Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Rocha Dominates Battle, but Thorn Wins the War

The SPEARS (SRL) Southwest Tour Series concluded their sixteenth season with a first-time winner, while crowning a three-time champion, during the running of the “Retro Custom Metals 150 presented by Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse”. Blaine Rocha finally captured his first career series win at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, while Derek Thorn was able to secure his record tying third championship, to join Jim Pettit II in that category. Christian McGhee was formally crowned the series Rookie of the Year, in a season that saw him earn the Rookie of the Race Award, in all nine points paying events.

The Rocha effort was quite remarkable in itself, as he went from hero to zero and back again. Blaine's roller coaster weekend began with practice, in which he was only four one-thousandths off of Thorn's quick time. Practice ended with Blaine's Chevrolet in the pit exit wall, after hitting speedy dry while exiting the track at a high rate of speed. The result was a destroyed race car, and a return to his All American 400 car, that brought him home seventh in that event.

“We spent all day Friday getting our primary car really good, but we pulled this red car out and it was just as fast. I think in the race it might have been even faster”, Rocha commented.

Derek Thorn set fast time, for a series record 39th time, over the track record 36 car field. His 14.187, on the three-eighths mile paved oval, was also a new track record. Blaine Rocha was a surprising second quick, followed by Donny St. Ours, Jeremy Doss and Ryan Cansdale. The large field necessitated a B Main Event, to transfer three cars, in which to fill out the 30 car field. Justin Simonson, from Colorado, was the winner of that event, with Luke Hall second, and Jason Gilbert making a late race pass of Scott Sanchez, to claim the final Main Event position.

The top eight cars in qualifying redrew for starting positions in the feature event, with Rocha pulling the one pill to start on the pole. Bobby Hodges started second followed by Donnie St. Ours, Bullring Open winner Linny White, Jeremy Doss, Derek Thorn, Ryan Cansdale and Brandon White. When the field went green, Rocha jumped to a quick lead, but the yellow came out on lap 2, when Jeremy Doss pulled into the infield with a broken driveshaft. It was a disappointing result for the Montana 200 winner, who had lead several practice sessions during the weekend.

The ensuing restart only lasted a few more laps, when a chain reaction accident eliminated 2015 SPEARS Southwest Tour Series Champion Jacob Gomes. Upon the next green, the field calmed down and ran the next 30 circuits without incident. Rocha pulled away to a comfortable lead, but the top 5, and the rest of the field was in constant flux. Only two additional minor yellows saw the field reach the completion of the first 75 lap segment. Rocha led Bobby Hodges, Derek Thorn, Eric Richardson, Ryan Cansdale, Brandon White, Linny White, Craig Raudman, Trevor Huddleston and Christian McGhee to the break, with a total of 18 cars still on the lead lap.

The lap 75 restart saw Rocha once again jump out to a lead, in the highly preferred lower groove. Thorn was able to follow Rocha with Hodges dropping all the way to fifth, in the outside line. With 32 laps of green flag racing, Thorn was able to stay within striking range of Rocha, but contact with the lapped car of Cale Kanke was a major setback to his effort.

“We made a couple of small changes at the middle of the race, and felt we had something for the 21 (Rocha)”, Thorn said. “He could fire off a little better than we could, but I thought we were a little better on the long run. Then the 33 (Kanke) got into me going into Turn 3, and knocked the toe out. I went from a one tight to a four tight. From then on, it was just a matter of which lane you were in on each restart. It was just a matter of hanging on out there, as there were like four or five guys, to where we were just like ping pong balls out there.”

The lap 107 caution, for Matthew Meech and Andre Prescott, would set up a revolving door for the second place position battle. Thorn, Cansdale and Hodges would exchange the position multiple times, with each new restart. There was hard racing throughout the top ten, but by the lap 134 caution, Thorn had once again regained the second position, after battling inside of Cansdale for five consecutive laps. For Cansdale, the caution could have been a stroke of luck, as he was showing the rare strength of being able to compete in the outer groove. The ensuing restart, however, ended Cansdale’s chance for victory, when a spin in Turn 2, sent him to the rear of the field.

The final restart of the race, on lap 140, saw Rocha leading Thorn, Hodges, St. Ours, Brandon White, Christian McGhee, Linny White, Eric Schmidt, Keith Spangler and Eric Richardson. The single file restart, by rule, found Rocha jumping out to another quick lead, with Thorn slowly loosing contact. The battle for third saw St. Ours get under Hodges, with B. White and McGhee following. B. White would take third from St Ours, two laps later, and McGhee would wrestle that position away from White in the next turn. That would not last, however, as accordion type contact, between the group, found White back to third, with McGhee in pursuit. As the laps wound down, White and McGhee found themselves closing on the ill handling Thorn machine. On lap 148 White was able to get under Thorn for second, with McGhee securing third on the final corner. Thorn was able to hold on to fourth followed by Hodges, St Ours, John Nesmith, Richardson and Cansdale, with Eric Schmidt rounding out the top 10.

It was a dominating performance by Rocha, who had grown stronger as the season neared completion. For Blaine, it was a victory that was a long time in the making, and showed the strength of both he and his team.

Rocha began, “The car was flawless the whole time. I could not have asked for a better race car, quite honestly. From green to checkered, I led every lap and I’m really happy with how this Port City car performed. I’m so happy with this crew. For all the hard work that they did this year and through all the bad luck that we had this season, we finally came out with a win and I couldn’t be happier.” Blaine continued, “Finally, my first Super Late Model win! I have been waiting to check this one off of my list for a long time. I have won a lot of races in other divisions and stuff like that, but to win one in the SPEARS Southwest Tour means a lot to me. Now that we have won one, I think coming back next year that they will come a lot easier now.”

Brandon White finished second, for his best result of the season, after a fierce battle with his fellow competitors. He used a strategy, for this event, that he credits to another SPEARS Southwest Tour Series combatant. “The first half of the race I just sat there and cruised”, Brandon said. “I talked to Derek (Thorn), before the race, and he gave me some good advice, about just saving your stuff during the first part of the race, so I did. With about 40 laps to go, I just turned it on. On that next to the last restart, I just felt the car hook-up. I don’t know what happened or what I did, but the car just hugged the bottom better than I have ever felt it before. We had 150 laps on the tires and it felt like I just started the race. I was behind Derek there at the end, and his car just kept getting bigger and bigger, so my smile just got bigger and bigger. I’m just blown away that the guys put an amazing car under me. The North Coast Lighting, DirtCop Toyota Camry was just bad-fast tonight.”

Christian McGhee finished third, with a car that also came to life late in the event. Even though he didn’t win the $10,000 first place prize, he was happy for his teammate who did.

Christian began, “You know, this is a $10,000 to win race, so everyone wants it. We didn’t have anything for the 21 car (Rocha), but I am so proud of them that their team went out on top. I would’ve obviously liked it to be me, but there is no one else that I would rather see win this race. I am proud of Blaine, and he is a good teammate.” Christian continued, “I’m so proud of my guys. Something happened in the last 15 laps and this baby came to life. I wish it would have happened earlier, and I don’t know if it was the driver or the car, but track position here is so key, we just didn’t have it. This team had a good run this year, as we were the only team to finish in the top 10 in every race. I’m proud of them, and what we have accomplished this year, and hopefully I’ll have something for next year, so please come and pick me up”, Christian laughed.

Derek Thorn finished fourth in the event, but claimed the biggest prize of the season, with his third championship.

Derek said, “I’m just proud of the Campbell Motorsports Team really. We put together a great season, and had five wins this year on the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour. They work so hard to have the car prepared for each and every event and I’m just so fortunate to have Byron and Carol Campbell as my car owners.”

Bobby Hodges was the final driver in the top 5, but was mixing it up with the top group the entire race. With 10 to go he was in third position, but managed to hang on to that top 5.

“On that last restart it got a little dicey and everyone was bouncing off of each other, so I ended up falling back to fifth. I’m not going to lie to you though; it was a lot of fun. It was some good hard racing with some good drivers, so I can’t complain”, Hodges recalled.

The SPEARS Southwest Tour Series now heads for its winter break, with the momentum of two consecutive records car counts. The next event will be the 2017 Winter Showdown on February 9-11, 2017.

Final Results: 1) Blaine Rocha, 2) Brandon White, 3) Christian McGhee*, 4) Derek Thorn, 5) Bobby Hodges, 6) Donny St. Ours, 7) John Nesmith, 8) Eric Richardson, 9) Ryan Cansdale, 10) Eric Schmidt, 11) Linny White*, 12) Matthew Meech*, 13) Keith Spangler, 14) Carlos Vieira, 15) Justin Simonson, 16) Andre Prescott*, 17) Dan Holtz, 18) Jason Gilbert, 19) Trevor Huddleston*, 20) Luke Hall*, 21) Cale Kanke*, 22) Craig Raudman, 23) Ricky Schlick*, 24) Lance Wilson*, 25) Bob Lyon, 26) Stan Mullis, 27) Dennis Furden*, 28) Jacob Gomes, 29) Toni McCray, 30) Jeremy Doss.

B Main: 1) Justin Simonson, 2) Luke Hall*, 3) Jason Gilbert, 4) Scott Sanchez, 5) Rick Smith, 6) Toby Becker*, 7) Billy Mitchell, DNS) Justin Westmoreland, DNS) Mike Mendenhall

*Registered SPEARS Southwest Tour Series Rookie of the Year Candidate.