Matt Hawkins Pulls Off An ____ Pro Cup Win by Jeremy Troiano
Improbable/Amazing/Unbelievable... Fill In The Blank Yourself
Matt Hawkins probably wasn't on a lot of "favorite" lists to win Saturday night's race... but he did it anyway.
In a race that featured what many people were calling one of the strongest single USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series Southern Division fields of all time, there was no way that a rookie was going to win. And even if a rookie did pull off the impossible, it was going to be someone who has made a few starts in the series over the last couple of years.
Surely, someone that has never even sat behind the wheel of a Pro Cup car was going to win this race. Right?
Welcome to the new age of the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series.
Matt Hawkins shocked the Pro Cup world and shocked the Short Track Racing community by winning Saturday night’s opening event of the 2007 season, the Sears 250 at USA International Speedway.
And Hawkins did it in his first-career Pro Cup Series start.
“I’m surprised for sure,” said the 19-year-old Hawkins. “We came to qualify in the top-20 and finish in the top-15 and come home with all of the fenders on it. That was our goal for the weekend I never thought we’d do this good.
“The fact that we won this race still hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t know how long it will take to sink in. I just don’t know what to say about it.”
And it wasn’t like Hawkins backed into the win. He didn’t get the lead because of some crazy pit strategy. He didn’t win the race because a bunch of guys wrecked in front of him. He didn’t get the win because of attrition.
He got the win because he earned it.
A new rule that allows Pro Cup teams to only change tires or refuel their cars on one stop, but not both, made for the race to turn into one of strategy.
Hawkins’ team used a strategy that got them up front and got both of their stops done when others came in off of a number of cautions. That put Hawkins in the top-five for much of the race, and he just put the car on cruise control and rode around, waiting patiently until the end.
“We had the right pit strategy because I couldn’t pass very easily out there,” said Hawkins. “The car was really tight in the center off. When I got up behind someone, I was getting aero tight. We had a great pit strategy. We came in and got gas first, then got tires. That was the best way to go. The second set of tires were a lot better. They had a lot of grip. I felt like I was in the track better, but still when I got behind someone, I couldn’t get by them easily because the car got tight. Everything just worked out though. People would dive under someone and I would just follow them by. That was the best way for me to get by other cars.”
Hawkins even had problems getting around the race leader late in the race, Frank Deiny Jr.
Deiny Jr., who was also competing in his first-career Pro Cup race, took the lead from Andrew Rogers on lap 130 and brought Hawkins with him.
The two drivers then ran one-two for the next 50-plus laps. Then, with about 15 laps to go, Hawkins made his move for the lead.
Coming off of a restart, Deiny got slowed up by the lapped car of Richard Boswell, who had worked hard all night to try and get back on the lead lap. As Deiny got out of the gas as Boswell battled him, Hawkins got into the back of Deiny, forcing him to slide up the track. Hawkins was able to side underneath Deiny, bringing Bayne and veteran Bobby Gill with him.
“With 15 to go, I guess the #88 (Boswell) got into the #5 (Deiny Jr.) and they all wadded up,” said Hawkins. “If I hadn’t gotten into the #5, I would have gotten run over from the back by the guys behind me.”
Hawkins now has a trophy that he'll be hugging for a long time.
Deiny was able to regain control and grab fifth in the final rundown.
“We were getting tight on those restarts. I was trying to give the bottom to the lapped car. I didn’t know how many laps down that guy was and I was trying to get him back on the lead lap to get him out of my way. I knew it would eventually come back to bite us. You can only get away with it so many times. We had so many cautions that you can only do so much.
Trevor Bayne (McDonalds uniform) finished second and came to congratulate Hawkins, ushering in a new era in the Pro Cup series.
“I thought I would go down there and try and drive it in (to turn one) and I got pyle-drove from the back. What can you do though? This is our first race.
“"The boy did what he had to do; he won the race. I'm happy we finished fifth in our first start, but I'm competitive, so I'm really not that happy."
The win, along with 16-year-old Trevor Bayne’s second-place run and Deiny Jr.’s near win, ushered in a new era of Pro Cup racing.
“Its really neat to see the young guys up front,” said Hawkins. “I guess we are proving that the young guys can run with the veterans here.”
“I was talking to my spotter and telling him how I think it’s weird not to see guys like Shane Huffman and Clay Rogers out there,” said Bayne, who was a rookie with the series in 2006. “There are so many rookies out there. It’s a young generation stepping into this series now, which is good for the series. These guys, hopefully, will keep stepping up and we prove we can be here and be in the big leagues.”
Hawkins has a little bit of extra help as well. One of those veterans that the rookies and the young guys are looking to beat week-after-week, is Hawkins’ teammate and the night’s pole sitter, Mike Garvey.
“Mike has helped me a bunch and really helped me get adapted to these cars quickly,” added Hawkins. “When I got here and we were testing, I was overdriving the car all the way up to the wall. Mike has helped me out everywhere we’ve been. He really helped me in these cars.”
Garvey was one of the prerace favorites for the win. But a penalty for coming down pit road when closed (the same penalty that forced Gill to have to come from the back) and a late-race accident kept Garvey from visiting Victory Lane as a driver.
But it didn’t keep him from visiting his protégé and telling him something.
“He just said ‘ ready good job.’ I don’t know if he was surprised or really thought we could do this,” added Hawkins. “I know we are all surprised though. None of us expected this. The Snowflake 100 win (at the end of 2006) was big, but this is huge. This is by far the biggest race and the biggest win of my career.”
Bayne did pick up the best finish of his young career too, in the first race with new crew chief Blake Bainbridge, who had crew chiefed Clay Rogers to the 2006 Pro Cup title.
“Blake (Bambridge) give this team an edge that we needed last year,” said Bayne. “Blake has that great notebook from Clay Rogers last year. It was great to get to unload fast. I’m used to being in the car for two hours during practice and today we ran 18 laps. I’ve also gained more respect a year later. This year, when I got under someone, they’d give me some more room. We had a couple of incidents out there.
“The car was awesome on long runs. On short runs, the car was really loose. I thought I might be able to get him, but with a couple of the late cautions, we weren’t able to get by him. We tried though. I was hoping I could get to him, but I was never able to get close enough to him to get him loose.”
Gill couldn’t get to the young guys, and he put the blame solely on himself for the pit road penalty.
“I should have been paying attention, but we shouldn't have road around for an extra lap before the pits were open," said Gill, who led the first 74 laps. "We should have won the race, but we just put ourselves in a hole early."
But nothing could take away from Hawkins night. Now, he’s got a couple of weeks to see if he can continue to make history.
“It starts the season right,” added Hawkins. “Now, we are going to want to win every race. And of course, I know that isn’t something we are going to do, but we are going to want to. We still really want to compete for the championship though. We want to win every week. We know we won’t be winning races every week. This is too good of a series and has too many good drivers to ever think that.”
Then again, no one ever thought Hawkins would win Saturday night.