Shelby Howard was running fifth around Lap 160 of the Miller Lite 250 presented Southern Wisconsin Dodge Dealers at Madison Int’l Speedway when things started to go his way.
After leading 154 of the first 168 laps, race-leader Benny Gordon came to pit road under green and lost a lap. Jeff Agnew, running third at the time, ducked to pit road under green and lost a lap. Johnny Rumley, another of the top-five drivers, ran out of fuel and lost several laps. And when the race’s second caution waved for Woody Howard’s spin, Shelby Howard, Gary St. Amant and Sam Fullone were the only drivers on the lead lap. But St. Amant, driver of the No. 72 JEGS.com Chevrolet, wouldn’t be there for long.
Howard turned up the wick on the No. 20 Pontiac and pulled away from Fullone by 5.108 seconds. Despite finishing a distant second, Fullone’s run was a career-best and a much needed finish for his snake-bitten team.
"Finishing second is like a win for this team," said Fullone, driver of the No. 48 Pero Vegetables Chevrolet. "We had some luck with the attrition, but we still had a top-five car. We’ve had a fast car all season; we’ve just had some bad stuff happen. My guys keep putting the cars back together, and we come back and do it again."
Despite finishing 16th, Benny Gordon did it again as well, taking his third consecutive North Division title. Gordon, who won his eighth Advance Auto Parts Pole of the season, wrestled the lead away from Woody Howard, driver of the No. 55 Dean Motorsports Chevy, on Lap 15 and checked out on the field, building a six-second lead before coming to pit road under green and losing a lap. But losing a lap in the pits was merely a foreshadowing of things to come for Gordon’s No. 66 Ford.
A plethora of problems plagued the DuBois, Pa., driver’s car had late in the race and dropped him from the race on Lap 211.
Things worked in Shelby Howard's favor at Madison Int'l Raceway on Saturday night to collect another Pro Cup North win. (Kathy Bond photos)
"I don’t know if our car could have been any faster; we about lapped everybody," said Gordon, who led a race-high 154 laps. "We pitted under green and the caution came out, so we lost a lap. We went back out and thought the clutch was slipping, but it turned out to be the axle. We fixed that and went back out and got ready to go green and the battery went dead. It wasn’t a battery; a wire broke off the alternator. A lot of things went wrong tonight."
But it was the bright moments of the regular season that Gordon, who suffered three mechanical failures in the final three races, was trying to focus on as the season heads toward the Championship Series.
St. Amant was running second when Gordon pitted and inherited the lead, but the veteran driver’s car ran out of fuel before he could make his stop and lost a lap, leaving Howard and Fullone on a lap by themselves. Howard made the most of his fortune by pulling away from Fullone down the stretch and winning his third race of the season and second in a row.
"I was worried while we were under caution, wondering if I was going to make it to the pits," said Howard, driver of the No. 20 Speedco/Tony Stewart Racing Pontiac. "We made it. The car held over 21 gallons, so we were close."
But the outcome wasn’t close after Howard had control of the event.
"I really felt like we had a car that could’ve won every race this year," said Gordon, who finished the regular season with eight poles, 10 top-five finishes and five wins in 14 starts. "It’s hard to get like that, and I’m proud of this team for what they’ve done. We pride ourselves on nothing mechanical ever happening to our cars…It just seems everything hit us at the end of the season. I’m mad because we gave another win away tonight, but I’m really proud of what this team has accomplished over the last three years."
Derek Kale also clinched some regular-season hardware in the Miller Lite 250, snagging the Northern Division Miller Lite Rookie of the Year Award. But he, like Gordon, wasn’t around at the finish.
Kale, driver of the No. 22 Heritage Equipment Chevrolet, ran in the top 10 until breaking a brake rotor and dropping from the event on Lap 53. Even with his 18th-place finish, Kale finished nearly 200 points ahead of his rookie class.
Kale finished the regular with only two top-10 finishes, but he only finished outside the top-20 on three occasions in 12 starts.
"It took me some time to learn how to drive these cars. They’re heavier than a Late Model, and you have to finesse it more," said Kale. "I’ve had to learn how to slow them down and navigate traffic."
Kale has also had to learn patience after several early-season altercations drew the ire of his veteran competitors.
"It was me getting used to the cars," Kale said of the early-season run-ins. "I’ve have an aggressive driving style, and I’ve had to slow myself up. I’ve actually had some guys tell me they enjoy racing with me lately. I
appreciate all the help these guys are giving me now that we have this little bit of respect. Hopefully, we can continue to get better and become a contender."
Jack Bailey, driver of the No. 93 Ferguson Waterworks Ford, has been a contender all season, and that trend continued in the Miller Lite 250.
Bailey finished up his impressive season with a third-place finish, but it came with a little luck.
"The attrition helped us out tonight," said Bailey, who posted his fifth top-five finish in his first Pro Cup season. "Our car was pretty bad, but we kept working and made the most of it. We’ve been trying to gain some momentum going into the Championship Series and work on our setups. I think we’ll be ready when we go to Iowa."
Gary St. Amant is a driver who has momentum on his side heading into the Championship Series. St. Amant finished fourth in the Miller Lite 250, giving the short-track veteran four top-five finishes in the last five races.
Eric Corbett, driver of the No. 75 Larry & Sons Ford, completed the top five.
Tim Bainey Jr., Jeff Agnew, Gabi DiCarlo, Ken Butler III and Johnny Rumley rounded out the top 10.
The Miller Lite 250 was slowed three times for 25 laps of caution and featured six lead changes among five drivers.
Howard (#20) chases Johnny Rumley's #8.
Benny Gordon (left), Shelby Howard (middle) and Derek Kale (right) all celebrated their wins and championships together at the end of the night.