USAR: Lakeland: Race report

Gordon Conquers Nemesis, Almost Northern Division driver takes Southern Division opener Lakeland, Fla.-Benny Gordon has always said that USA Int'l Speedway was the one Hooters Pro Cup track that he struggled with. So after Gordon won the Sears...

Gordon Conquers Nemesis, Almost
Northern Division driver takes Southern Division opener

Lakeland, Fla.-Benny Gordon has always said that USA Int'l Speedway was the one Hooters Pro Cup track that he struggled with. So after Gordon won the Sears Auto Center 200 presented by All Pro U-Pull-It, one would think his opinion had changed. Well, guess again.

"I still can't drive here," said Gordon, driver of the No. 66n Samuel Metals Ford. "On 90% percent of the tracks we go to, I know where to pick up the throttle, and I can be spot-on and dial my car in. I'm still kind of erratic here, but I'm getting better."

Gordon, a Sears Auto Center Northern Division competitor, used an unorthodox pitting strategy to get the lead in the Greased Lightning Southern Division opener. While most leaders waited to pit on Lap 64, Gordon elected to take his BFGoodrich Tires g-Force radials on Lap 26 and cycled into the lead on Lap 88.

Gordon held the lead until Lap 152, when Mark McFarland, driver of the No. 81s Sears Auto Center Chevrolet, moved to the point. McFarland inched away from Gordon over the next 20 laps, but smoke began to billow from underneath his machine at Lap 175.

"When Mark started smoking, I knew I was racing for the win," said Gordon. "And I knew if I could get out front, we'd be tough to beat."

But Gordon almost didn't make it out front.

Matt Hawkins, driver of the No. 2s JaniKing Ford, was locked in a dogfight with Gordon for second spot before McFarland began to slow. The battle was so intense that Gordon considered letting Hawkins take the position.

"We were battling hard and got into each other a couple of times," said Gordon. "I was just about to back off because I didn't want to burn the tires up. Then McFarland started smoking, and I said, 'Hell, this is for the win.' Because I knew whoever got in front of the other one was going to win."

Even with Gordon holding him off, Hawkins felt like he still had a shot over the final laps.

"I thought I had him, I really did," said Hawkins. "That's why I'm so disappointed. I was passing four cars per restart. But when I got to him, I couldn't do anything. I was trying to not let him know what I was doing, but he did a heck of job and pulled out more than we had."

Hawkins shouldn't be too disappointed. The sophomore driver now leads the Southern Division standings-and he has a good jump on some of the more prominent Southern stars in the title chase.

Michael Ritch, the defending Southern Division champion, arguably had the best car of the night. Ritch, driver of the No. 28s Racing For Veterans Ford, led the first 65 laps of the event and was charging back to the front after a pit stop when his car slowed after a restart on Lap 135. Ritch pulled behind the wall and finished 28th.

McFarland's mechanical failure dropped him to 25th in the final rundown. Bobby Gill, driver of the No. 06s USG Sheetrock Ford, was involved in two accidents and finished 22nd. Trevor Bayne, driver of the No. 29 Chevy Racing Chevrolet, was running in the top five before his car fell off the pace with seven laps remaining, dropping him to 19th at the finish.

Though some of the top teams had problems, the race did have some feel-good stories.

James Buescher, driver of the No. 84s Mercedes Homes Chevrolet, seemed to carry his late-season momentum of a year ago into the 2008 campaign. For the third race in a row, Buescher came home third.

Caleb Holman, driver of the No. 75s Food Country Chevrolet, started his season off on the right foot by finishing fourth.

Billy Bigley Jr., driver of the No. 82s Peerless Woodworking Ford, rounded out the top five, giving him his first top-five finish in over a year.

Travis Kittleson, Kirk Leone, Hunter Robbins, Scotty Crockett and Drew Herring completed the top 10.

Robbins picked up the Miller Lite Rookie of the Race Award for his eighth- place finish.

The Greased Lightning Southern Division returns to action at South Georgia Motorsports Park in Cecil, Ga., on Saturday, March 29.

The Sears Auto Center 200 was slowed 12 times for 68 laps of caution and featured six lead changes among six drivers.

VERSUS Network will air the event on Monday, March 31 at 4 p.m.

Sears Auto Center 200 Notebook

Come Monday
As a rookie Caleb Holman, driver of the No. 75s Food Country Chevrolet, averaged a 26th-place finish in the first three events of the '07 season. Holman kicked his second season in Hooters Pro Cup with a solid, fourth- place effort in the Sears Auto Center 200. But he wasn't quite ready to celebrate after the event.

"Right now, I just told my guys that if we would have made the right adjustments we would have won the race," said Holman. "But Monday, I'll be really happy. Looking back on last year, it was just a nightmare in the first three races; we couldn't do nothing right. It just feels good to have a solid night."

The Drew Crew
Drew Herring, driver of the No. 22s Black's Tire & Auto Service Ford, always had fans at South Boston (Va.) Speedway and Southern National (N.C.) Raceway Park during his racing career. But, evidently, Herring's fans are willing to venture far outside of Benson, N.C., to follow their favorite.

When the first practice rolled off at 10:30 a.m., they were already in their seats, cheering wildly when Herring made his first laps.

"That was crazy," said a grateful Herring. "I'm in Florida, eight hours away from home, and I got just as many fans as anyone here. When you hear that many people cheer for you it gets you pumped up."

Herring was a little too pumped up in qualifying, but he rallied from starting 21st-and a mid-race spin-to finish 10th in his first Pro Cup start.

"I thought were we at least going to be in the top 10 in qualifying, but the driver got a little overzealous. I guess I thought I was in my Late Model and drove a little too hard. Instead of gaining two tenths [of a second], we lost two tenths. [Finishing 10th] wasn't what we were looking for. But after getting punted, losing a lap and popping the wall twice, coming home 10th wasn't bad."

Dig Dug
Billy Bigley never quits, but digging out from early-season struggles does get tiresome. Fortunately, for Bigley, he won't have to worry about that this season after his top-five finish in the Sears Auto Center 200 at USA Int'l Speedway.

"It feels awesome," Bigley said of his fifth-place effort. "The last few years we've always dug ourselves in a hole. Then we'd run good and end up in somebody else's wreck. Coming out of here with a top five is a godsend."

Un-Rattled Rookie
Hunter Robbins' first Hooters Pro Cup event was anything but smooth. The rookie lost an engine in the first few laps of practice. USAR officials gave Robbins five laps to shake down the new powerplant before qualifying, but that, too, went awry. Robbins and Trevor Bayne, who was also given five laps to check his transmission, tangled during the shakedown session. Eventually, things did get better for the rookie.

"We had a hotrod in the race," said Robbins, driver of the No. 6s Goodson Consulting Ford. "Our pit strategy worked out and got us up front. Somebody missed a shift on the restart and I tore the right front off. But we did the best we could and salvaged a good finish. We're just tried to get as many rookie of the year points as we could."

Robbins got more than points. His eighth-place finish was tops among rookies and netted him a $1,000 bonus.

"That'll make the car owner happy," said Robbins.

-credit: usar

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About this article
Series Stock car
Drivers Billy Bigley , Trevor Bayne , Caleb Holman , Mark McFarland , Travis Kittleson , James Buescher , Drew Herring