Seventh Heaven: Bobby Gerhart Wins for Record Seventh Time in ARCA Racing Series at Daytona International Speedway
(DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.) - Bobby Gerhart resisted the challenges of Chris Buescher and Matt Merrell in the final laps of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 to win the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season opener at Daytona International Speedway for the seventh time, adding to one of the most prestigious records in ARCA's 59-year history.
Gerhart (No. 5 Lucas Oil Slick Mist Chevrolet) started fifth, pitted for fuel only on the first caution of the race at Lap 5, and led the final 61 of 80 laps to win the first oval race on the new pavement at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
The win is Gerhart's second consecutive at Daytona, fifth since 2005, and eighth since 1999. No other driver in the 48-year history of ARCA racing at Daytona has won more than three times.
"It'll probably take a long time, maybe until even after I'm done racing until the meaning of what we've done sets in," Gerhart said. "It's a storybook deal. I'm so geared up to compete here and I have the privilege to do that. I'm already thinking about what we're going to do next year. It's a tremendous privilege for any race driver to come here and have the opportunity to compete at this level. I feel so lucky to do that right now."
A short pitting strategy was again Gerhart's best friend, as he took advantage of an early crash by Brett Hudson and the ensuing caution to enter the pit for a dash of fuel that would help him to the end of the 80-lap, 200-mile race. Throughout the week, drivers had cited the smooth new pavement as a cause for little tire wear, and Gerhart took advantage.
"Some things had to go our way," Gerhart said. "We didn't feel from the very beginning that we had the fastest car here, but there's a key to getting (to Victory Lane). You've got to put yourself in position. You've got to take a gamble now and then, and that's just the way it went. We took a gamble. I'm not going to say we didn't have a good car; we had a hell of a car. This thing's dynamic. It really is."
Buescher (No. 17 David Ragan Ford Ford) challenged Gerhart over the final laps and appeared to have several opportunities to steal the win, but drove the winner cleanly and took second in only his first superspeedway start. Buescher has made 16 starts in his career and has won twice, both at Toledo Speedway last season.
"That was a lot of fun," Buescher said. "I'm really glad that we get to come to Daytona. With the resurfacing, we really thought we had a chance against Bobby, but he pulled it off again. Overall, it was a lot of fun, a great first speedway experience. I'm glad I didn't pull out of line and drop to 20th. I'm really appreciative of Daytona International Speedway having ARCA. It's been a blast."
On a front row featuring two 18-year-old rookies, Kyle Fowler (No. 15 Venturini Motorsports Chevrolet) seized the lead from Menards Pole Award winner Ty Dillon (No. 41 Richard Childress Racing Development Chevrolet) on the first lap, and stayed just ahead of Dillon through the first 15 laps.
Dillon pulled out for clean air on Lap 16, only to fall to 13th by the end of the next lap. On Lap 18, a pack featuring Jason Bowles (No. 6 Eddie Sharp Racing Toyota) as the last car began to slow, causing Joey Coulter (No. 16 Rip It Energy Fuel/Darrell Gwynn Foundation Chevrolet) to hit him. The collision collected Tom Hessert (No. 52 Federated Auto Parts Toyota) and brought out the race's second caution. Dillon's Chevrolet sustained right front damage, essentially removing the rookie from contention.
Gerhart stayed out as the leaders pitted, taking the lead with Buescher in second on Lap 20. Neither driver would look back.
From there, Joey Licata Jr. (No. 77 WRONG Inc. Dodge) and Merrell (No. 32 Red Line Oil Toyota) traded the third position, and breakaway single-file packs of six to 10 cars would define the front of the field.
Chad Hackenbracht (No. 58 Tastee Apple Chevrolet) crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 46, sustaining a troubling flip against the wall. Hackenbracht emerged from his car easily and walked to the waiting ambulance before being examined and released at the infield care center. The resulting damage yielded a red flag.
When the red flag cleared, Gerhart and Buescher drove away, with Licata joining them in the top three for most of the duration.
A chain reaction on Lap 64 sent nine cars reeling. Hal Martin, suffering a tire rub in the No. 55 NOLA Motorsports Park Toyota, began to slow on the backstretch, hailing the attention of teammate Steve Arpin in the No. 25 Mike's Hard Lemonade/Trent's Tire Toyota. When Martin's tire blew in the outside lane, Arpin tried to move inside to avoid a collision but instead caught Milka Duno and the No. 63 Citgo Lubricants Dodge. Steve Blackburn and Duno contacted next, and five other cars were involved in the aftermath of the damage. Dillon, who had fallen well off the pace earlier in the race, moved just under the wreckage and came away 13th.
As had been the case for most of the race, Gerhart drove slightly above the yellow line in the turns in the waning laps, potentially opening opportunities for Buescher to move inside and take the lead. Merrell and Licata pushed Buescher, but none of the drivers were able to make a clinching move against Gerhart, the speedway expert. Licata pulled out on the final lap in an attempt to gain position, but fell back to sixth, giving Merrell third. Ricky Carmichael and Bowles finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
Benny Gordon, Chad McCumbee, Grant Enfinger, and Frank Kimmel completed the top 10. Dillon finished 11th.
Maryeve Dufault finished 28th in her ARCA Racing Series debut, and Duno, making just her second ARCA Racing Series start, ended the race 31st. Both drivers were involved in the Lap 64 collision.
Gerhart's final margin of victory was 0.135 second. The race was slowed five times for 30 laps; not since 2004 has an ARCA race at Daytona been halted by so few caution periods. Gerhart's winning speed was 122.387 mph in a race that lasted one hour, 38 minutes, and three seconds, not including the 10-minute, 41-second red flag period.
The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards returns to action Friday, April 15 at Talladega Superspeedway.