LEWIS CONTINUES MISSION IN PENGUIN PLUMBING 125 YAKIMA, Wash. (June 17, 2006) - Gary Lewis is on a mission, plain and simple. He won the Penguin Plumbing 125 on Saturday night at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway, his second straight victory in the...
LEWIS CONTINUES MISSION IN PENGUIN PLUMBING 125
YAKIMA, Wash. (June 17, 2006) - Gary Lewis is on a mission, plain and simple. He won the Penguin Plumbing 125 on Saturday night at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway, his second straight victory in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Northwest Series.
Last season was a sub-par year for Lewis, who failed to win a race for the first time since 1995. That's nine seasons. In fact, he won multiple races each year over that span. The memories of 2005 have given Lewis and his Nutter Racing Engines/Victory Circle Chassis/Sandblasters, Inc. Chevrolet team the drive and determination to re-establish themselves as one of the premier race teams in all of short track racing.
Lewis fought and struggled to a ninth-place finish in last season's championship point standings, a huge accomplishment that would be celebrated in almost every other camp, but it snapped a five-year string of top-five finishes in points and left a sense of disappointment for the driver, based out of Bothell, Wash. Couple that with the failure to win a race or even a Bud Pole Award, of which he has 28 in his illustrious career, the result is a driver fueled by pride and fortitude to win his second series championship.
That pride and desire to win was evident in victory lane. Lewis was all smiles and his expressions bore a true sense of accomplishment. More often than not, winning cars are easy to drive leaving the driver with the enviable task of avoiding trouble, hitting his marks and bringing it home with a win. That was not the case for this winner.
"The car was really tight," said Lewis. "The tires were chattering in the turns. It had a pretty big push, but we got the win and that's all that matters now. Thanks to everyone involved in this win. This one is sweet."
It was not only sweet, but also his 30th career Northwest Series victory. Only Garrett Evans (50) and Ron Eaton (41) have more wins in the series, now in its 22nd season.
The race saw four lead changes in the first 46 laps, but after Lewis moved past Travis Bennett on lap 46 there would be no further lead changes.
"Once I got in the lead, I didn't know how long it would last with the car driving the way it was, but I was just going to keep digging every single lap," said the victor.
Bennett started on the pole after the six-car invert and led the first seven laps before succumbing to the hard-charging Brandon Riehl, who was a two-time winner in Yakima last season.
Riehl started the race in fifth and wasted little time driving his Aero Exhaust/Darrell's Economy Muffler Chevy to the front. He was able to pass cars on the outside and looked to be the class of the 29-car field. However, on lap 33 while working though lapped traffic Riehl was unable to avoid the spin of Ed Watson causing severe right front end damage. Riehl's team has championship aspirations of their own, and their determination was exhibited, as well. Loading the car into the hauler would have been the easy thing to do after an accident in the first quarter of the race, but they spent the majority of the event making repairs before re-joining the race with less than 20 laps remaining. The moral of the story is never give up and every point gained today can be worth much more down the road when the 2006 Northwest Series champion is crowned.
Pete Harding assumed the lead after Riehl's misfortune and stayed there for six laps before surrendering it to Bennett. Bennett, then, fell into the clutches of Lewis after six laps. Lewis led the final 79 trips around the 1/2-mile oval and beat Bennett to the line by .393 seconds.
Bennett, too, is bouncing back after a rough 2005 season. The 2004 Sunoco Rookie of the Year and championship runner-up finished outside the top 10 in points a year ago. His second-place finish in this race fits in quite nicely with a pair of fourth-place finishes in the season's first two races. He has yet to win a Northwest Series event, but with the sophomore slump behind him, he appears to be knocking on victory's door and has every intention of kicking that door in this season in the Bowman's Electro Painting/Knudson Lumber Chevrolet.
"My car was strong tonight, but it was better on the long runs," said Bennett, who hails from Ellensburg, Wash. "It took it a while to come in. If we could've had a few longer green flag runs, then maybe, just maybe. Boy, I really want to win one of these races."
Sensing a run long enough for his car wasn't going to come, Bennett forced the issue on a re-start on lap 95. "I heated up the right rear tire pretty good trying to make something happen and then it was too free to do anything with. I held onto second from then on. I commend (Lewis) on his effort. His car looked pretty good from where I sat."
Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders continue to be a dominant storyline this season. So far in each race, one of the Northwest Series rookie class of 12 drivers has stood out. This night's top rookie effort was turned in by Shane Mitchell, of Orondo, Wash. He demonstrated the strength of his Mitchell Trucking & Paving/Coca-Cola Chevrolet throughout the day in practice and time trials. He posted the quickest lap in qualifying with a time of 19.041 seconds (94.533 mph) capturing the first Bud Pole Award of his career. The quiet, yet obviously, confident Mitchell wasn't done yet. His night culminated in a third-place effort, the highest of the rookie field.
"It was a good day for us. I like racing here in Yakima," he stated. "The level of competition in this series is tough, no doubt, but I think we can run with them. I'm already looking forward to the next race."
Wilbur Bruce, of Lakewood, Wash., turned in his customary solid performance in his Quality Rentals/Rent 'N Roll Chevrolet. He finished in fourth for his first top five of the season to go along with a pair of top-10 finishes earlier this season.
Snohomish, Washington's Jason Fraser, also a Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate, bounced back after a tough weekend at Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho last weekend to finish fifth. He now has a pair of top-five efforts in the Rich's Car Corner/BRI Chevy this season.
A pair of rookies, Mike Longton and B.J. Tidrick finished sixth and seventh followed by Jason Jefferson in eighth. Steven Howard crossed the line in ninth followed by, yet another, rookie Darren Rupinski in 10th.
All in all, five Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders placed in the top 10. Longton now leads the way in the Sunoco rookie standings with 22 points followed closely by Jay Sauls and Tidrick with 21 points each. Fraser and Mitchell are right there, as well, with 19 and 16 points, respectively.
Adding to Mitchell's already impressive night, he collected the Featherlite "Most Improved Driver" Award, given to the driver who improves his position the most from the previous event. He finished 25th a week ago in the Pepsi 125 at Magic Valley Speedway.
Jefferson, filled in for Jeff Bailey in the S&P Construction/Frank & Son Auto Body Chevrolet for the second straight race, and earned the POWERade "Power Move of the Race" Award given to the driver who improves his position the most over the course of the race. The native of Naches, Wash. started back in the 21st position and finished in eighth.
In the championship point standings, Lewis carried a slim five-point margin over Riehl into the race and left with a 40-point lead on Bennett. Riehl's troublesome evening brought about a drop to fourth in the standings, 103 points off Lewis' pace. After Lewis and Bennett in the top two slots, exactly 100 points separate Bruce in third and Shane Harding in 16th. Plenty of shuffling will take place this summer as teams vie for one of those coveted top 10 spots and an invitation to compete in the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, and, of course, the title of Northwest Series champion.
The Northwest Series takes a short break and will be back on the track for the Holiday Inn Express 125 at the Wenatchee Valley's Super Oval on July 1.