The first race of the 2002 Valvoline Runoffs was another runaway Sports 2000 victory for John Fergus, his second in a row and third in the last four years. Fergus pulled away at the start and gradually increased his margin over Hans Peter until he held about a 6-second advantage with just a few laps to go. Fergus caught some lapped traffic and was careful getting around them, but maintained his lead to the end.
The domination by the top two drivers didn't mean that the fans had a boring race to watch. Behind them, the battle for third was entertaining and lasted for most of the 19-lap race distance. Alexander Smith got a great start from ninth on the grid and followed Peter (who was 5th at the start) toward the front. Mark Mercer, who had started next to Fergus on the front row, was in third, but Smith was applying pressure and the two exchanged positions on the second lap.
Behind them, a 3-car pack containing David Dullum, M Bart Wolf, and David Ferguson was hanging close together and another good battle was going just behind them among Mark Hardymon, Chris Tryon and Dan Dubrovich. Ferguson got to the front of this bunch of cars and made some progress on the two cars that were still trying to settle third place.
Behind these racers, there were several incidents that left the rest of the drivers out of the picture for good finishing positions. First, at the end of the first lap, David Stefke and Richard Worley got together in the Carousel turn. Both had damage, but Worley was able to continue after few laps to make repairs at trackside. Next, on lap three, Jeffery Weyland bumped J Duke Johnson in "Madness" - corner 8, in the middle of Mid-Ohio's esses - and both were able to continue far behind.
On the next lap, a spectacular-looking crash happened when Giovanni Sorbello's Lola caught some wind under the engine cover at the fastest part of the track - the braking area for the end of the back straight. The cover blew off, but not before it acted like a parachute and yanked Sorbello's car into a spin that threw off the rest of the bodywork and put him into the wall. Franz Fleischli, Mike Burke and Martin Johns were pressuring him for 15th place and they continued their fight after dodging the flying pieces.
By mid-race the two leaders had checked out, but the race for 3rd was heating up. Smith had the position and had a horsepower edge, but his car was very loose. He could pull away from Mercer on the straights but Mercer could close up in the turns. The two did some pushing and shoving in the esses on lap 13 when Mercer tried to pass, but Smith held the position.
The big pack for 5th-and-back was having some interesting give and take as well. Ferguson had fallen back into the reach of Dullum, Wolf, and Hardymon. Dullum tried to pass Ferguson, but clipped him as he tried to get back in line and spun. Similarly, Wolf made a failed attempt at passing Ferguson and fell back. Wolf would spin later when Dubrovich bumped him from behind and lose even more positions. With just a few laps left, Hardymon made a stab at taking 5th from Ferguson in turn one, but that attempt failed as well.
As the race wound down, Mercer kept tying to pass Smith for third. He got really close on the 16th lap after Smith had a lurid slide in the Carousel, and finally made the pass with a brave outbraking move at the entrance to the esses. The podium seemed settled after that pass, but it didn't work out that way. On the last lap, Mercer threw away the third position when he spun at turn 11 - the entrance to Thunder Valley - and hit the tire wall. He was out of the race.
Amazingly, Smith didn't get third either. His car got loose once more in the Carousel and slid out into the tires that protect the end of the pit wall. Ferguson's battles to keep fifth position paid off for him and he came across the line in third. Mercer and Smith finished 13th and 14th, one lap down.