RIEHL RETURNS TO VICTORY LANE IN NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, NORTHWEST SERIES MONROE, Wash. (July 15, 2006) - Frustrated by his performance over the last two races, Brandon Riehl came to Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. for the Top...
RIEHL RETURNS TO VICTORY LANE IN NASCAR AUTOZONE ELITE DIVISION, NORTHWEST SERIES
MONROE, Wash. (July 15, 2006) - Frustrated by his performance over the last two races, Brandon Riehl came to Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. for the Top Foods/Haggen's Wired X Energy Drink 125 to give a last ditch effort and try to regain his form in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series.
Riehl, racing out of the Portland suburb of Boring, Ore., had a break-out season a year ago. He won a pair of Northwest Series events en route to a runner-up finish to three-time series champion Jeff Jefferson in the champion ship point standings. He also added a victory in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series.
The 2006 season began in similar fashion for the driver of the Aero Exhaust/Darrell's Economy Muffler Chevrolet. He won the season opener at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway and followed that up with a third-place effort at Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho. It was the next two events that discouraged Riehl. He finished 27th and 19th after starting in the top five in each of those races and fell from second to seventh in the point standings.
He came to Evergreen Speedway's tricky 3/8-mile inner oval to stop the bleeding and was rewarded for his efforts. Once again, he had a solid starting position (sixth) on a track which track position would mean everything. He played the patience game, an area in which Riehl has struggled from time to time in his career, and came away with his second win of the season and the fourth of his Northwest Series career.
Mike Longton started on the pole after a 10-car invert and led the race's first 62 laps. He seemed to have enough car to stay there and lead wire-to-wire. Passing is difficult on the 3/8-mile surface that lacks a certain amount of grip for these very evenly matched racecars. The top 10 cars in time trials were separated by just .247 seconds.
On a lap 62 re-start, Longton tangled with a lapped car sending the race leader spinning out of contention for his first Northwest Series victory. Several cars stacked up behind Longton's incident, but Riehl was able to weave his way through the trouble and assume the race lead. It was a lead that he never relinquished.
The Northwest Series had not raced on the 3/8-mile track at Evergreen Speedway since the 2004 season. That race was won by Jason Jefferson and several drivers went to him for advice and help with strategy, including Riehl. The advice was simple and perhaps the most used word in short track racing, in terms of an on-track plan of attack. Jefferson told everyone who asked, patience would be the best route on the slick surface.
"I talked to [Jason Jefferson] a little bit about how to handle this place and he told me to be patient, smooth and let it come to me," said the victor. "You really want to overdrive this track, but as soon as you do, you're in trouble. I kept telling myself to relax and be patient over and over again. This is one of those tracks that slower is faster. If you drive it hard into the corners, then you're just going to slide right up the track."
Riehl credits his crew for giving him a winning car, but, more importantly, putting him in the correct state of mind. "I was really frustrated after the last two races and really was not excited for this race, but the guys kept encouraging me," stated Riehl. "We were heading down the hill and I didn't think I could stop it. [The crew] believed in me and told me to take care of the car and run our program. So, this one is all on them. I just went out and did my job."
Ellensburg, Washington's Travis Bennett continued his strong season after a sophomore slump followed his 2004 Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year campaign. He posted a second-place finish for the second time this season and his fourth top five of the year.
Bennett spent the better part of the second half of the race on Riehl's rear deck lid but was unable to mount a challenge on the slick surface. A late caution forced eight additional laps in order to get a green flag finish. The green-white-checkered situation provided Bennett two laps to launch an offensive for the win, but Riehl was able to hold him off and get to the finish line just .217 of a second sooner.
Bennett, while happy with his effort on the night, really wants to take the Bowman's Electro Painting/Farmer's Insurance/Eastside Paving Chevy to victory lane. "It was a great night for us. We finished second on a tough track and we made up some ground in the points, but I really want to win one of these things. We're so close, but this was a good night, nonetheless," said Bennett.
Steven Howard, too, is bouncing back from a disappointing season a year ago. He had a string of consecutive top-10 finishes in points snapped by a 12th-place finish in 2005. Howard equaled his Northwest Series career-best finish with a third-place effort. He also finished third at Tri-Cities Raceway during the 2004 season.
Like Riehl and Bennett, Howard, out of Roy, Wash., was able to navigate the traffic jam created by the Longton incident on lap 62, but his trip to the front was a bit longer. Howard started his Great Northwest Homes Chevrolet in the 15th position and set sail for the front from the initial start of the race. By virtue of his passing 12 cars over the course of the event, he earned the POWERade "Power Move of the Race" Award.
"This was a big night for us. Last year, we could never get on top of it," said Howard. "This year, we've been digging and digging and tonight it paid off. We're back in the top 10 in points where this team, I think, should be. We'll keep at it to stay here."
Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender Jason Fraser made an early statement that he had the car to beat. He powered his Rich's Car Corner/BRI Chevrolet around the track in 17.268 seconds (78.179 mph) to earn his first career Bud Pole Award.
He drew a 10 in the series-mandated six, eight or 10-car invert meaning that his trip to the front of the pack could be fraught with peril. That proved to be the case for the first-year driver. He sustained damage to his car in the early going forcing him to the pits and thus loosing laps. What could have been a hallmark night ended with a 16th-place finish.
Another Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contender got off to a fast start and nearly completed a sweep of the evening's events. Shane Harding, reigning Speedway Chevrolet Super Stock champion at Evergreen out of Langley, B.C. Canada, won the Super Stock event as part of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly program, his fifth such win this year, to kick off the night. He started the Northwest Series main event in the 5th position with his sights set on winning both ends of the doubleheader. As it turned out, he would go little further, but his fourth-place effort netted him his first Northwest Series career top-10 finish, as well as, establishing both season and career-bests on the circuit.
He finished 23rd at the last race in Wenatchee. By improving his finishing position 19 spots in the Ed's Transmission/Harding Forklift Chevy, he garnered the Featherlite "Most Improved Driver" Award.
Brent Harris, of Wenatchee, Wash., logged his second consecutive fifth-place finish in his R&S Construction Pontiac and his third top 10 of the season.
John Bender, Zan Sharp, Shane Mitchell, Troy Tramell and Darren Rupinski rounded out the top 10.
Riehl's crew chief, Steve Dykman, collected the Lunati "Crew Chief of the Race" Award for leading his team to the win.
The Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year standings continue to remain close. The Northwest Series battle for rookie honors is undoubtedly one of the deepest and most hotly contested in series and NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division history. Longton despite his hard luck during the event regained the top spot and has 33 points. There is a two-way tie right behind him for second between Mitchell and Jay Sauls, each with 32 points. The consistent Harris is situated nicely in fourth with 29 points as is Harding, who leaped into fifth place with the 10 points awarded to the highest-finishing rookie, with 27 tallies.
The unofficial championship point standings also tightened up. Gary Lewis took an 80-point lead into the race, but came out with a 37-point advantage on Bennett. Lewis was in the midst of another solid run, but a flat tire while running in the top five forced him to the pits and resulted in a finish in 12th. Riehl jumped from seventh to third in the standings with the victory. He is 114 points off Lewis' blistering pace. The logjam occurs from the 13 drivers in places four through 16 where just 91 points separate them. Rupinksi, who sits in 20th, is only 98 points behind Bender in 10th.
The Northwest Series is right back on the track next week for a 125-lap race on the speedy 1/2-mile oval at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway.