a similar maneuver, but contact resulted in Wilson spinning in turns one and two. Over the next 50 laps the field would run clean with Schlick mounting several charges, but unable to get fully alongside Thorn.
A lap 73 yellow for Cale Kanke closed the field and allowed Rocha, who was slowly reeling in the lead duo, to restart on the inside of the second row. When the green returned, Rocha jumped to second and took up the chase of Thorn for the lead. Despite constant pressure, Thorn continued to hold onto the point.
Another slowdown on lap 100 would hurt Rocha’s effort for the victory, as contact between him and Schlick on the restart would drop the Fresno State Freshman back to fifth. This allowed Bobby Hodges to enter the fray and eventually finish second. Rocha would make a strong recovery and finish a scant fender behind Hodges for the runner-up slot. Schlick held on to finish fourth with Carlos Vieira rounding out the top five.
When asked about the late race pressure from Rocha, Thorn was happy to be able to fend off the 19-year-old driver.
“I was giving it as much as I had to at the time and I felt like he was just as good as we were,” Thorn began. “It just comes down to not making mistakes when you are in a position like that. If I would have flopped at the wrong time, and he made the right move, it could have easily been flip-flopped at the finish. We were able to save just enough at the end, to be able to stay in front of all the guys with those late race restarts. Victory Lane never gets old.”
Bobby Hodges ran a smooth and consistent race, but was seemingly always battling for position after tight racing in the early laps saw him fall to ninth in the opening stages of the race.
“We had a great run tonight and the car was very solid,” Hodges related. “We got shuffled back at the beginning and I really wanted to save my stuff, as it got pretty chaotic up there with some three-wide racing. Overall the car came right back in and the car was rolling the center really well. I definitely feel bad about getting into the 48 (Ricky Schlick on a late-race restart) as I really didn’t want to get him like that, but it just kind of happened there. But we will take a second place without any complaints and hopefully we will get to Derek next time.”
Third-place finisher Blaine Rocha also had to work his way forward, even though he started near the front.
“We had a great run, even though we kind of fell back at the beginning with lower tire pressures than the other guys,” Rocha assessed. “It definitely showed that we had a lot of speed coming back through the pack. Derek and I had really equal cars, as I was right on his bumper for about 15 laps. Unfortunately that caution came out, before I was able to make a move. and I was shuffled back on the next restart. I definitely think I had something for him. The car had such great drive off tonight, and with how close I could get to Derek, I know I would have had a chance. I just didn’t get the opportunity. I just can’t thank my guys enough for the hard work tonight. We kept it in one piece and I was a great points night.”
The SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series will now get an eight-week break before the next event at Madera Speedway (CA). The “Race for Autism 125” will start the second half of the season with a tight four-way championship battle involving Bobby Hodges, Blaine Rocha, Derek Thorn and Ricky Schlick. With three winners in three events, don’t be surprised if winner number four is crowned in Madera.
-By Kevin Peters, Speed51.com West Coast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
Official Results: 1. Derek Thorn, 2. Bobby Hodges, 3. Blaine Rocha, 4. Ricky Schlick*, 5. Carlos Vieira, 6. Jacob Gomes, 7. Eric Schmidt, 8. Lance Wilson*, 9. Craig Raudman, 10. Chris Clyne, 11. Jace Hansen, 12. Scott Sanchez, 13. Dennis Furden*, 14. Andre Prescott, 15. Cale Kanke*, 16. Luke Hall, 17. Donny St. Ours, 18. Billy Mitchell, 19. Keith Spangler.