Don Thomson Jr. will remember his win in the Dodge Dealers 200 at Cayuga Speedway Park for a very long time.
The five-time CASCAR Super Series champion led 77 laps on Saturday, including the final 14, to take the checkered flag in the first event in the newly formed NASCAR Canadian Tire Series.
It was a historical race for sure, but Thomson savoured the win for another reason. He dedicated the victory to his team owner and mentor John Fitzpatrick, who suffered serious injuries in a car accident in Florida in mid-April.
"He's been on my mind ever since the day of the accident night and day," Thomson admitted shortly after climbing out of his Home Hardware Chevrolet. "Truthfully, I was probably a lot more anxious this race. It was going through my head - 'I've got to pull this off for John.' It actually put a lot of pressure on me."
Fitzpatrick's condition has dramatically improved in the past week and Thomson said he expects him to make a full recovery.
"He's doing better," Thomson said. "He has 24-hour care - they're looking after him pretty good. All of us are looking after him. Now that he's getting a little bit better, we have a lot more to smile about at the shop."
Thomson said that he feels like he owes his entire racing career to his long-time partnership with Fitzpatrick.
"In 1997 when I met John, he gave me the biggest break of my race career," said Thomson, who won consecutive Eastern Series championships before stringing together five straight national championships from 2001 through 2005. "He gave me the tools and the equipment to go fast and to be successful. I never won any championships until I met John Fitzpatrick and we strung together seven in a row. I owe my whole race career to John Fitzpatrick."
Thomson started the race fourth and inherited the lead on the second lap when pole sitter D.J. Kennington pitted with a broken rear trailing arm. Thomson led 15 laps before coming in for adjustments on his car. He regained the lead on lap 122 and spent the next 65 laps battling with Ron Beauchamp Jr. for the lead. Thomson made the winning pass on lap 187 and held on for the win at his home track.
"Just winning a race at this race track is big for me," Thomson said. "I've always loved this race track. I used to come camping here as a kid and watch my dad race and said someday I want to race Cayuga Speedway in the big leagues. I have won races here, but it's been a long time. It's not just the NASCAR deal, just winning at what I call my home track - man, I'm speechless."
Mark Dilley started seventh and got stronger as the 200 lap race went on. He brought his Dodger Dealers machine home in second place.
"It was a tough, competitive race and it was a first race," Dilley said. "Considering everything, we're pretty happy with the night. I really would have loved winning this one."
Peter Gibbons pilots the Canadian Tire sponsored Chevy and also would have loved to take home the trophy in the inaugural event. He struggled with his car early, but continued to fine tune it throughout the race and rallied for a third place finish.
"We went into the pits right away because we knew we were in trouble," Gibbons said. "The guys changed a lot of stuff on the car and we just kept talking about what we needed to do to it. We were gambling on what we were going to do next. We drove our hearts out."
Many drivers struggled to get used to the new 11-inch Goodyear Eagles that the series uses. In the past, they ran on nine-inch tires and the change has had a big effect on the handling of the cars.
The new tire helped give the drivers a second groove at the top of the track, but they also had to get used to double file restarts as the race wound down.
"The procedures that they put into place for the restarts is going to be good racing for the fans, it's going to be great finishes, but it's going to give the drivers a lot of headaches," said Thomson, who outlasted 18 cautions during the race. "The funny thing about these tires - and maybe it was just my car - but every time you go to restart, it seems like you've got something different every time you take the green. It's something we're really going to have to learn."
Former open wheel racer Andrew Ranger was fourth in his debut and Derek Lynch rounded out the top five.
Thomson's teammate J.R. Fitzpatrick won the CASCAR Super Series championship last year as an 18-year-old. He started on the outside pole on Saturday, but dropped to the back of the field before the start of the race because of a qualifying penalty. He battled through a steering problem during the race and finished 13th. Thomson is sure that his team owner's son will rebound to championship form.
"I built John Ryan's car and if he wins, I'm just as proud of that as if I win," Thomson said. "He's the future of Fitzpatrick Motorsports and someday, I'll be the past."
But after pulling off a victory in the first event of the new season, Thomson might not be quite ready for the rocking chair yet.
"This is what it's all about," he said after accepting the trophy. "Right here, right now. I was saying that I was getting too old for this and I need to retire, but I feel pretty young right now. What a perfect day."
The series resumes on June 16 at Mosport International Raceway in Bowmanville, ON.