HARDING HAS A STELLAR NIGHT IN NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, NORTHWEST SERIES MONROE, Wash. (July 9, 2005) -- Over the course of a racing career, there are few races at which a driver has a car that is fast down the stretches and handles ...
HARDING HAS A STELLAR NIGHT IN NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, NORTHWEST SERIES
MONROE, Wash. (July 9, 2005) -- Over the course of a racing career, there are few races at which a driver has a car that is fast down the stretches and handles perfectly in the corners, in other words, a perfect car. Pete Harding had just that Saturday night in the AutoZone 125 presented by OSO Lumber at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. as part of the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series. However, Harding's night at the track was much more than that.
Evergreen Speedway, northeast of Seattle, is the home track for the veteran racing out of Surrey, B.C. Canada, meaning several family members and friends could attend the race. Included in those were his mother and father, who don't get to see their son as often as they like.
The victory being Harding's first in the series since 2003 was another reason the night was special. The driver of the No. 39 L.P. Body Shop/Yale Forklift Chevrolet is in his 19th season in the Northwest Series and at 54 years of age thoughts of retirement can creep into the mind. The competitive Harding can dismiss those thoughts for a while. He last visited victory lane in the season-opening event on March 29, 2003 at Evergreen, a span of 27 races. In response to the question of age, Harding quipped, "You can dig a hole, but don't throw dirt on me yet."
Even with the perfect car at his home track, his parents in attendance and his first win in over two years, the crown jewel of the night for Harding was the performance of his son, Shane. The younger Harding is the current leader for the Evergreen Speedway championship in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series and he extended that lead with a win in a preliminary race to the Northwest Series main event. Then, he stepped off the winner's podium and climbed into his father's back-up car for just his second start in the Northwest Series. This outing didn't end quite as well as his race earlier in the evening as Shane was forced to retire his ill-handling car after just 30 laps. That didn't matter to the proud father. "To race out there with my son tonight was a huge thrill."
Despite the many subplots to the evening, though, the performance of the elder Harding must not be ignored. He and two-time defending series champion Jeff Jefferson staged quite a battle and put on a show for the crowd with good clean nose-to-tail racing.
Harding started 11th in the 28-car field and wasted no time in getting to the front of the pack. After just 20 laps, he had moved through the field to sixth.
Jefferson started sixth on the grid and had moved into third after the first 20 trips around the .646-mile oval at Evergreen. The native of Naches, Wash., powered his LeMay Museum/Morgan Transport Chevrolet past Ed Watson, who started on the pole after a 10-car invert following qualifying, on the race's 37th lap. By lap 40, Jefferson and Harding sat in first and second, respectively, setting the stage for the battle of the night.
On the 66th lap, Harding worked his way to the rear deck lid of Jefferson's machine and for the next 22 laps Harding hounded Jefferson looking inside and out at virtually every turn. Harding's advantage was in the corners as his car rolled through with ease. Jefferson seemed to have the edge in speed down both the front and back stretches.
Short track racing is won in the turns, and on lap 88 Harding's handling edge prevailed. He was able to get even on the outside of Jefferson in turn three and complete the pass for the lead coming out of turn four.
"I stayed at the bottom the whole time and wasn't going to give it up," said Jefferson. "He was going to have to pass on the outside if he wanted to get by me."
After getting around Jefferson, Harding moved out to a lead of several car lengths, but a yellow flag on lap 117 would provide Jefferson one more opportunity at the win. The green flap waved to start lap 121 setting up a four-lap dash to the finish. Jefferson was able to remain close, but Harding's car was too good and beat Jefferson's to the line by .363 seconds.
On the victory, Harding heaped praise on the car and his crew. "It really is not often that you get a car this good and I just can't say enough for the work that the guys on the crew did," Harding said. With a beaming smile he continued, "Handling in the turns was the big key. I think Jeff was a little faster, but I was able to close the gap in the corners. He raced me clean and did the right thing by making me pass on the outside. It was just a whole lot of fun and great racing tonight. We just love coming to Evergreen to race."
Like Jefferson, Harding is a former series champion winning the title in 1999. By earning that title, he became just the second Canadian driver to win a NASCAR championship. He followed in the steps of four-time NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series title winner Roy Smith.
With his second-place finish, Jefferson notched his third top-five finish of the season and was able to extend his lead in the championship point standings from four to 59 points over Brandon Riehl, who battled mechanical problems throughout practice and the race before finishing 16th.
"Tonight was good for us. To finish second to a car as good as Pete's and be able to stretch out our points lead; it all worked out pretty well," said Jefferson.
While Riehl's team did a remarkable job at keeping their car on the track with the problems they battled all day long, the gold star has to go to Gary Lewis and his team. Lewis, of Bothell, Wash., came into the event having won seven of his last 18 Northwest Series starts at Evergreen.
The quest for another victory, however, took a turn for the worse when Lewis made contact with the wall during his second qualifying lap. His first lap was good enough to place him third to start the race, but the damage to the car had to be fixed. NASCAR officials impound the cars following qualifying and any subsequent work to the vehicle results in moving to the rear of the field for the race start.
The Lewis racing team went to work and was able to make the necessary repairs to the Nutter Racing Engines/Victory Circle Chassis/World's Gym Chevy for the main event. Then, true to Lewis' reputation at Evergreen, he worked all the way through the field for a hard-fought third-place finish.
"We just kept digging and it paid off," said Lewis, but he has to be wondering what he could have done with Harding and Jefferson had he been able to retain that start at the front of the field.
Watson, of Mount Vernon, Wash., capitalized on the invert and led the first 38 laps of the race in his Creekside Retirement Communities Chevrolet before finishing fourth. It was his first top-five run since the 2003 season.
Eagle, Idaho's John Dillon continued his strong season in the Frontier Equipment Company Chevrolet and finished fifth, his second of the year.
Wilbur Bruce, Steven Howard, Jeff Barkshire, Travis Bennett and Garrett Evans rounded out the top 10.
Bennett's evening got off to a fine start as he won his first Northwest Series career Bud Pole Award. He patrolled the track, which measures just over 5/8 of a mile, in 22.702 seconds (102.440 mph). The 2004 series rookie of the year and championship runner-up has been battling a case of sophomore jinx in the Rainbow Enterprises/Knudson Lumber Chevy.
"We needed that," said Bennett, of Ellensburg, Wash. "I've been a little frustrated this season, but maybe we can use this as a springboard."
Pete Harding also won the Featherlite "Most Improved Driver" Award given to the driver who improves his finishing position the most from the last event; he finished 21st a week ago at The Wenatchee Valley's Super Oval.
Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender Darren Trimble of Snohomish, Wash, won the POWERade "Power Move of the Race" Award. This award is given to the driver who improves his position the most over the course of the race. Trimble started 27th in his OSO Lumber/Natural Concepts Landscaping Chevrolet and finished 11th.
Harding's crew chief, Rex Morgan, earned the Lunati "Crew Chief of the Race" Award for his work on the winning car.
The Northwest Series gets a week off before returning to the track on July 23 for the Magic Metals 125 at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the speedway office at (509)248-0647 or by visiting www.yakimaspeedway.us.