Menard Edges Thorn for Season-Ending ASA Challenge Victory by Steve Neely
Dassow Crowned Challenge Champion, Murphy The Top Rookie
The final race of a season often highlights the emotional highs and lows of a sport at the same time.
For some, it’s the thrill of victory or a surprising run to cap off the season. For others, it’s the agony of defeat or disappointment after a season of false expectations.
Charlie Menard won the final ASA Challenge Series race of the season at Five Flags Speedway. (51 photos)
However, for Wisconsin’s Charlie Menard, it was a mission of redemption on a track that he has been snake-bitten at for years, the tricky half-mile Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. In Saturday night’s running of the ASA Late Model Challenge Series event, the USA Digital 200, Menard finally claimed that elusive win.
Prior to the event, Menard had not had much luck at the track. In fact, out of the numerous Snowball Derby appearances he’s made, he has only qualified for the event once, finishing 14th in 2003.
At the drop of the green flag, however, none of that history seemed to matter, as Menard charged from his third-place starting spot to grab the lead from the 2006 Five Flags Speedway Pro Late Model Champion Steven Davis on lap 16.
Menard and Davis swapped the lead back and forth before a third competitor wanted a piece of the action, that being Derek Thorn, who grabbed the lead from Menard on lap 64.
“I knew it was a 200-lap race, and I wasn’t going to push it,” said Menard. “I got mixed up with Derek there in traffic, and he got around me, but we got back by him. On the restarts that other guy (Davis) got under me, but we were just not going to do anything dumb in the first 100 laps. I’ve raced way too many races and seen people do that, and we weren’t going to do that.”
A flurry of action just prior to the competition break at lap 100 saw third-place runner Davis’ chances of winning go up in smoke, while Thorn again pressured Menard hard enough to retake the lead.
Steven Davis was one of the locals that raced with the ASA regulars.
The 10-minute intermission between the first and second 100-lap segments allowed the teams to make necessary changes to their cars, and more importantly, put on some fresh tires for the run to the finish.
As soon as the green flag waved again, it was clear that it was Menard’s team that hit the handling just right for the second segment, as Menard zipped past Thorn and rocketed out to a whopping 4.5-second lead over second place, which ironically enough worried Menard because of his history at the track.
“You start to feel all the bumps and everything, feeling like maybe something’s going to bite you,” said Menard. “I felt like we weren’t going very fast but we were catching lapped cars, and the spotter was telling me that we were keeping a pretty equal distance to second-place. I just kept the car straight and I really, really, really tried to do that very hard.”
While Menard was in another zip code, Thorn backed up to as far as fifth before he started making his charge back to the front. Thorn’s car came to life and closed the gap back down to only one second by lap 180, and to only a few car lengths with 10 laps to go.
“In the second 100 laps, as soon as we got out there the car got super tight on sticker tires,” said Thorn. “It took about 30 laps for them to come in, and by the time they came around, he was
almost a third of a lap ahead of me. About lap 170, I could start to see him again out of my front window. I think he was stuck behind a lapped car again, so I was able to close to within about four or five car-lengths. It was just a cat and mouse game after that when we were weaving in and out of traffic.”
In the final laps, the two cars frantically scrambled through the traffic to get an advantage on one another, with Thorn hoping to grab the lead one more time, but it was not to be. Menard held on to claim his second ASA Late Model Challenge Series win, and bracketed a season that started with a big win at another Florida track.
“It’s pretty cool, because I thought about it, and we won over at Lakeland and now winning over here,” said Menard. “I like Florida. I haven’t had a lot of luck in the Snowball, and only made the race once so far, so winning this is good for us and good for the team. Coming all the way down from Wisconsin, it feels real good to get a win.”
Menard (#13) held off a charging Derek Thorn (#5) late in the race.
California native Thorn felt the difference between his car and Menard’s was in his handling package on short runs.
“It was so tight in the middle that I had to slow the car down just to run the bottom, and it just took too long to catch back up,” said Thorn. “By the time I caught him my rear tires were shot. This track is just so abrasive, and it’s just hard to get a handle on. I’m just real happy that we did as good as we did, considering. Charlie, he had a great car, and I tried to get up to him, and by the time I did, we caught lapped traffic and I just couldn’t get underneath him.”
Menard attributed consistency and experience as the keys to the victory.
“From the start of practice until the race, we just tried to keep the car straight,” said Menard. “I’ve been racing here before and I know that this place just kills your tires and I had just hoped that some of the younger guys would use up their stuff, and I think some
of them did. I think we kept the car underneath us better than some of those other guys, and we had a great qualifying run, got to the front quick, and it was a good racecar.”
Coming back down in late November for the Snowball Derby and Snowflake 100 was not a priority for Menard entering the event, so does winning change that?
“I probably should, and we got good people here, but I’m getting married in a couple weeks and we’re going on our honeymoon in November, and that darn work gets in the way of everything. If I’m gone too long, Uncle John (Menard, owner of Menards Home Improvement Stores) will probably pull my ride.”
Notes: ASALM Challenge Series/Five Flags
We Are the Champions, My Friends…
Travis Dassow and his team celebrate their ASA Challenge Series Championship At Five Flags Speedway.
Travis Dassow all but locked up the ASA Late Model Challenge Series points title coming into the event at Five Flags, but by qualifying in the top-five while Colt James did not, the extra point ensured that all Dassow had to do was take the green flag in order to clinch his first ASA championship.
“It’s just awesome, just everything this team’s done for me and everything else, it’s just… wow,” said Dassow. “The first time I started an ASA race four years ago, it was just the ultimate dream, to win this ASA championship. It’s just an awesome feeling. It’s indescribable right now; just really unbelievable.
“It was definitely relaxing knowing that we clinched. When we took the green flag, my spotter congratulated me and said ‘alright, now let’s go get them…’”
Dassow hung in the top-five all day and avoided a near-disaster as Steven Davis’ engine
expired in front of him en route to a third-place finish. He completed his championship season with two wins, at Toledo Speedway and Hawkeye Downs Speedway. Also, with the exception of a 27th-place finish at Bristol, he finished every race in the top-10.
Dassow and his TD Racing Development team celebrated in victory lane with champagne showers for everyone nearby. For the team, the vestiges of the former WalTom Racing team, it is their third straight championship in the ASA Late Models.
“When I jumped in, there was pressure there, but there wasn’t,” said Dassow. “My parents and a couple of investors that put into it didn’t put any pressure on me. We knew that the last two years the team won the championship and stuff, but we’re still pretty much a startup team. We have nowhere near the budget as what WalTom used to have and everything else. We knew it was going to be a tough road and it started off good and just kept on rolling.”
…And We’ll Keep On Fighting, Till The End
Even though the ASA Late Model Challenge Series Championship was already decided prior to the race, the 2007 Pat Bourdow Memorial Rookie of the Year title was still very much up for grabs, with Sean Murphy entering the day with a 22-point advantage over Derek Thorn.
Murphy jumped out to an early start by winning the fast qualifier award, his fourth of the season, and gaining the all-important five bonus points for being the fastest. Murphy also clocked in at 17.554 seconds, setting a new track record for the series and smashing the previous record set by Josh Hamner in 2006 by over a tenth of a second.
Murphy's Fast Qualifier Award at Five Flags helped him lock up the Rookie of the Year.
However, Thorn, by leading the race, dropped the differential back down to 22 points. It was a nail biter at the end as Thorn had to chase down Menard, not only for the victory, but for the extra points needed to claim the Rookie of the Year honors.
“When I first got into the car today in the race, I was really just focused on the rookie battle,” said Thorn. “I really just wanted to make sure I finished ahead of Sean, but after about 10 or 15 laps, I noticed I had a good car. It’s just another race, and I figured if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. So then I got up on the wheel and drove the wheels off it. I did the best I could.”
Fortunately for Murphy, his sixth-place effort in the race combined with Thorn’s runner-up spot was just enough to ensure his spot as the 2007 ASA Late Model Challenge Series Rookie of the Year. In fact, Murphy won the title by only two points. After a year full of near-wins, Murphy was glad to capitalize in the rookie title chase.
“At least we won something,” said Murphy. “We’ve come awful close to winning in a couple of races. Derek (Thorn) gave us a hell of a run for the money, and I had to keep up on the wheel the whole night. We’ve run long greens like that, and it was tight in the center, so I dialed too much rear brake into it, and just burnt the right-rear off getting in and coming off, so it was kind of fun there at the end.”
No Time For Losers…
A pair of drivers were desperately hoping for good runs at Five Flags Speedway, after already having a run of bad luck. Colt James, who had already lost the championship to Travis Dassow after qualifying, was trying to hold onto second-place in points, while Five Flags Speedway regular Steven Davis was trying to prove his mettle against some of the best in short track racing. However, neither had the nights they wanted.
For James, his problems surfaced right at the start of the race.
Colt James lost the Championship early in the night, but still raced hard at Pensacola.
“I think about lap two or three, going down the backstretch, it went up in smoke,” said James. “I thought the motor was blowing up, but I don’t know what happened and it threw the power steering belt off. I just kind of had to ride it out the last 197 laps, and there are some places where I probably could have done a lot better, but here it’s just so bad because of the track. Going 100 green-flag laps in that second-half, well I was just whooped. It didn’t help that I only weigh about 140 pounds too.”
Davis’ problems surfaced at another heartbreaking time, while battling with the leaders just prior to the intermission at lap 100. Going into turn one on lap 92, Davis’s car spewed smoke, and ASA Late Model Series officials black flagged him shortly thereafter.
“I really didn’t want to be out front because I didn’t want to be setting the pace,” said Davis. “I just ran a pace that I felt like I could run, and we were sitting there riding. When Charlie got by me, after that caution I got by him just to show him I could, and that I did have something that would run with him. We were just having fun. We had a
good car, but it just seems like we ain’t got no luck. Lately, it’s been motors blowing, rear ends breaking, stuff like that, so to be able to win one of these races you have to be able to finish them. We can’t seem to finish a race.”
James finished 11th, two laps down, and Davis was credited with 17th and out of the race.
…‘Cause We Are The Champions, Of The World
In addition to the ASA Late Model event, Five Flags Speedway also crowned champions in two of their weekly divisions on Saturday night. In the Sportsmen division, Randy Thompson, with new sponsor Roy Jones, Jr. on the car, led all but two laps en route to the Sportsmen feature win. In doing so, Thompson also clinched the Sportsmen division championship.
In the Super Stock division, Chris Cotto and Thomas Praytor battled for the feature as well as the championship. Cotto dominated the race to clinch the championship, one year after coming up just short in the points to champion Shannon Jackson. An ecstatic Cotto did a series of burnouts and donuts on the frontstretch, getting the fans energized for the remainder of the night’s activities.
Lastly, in the 50-lap modified feature, Huntsville, Alabama driver Jeff Letson rocketed out early in his black #131 car and claimed the victory.