NWS: Evergreen III: Race notes

PETE HARDING'S GAMBLE PAYS OFF IN WASHINGTON NATIONAL GUARD 150 MONROE, Wash. (July 30, 2006) - NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series veteran driver Pete Harding gambled on fuel mileage and won the Washington National Guard 150 ...

PETE HARDING'S GAMBLE PAYS OFF IN WASHINGTON NATIONAL GUARD 150

MONROE, Wash. (July 30, 2006) - NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series veteran driver Pete Harding gambled on fuel mileage and won the Washington National Guard 150 presented by Creekside Retirement Center at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash.

Completing 150 laps on the .646-mile track at Evergreen Speedway is right at the edge of the fuel window for Northwest Series cars. Actually, a more accurate statement would be, some Northwest Series cars. A few of the 30 race teams gathered for the event were pretty sure that they could not complete the race on a single 22-gallon tank of racing fuel while others thought they might be able to make it. There were plenty of "maybes" and "mights" being tossed around the garage area over the course of the day, but no one was absolutely positive.

"There are just too many variables at play to know for sure," said Wilbur Bruce before the race, whose evening was cut short due to a motor problem after just 79 laps. "If everything goes absolutely perfect, you still never really know. It's not just 150 laps. There are the three to five pace laps before the green flag. There's the possibility of more laps at the end to get a green-white-checker finish. How many caution laps are there going to be? I think anyone wanting to try and go the whole way on one tank will need some number of caution laps."

These were things running through the minds of crew chiefs all week long for a race in which simply being fast was not going to be the deciding factor.

Harding's crew chief, Rex Morgan, was reasonably certain in his calculations for the fuel consumption of the L.P. Body Shop/Yale Forklift Chevrolet. He had put pencil to paper and reached the conclusion that his car could reach the finish line on a single tank of fuel, but that did not prevent him from urging his driver to conserve as much as he possibly could over the course of the race. "I had it figured out. I needed 15 laps under yellow and I got 20," said Morgan. "However, that did not stop me from telling Pete on the radio over and over in the early part of the race to save me as much as he could."

Harding, who is now in his 20th season of racing in the Northwest Series and the 1999 series champion, has not had the type of season for which he hoped until the last couple of events. Heading into the July 22 race at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway his best finish of the season had been 18th, but his team rallied to produce a sixth-place finish. That coupled with the victory at Evergreen Speedway and Harding currently sits just 29 points out of the top 10 in the championship point standings. Finishing in the top 10 in points is one of the primary goals of every Northwest Series team in order to get an opportunity to race in the prestigious NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown to be held at the conclusion of the season. So much so, that Harding stated prior to the race in Yakima that without solid performances in the next two races he may consider focusing his team attention on his son, Shane's team. The younger Harding is a Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender, who had performed better in the early stages of the season. "If we don't have a chance at realizing any of our goals this late in the game, then why not concentrate our resources," the elder Harding said. That plan is out the window as the wily veteran is most certainly within striking distance of a coveted top 10 finish in points.

As far as his strategy for the Washington National Guard 150 presented by Creekside Retirement Center. Harding was going to race for the win or run out of gas trying. "Our plan was not to stop and go as far as we could," said the victor and native of Surrey, B.C. Canada. "Rex told me he had it figured. So we decided to go for it. It coughed a little with two laps to go and I thought 'Oh my God, we're done.'"

Harding had every right to think that way. He inherited the lead on lap 143 when Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender Jason Fraser, who, too, was trying to go the distance without refueling, ran out of gas.

Virtually everyone's fuel strategy became apparent after the race's first caution came on lap 30 at which time championship points leader Gary Lewis along with Travis Bennett, Garrett Evans, Shane Mitchell and a handful of others headed to pit road to top off their fuel cells.

For Evans and Lewis it was a necessary stop and they ended up finishing the race in fifth and sixth, respectively. The four cars finishing in front of them all were able to travel the required distance on one tank of gas.

Harding, whose last series win, came just over a year ago at Evergreen Speedway now has six wins at the historic racing venue and 18 overall in his series career.

The exhausted 55 year-old was able to convert the emotion of the win, and this being the final race for the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series at Evergreen Speedway, very eloquently into words. The Northwest Series, which is in its final season, has been hosted by Evergreen 59 times over the last 22 years. "To win on what I consider to be my home track in the final Northwest Series race here makes this very, very special," he said. "I'm at the end of my racing career, and to win in front of so many friends and family makes it a wonderful night."

Getting down to the nuts and bolts of the evening, Harding credited his performance to a very well-handling car. "The car really rolled into the turns very nicely and I was able to comfortably get back into the throttle to get out of the turn," he stated.

He started the race in the 17th position after making some changes to the car to help fuel conservation, but those changes did affect his qualifying effort. However, by improving his position 16 places over the course of the race, he also earned the POWERade "Power Move of the Race" Award.

Brandon Riehl, who collected a Northwest Series win on July 15 on the 3/8-mile track at Evergreen, finished the race in second, just .419 seconds behind Harding. It was his third consecutive podium finish. The Aero Exhaust/Darrell's Economy Muffler Chevrolet was fast all day. Riehl posted the fastest lap in a morning practice session, but more importantly, the fastest lap in time trials. He completed a lap in 22.743 seconds for an average speed of 102.256 mph to win his first Bud Pole Award of the season and the fifth of his series career. He ended up starting the race in the sixth position after he randomly drew a six in the series-mandated six, eight or ten-car invert.

His thought on fuel strategy for the race was to go for broke just like Harding. "We figured that someone was going to be able to make it and if we stopped, then we'd have no shot at the win," said the resident of the Portland suburb of Boring, Ore. "Pete's car turned better than mine tonight. He deserved the win. We've had three good showings in a row now. We'll keep working on it and see if we can catch [Lewis] in the points."

Jeff Barkshire, out of Auburn, Wash., finished a season-high third. His Centennial Batteries/SPE Racing Engines Dodge also finished without stopping for fuel.

"I'm kind of interested to see how much gas is left in that thing. It can't be much," he said. "We figured that it was worth the risk and it worked out well. [Harding] and [Riehl] had better overall cars tonight. My hat is off to them. We're pretty happy with the results tonight."

Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender Jay Sauls, who started on the pole after the invert, led the first 68 laps of the race before succumbing to the pressure of Barkshire, who led the next 54 laps. Sauls was able to keep pace with Harding, Riehl and Barkshire to finish fourth in the Tri-State Restaurant Supply/Canyon Auto Paint Chevy.

It was a satisfying finish for Sauls, who followed up his first career win earlier in July with a pair of finishes outside the top 20. In fact, the improvement he experienced from finishing 23rd in Yakima to fourth in this event earned him the Featherlite "Most Improved Driver" Award.

After Evans and Lewis, Ron Eaton, Steven Howard, Jim McVey and Shane Mitchell rounded out the top 10.

Of note there, it was Eaton's first top-10 run since the 2001 season. The three-time series champion has raced just a part-time schedule in recent years. For McVey, it was his first career top-10 finish in the Northwest Series. It was only his 20th series start.

Mitchell's 10th-place showing helped him retain the lead in the heated battle for Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year honors. He now holds a six-point advantage over Sauls in second and an eight-point lead on Brent Harris in third.

In the championship point standings, Lewis stretched his lead over Travis Bennett, who finished a disappointing 18th in the race, to 88 points. Riehl, in third, inched to within 21 points of Bennett. While Lewis, Bennett, Riehl and Barkshire have both distance between themselves and, as a group, from the rest of the pack, it is the drivers from fifth through 18th place that the competition remains quite cozy. >From Mitchell in the fifth to B.J. Tidrick in 13th, the differential is less than 100 points. Even tighter than that is the minimal 40-point spread from Harris, currently in 10th, to Matt Hall in 18th with every team putting on the full-court press over the season's final three races to earn one of those top-10 slots.

The Northwest Series wraps up a difficult stretch of five races in six weeks next Saturday at Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho for the Platt Electric 200. It will be the first of two consecutive 200-lap races for the series.

-nascar-

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Series NASCAR
Drivers Shane Mitchell , Gary Lewis , Matt Hall , Jeff Barkshire