Benny Gordon will still win the Northern Division title, but Jeff Agnew made sure that, technically, Gordon’s victory party will have to wait one more week.
Agnew, driver of the No. 73 Mark IV Honda/Team 7 Motorsports Ford, worked his way around A.J. Frank on Lap 229 of the BFGoodrich Tires 250 presented by Holley Performance and held off a hard-charging Woody Howard to win at Salem Speedway on Saturday, July 29.
Despite finishing in 11th, Gordon still holds a 250-point lead over Jeff Agnew with two races remaining in the regular season, meaning he just needs to show up at South Boston to take his third consecutive Northern Division title.
While the championship is a lock, there is still a serious battle behind Gordon for positions three through seven. Of those drivers, Woody Howard made the most gains on the night.
Howard, driver of the No. 55 Dean Motorsports Chevrolet, charged around Gordon once the green flag unfurled and led the first 51 laps of the night. Howard eventually gave way to Agnew on Lap 52. Agnew would continue to pace the field until many of the leaders came to pit road on Lap 77.
Gary St. Amant, driver of the No. 71 JEGS.com Chevrolet, decided to stay on the track and took the lead on Lap 78. Agnew was the first car off pit road, due in large part to his decision to take only two left side tires.
“That was the team’s plan,” said Agnew. “I wasn’t sure about it at the time, because it’s so hard to pass here, but our car was just so good tonight.”
Things were hot in Salem and it showed on Jeff Agnew's face after the race. (Kathy Bond photos)
Agnew showed his prowess after only two laps of green-flag racing, knifing from third to first around St. Amant on Lap 87. Agnew held the lead until coming back to take his two remaining BFGoodrich Tires g-force radials on Lap 124.
Howard, who stopped on Lap 77, stayed on the track as Agnew came to pit road and assumed the lead. While he didn’t pass Agnew on the track, Howard’s No. 55 Chevrolet wasn’t lacking any speed.
Once in front, Howard paced the field for 66 laps before making the decision to come back in to put his first set of tires back on his car.
“This car wasn’t that good today,” said Agnew, who took his second win of the season. “The guys threw a bunch of stuff at the car after practice. They guessed at it, but the car qualified third and ran great during the race.”
The same couldn’t be said of Benny Gordon’s car.
After snagging his sixth Advance Auto Parts Pole of the season, Gordon gave way to fellow front-row starter Woody Howard when the green fell. And things got progressively worse as the night wore on.
“It was just one of those nights,” said Todd Gordon, Benny’s brother and crew chief. “We just had several things happen to our car that added up to a bad night.”
“We just had the car a little too free,” said Howard, who pitted on Lap 189. “This track can definitely eat tires up. And I knew if we were going to win, we needed to put our first set back on the car.”
A.J. Frank, driver of the No. 11 LightninFast.com Chevrolet, took a more traditional approach to the race, and it nearly paid off.
Frank pitted on Lap 77 and decided to stay on the track as the leaders cycled back through the pits. When Howard gave up the top spot to come to pit road, Frank took over the point on Lap 189. And he wasn’t going to give it up without a fight.
With Agnew and Howard with fresher tires, Frank had his hands full, holding off the charging duo. For nearly 40 laps the group waged a ferocious battle for the top spot, bringing the crowd to their feet. Eventually, Agnew slipped past on Lap 229, and Frank fell to third at the finish after Howard made a last-corner pass to take second.
“I’m extremely hungry for that first win,” said Frank. “I’m not happy with third by any means. Of the top-three cars, we were the only ones on older tires, and we were hanging on for dear life out there. I did all I could to win tonight. I want it so bad I can taste it.”
Howard wasn’t looking for his first Pro Cup win, but he was looking for his first win of the season. And he could taste it as well. In the end, Howard fell .667 seconds shy of chasing down Agnew at the finish.
“It wasn’t the win we were looking for, but five more laps and it may have been,” said Howard, who jumped from fifth to second in points with his runner-up finish. “The late-race cautions didn’t help, but this team is back to where we hoped to be earlier this season.”
Eric Corbett, driver of the No. 75 Larry & Sons Ford, picked up his best finish of the season by coming home fourth. Corbett climbed to within 69 points of fifth-place Johnny Rumley with his season-best effort.
After leading eight laps, St. Amant brought his No. 72 Chevrolet under the checkered flag in fifth place. His top-five finish was his second in the last three races.
Lonnie Rush Jr., Shelby Howard, Jack Bailey, Jim Crabtree and J.J. Pack rounded out the top 10.
The BFGoodrich Tires 250 was slowed 11 times for 66 laps of caution and featured seven lead changes among four drivers.
Ken Butler III found out just how tough racing at Salem can be.
Woddy Howard (#55), AJ Frank (#11) and Agnew (#73) race for the lead late.