Two hundred green flag laps, the longest race distance in Mahoning Valley Speedway (PA) history, paid off for the fans in attendance on a mild and memorable autumn Saturday evening. Every bit of strategy building up to the final lap of the 6th Annual Octoberfast event was out the window and came down to which Modified driver wanted it most, plus a little bit of luck.
A spectacular three-wide duel in the final corners resulted in a photo finish on the closing lap. After a brief review by officials, Bobby Jones was named the winner of the race by a razor-thin 0.007-second margin.
The story of how the win was achieved had much more to it than what could perhaps be seen from the eyes in the stands. Even the race winner was not fully aware of what was occurring inside his own racecar.
“The last, I bet you, seven laps I was in trouble,” Jones, who had a couple 100-lap special event victories to his credit in the past, told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I had a left rear tire coming off. All the lugs were loose and it was vibrating like crazy, and I was just doing as much as I could to keep rolling steady and not screw up.”
The 45-year-old from nearby Palmerton, Pennsylvania first gained the lead on lap 173 after an outstanding battle with 2013 Octoberfast winner Zane Zeiner for numerous circuits. Jones would have to contend with the Bath, Pennsylvania driver all the way until the checkered flag, but it was a relative newcomer to the ranks who showed his muscle over the closing laps.
Gene Bowers, a 23-year-old making his Octoberfast Modified debut, closed in on the front two as the fight for the top spot continued on. Earlier in the race when he was caught behind some cars he was faster than, the Slatington, Pennsylvania driver elected to ride and save equipment. That decision paired with the ability of his machine after a mid-race adjustment played into his hands.
When the white flag was unfurled, it was go time for Bowers as he made a daring dive to the inside of both Jones and Zeiner entering turn three. By the time they made it to the line, he was almost even with Jones and actually pulled into winner’s circle before being told over the radio that the victory was not his.
“I just sent it in there and knew I wasn’t going to slide up and hit them so I drove that thing in as deep as I possibly could and it stuck,” Bowers recapped. “It stinks to lose such a big money prestigious race like this by like six inches. That’s all you’re going to think about, but I couldn’t be happier for how hard my guys work all the time. Coming out here today there’s no way I thought we had the best car at the end of 200 laps.”
Despite potentially being the driver to beat due to his past success and experience as well as track position earned during the second half, Zeiner would shuffle back to third place in the finishing order. An overheated right front tire on his Modified was what he believed allowed his competition to be drawn back into contention.
“I started changing my line up and the car actually started coming around and started racing Bobby hard again,” Zeiner indicated. “I’d inch forward and we’d rub and would get us ahead. It was good hard racing. I just couldn’t finish it off. The car was just a tick too tight for us.”
Zeiner, who set a Modified track record at Mahoning Valley Speedway in 2007 that still stands today, additionally provided a review of the final 10 seconds around the ¼-mile from his vantage point.
“That closing lap, yeah, that was something,” Zeiner remarked. “We went down to one and two and I was going to try and crossover on (Jones). Just gave him a shove a little bit in and (Bowers) got a run underneath so I’m like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ I went back to the top thinking maybe I have one more shot, and Bobby kind of ran us up over there, which you’re going for six thousand dollars, I understand.”
The top three were not the only ones with a shot at the trophy as the laps wound down. Rising star Jack Ely used a differing pit strategy to get to the front and then came in for fresh tires later than the vast majority of frontrunners who did during a caution on lap 127. Teams were allotted up to two American Racer tires that were permitted to be changed anytime over the course of the feature. The New Jersey resident made a late-race dash from the back of the lead lap to fourth.
2017 track champion Brian Defebo was dominant out front from the time he took the lead from polesitter Todd Baer on lap 6 until the yellow flag in which he came to the pits for tires. The Berwick, Pennsylvania veteran finished the night in fifth place. In the end, the top five finishers were separated by less than a half second.
“The whole race everybody respected everybody,” Jones added. “That’s a lot of great drivers out there. There were 10 cars that could win or run up front tonight so to win against these guys I’m very pleased. I’m very happy. I’m honored.”
The favorable finish to the 2017 season for the top two racers, who generally call the Lehighton, Pennsylvania facility home throughout the year, provides a foundation and momentum for a possible successful upcoming season when the first green flag flies in the spring.
“Biggest win and paycheck anyway, and that’s what I race off of,” Jones, who finished the season fourth in points with three feature wins, noted. “I race out of my pocket and six grand will really help over the winter. It will maintain this car and we’ll be able to start off fresh next year.”
Bowers has run a limited schedule in the Modifieds the last two years since moving up from the weekly Street Stocks, but has established himself as a threat for the title if they choose to do so next year.
“I had some starts last year and we finally clicked off our first win this year, but this gives us a little bit of swagger going into the off-season with how fast we were,” Bowers said.
Octoberfast 2017 turned out to be a compelling event that puts Mahoning Valley Speedway on the map for years to come. It was officially announced in the afternoon drivers meeting that the longstanding facility will be under new management for 2018. Further details and plans are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
For a full on-demand recap of Saturday’s event, visit Speed51.com’s Trackside Now. Race highlights, including the thrilling finish, will be available soon on the Speed51 Network.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com / MoJo Photos
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