Michael Ritch Survives Brutal Race For Pro Cup Victory at Southern National by Jason Buckley
Track Resurfacing Causes Southern Division Points Shuffle
MIchael RItch climbs out after another Pro Cup victory in 2007. (51 photos)
Michael Ritch entered Saturday’s USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series race at Southern National Raceway Park in Kenly, NC knowing he had a target on his bumper. He was leading the Southern Division points over a charging Chase Pistone and Woody Howard. But trouble for the others in the top five on the newly resurfaced track caused a jumble in the points lead, and more importantly for Ritch, put him in victory lane for the second time this season.
While the others in the top-five had trouble, Ritch wasn’t free of trouble himself. An early incident on the track forced Ritch from his fourth starting position back a few spots and left him a little frustrated inside the helmet.
“It was very difficult,” said Ritch. “It got a bit intense and us hot under the collar. We came in to make our pit stop from the ninth or tenth position because someone tried to make it three wide and got into McFarland and knocked us to the rear. It wasn’t his fault but it was kind of silly for that to happen on lap two.
“Next thing I know I we are 29th or 30th. With as hard as it was to pass here I knew there was no way for us to get a win. We were just going to try and get a solid top five. We went to the high side and that was a disaster as we lost about another six positions.”
Meanwhile, the others in the top four in points were having their issues. Chase Pistone entered the race third in points, but didn’t have the race he wanted by starting 24th and getting involved in one of the many accidents on the track. Woody Howard was third in points and set a new track record with his pole-setting run during qualifying. But Howard also ended his race in the garage after mechanical failure following an accident during the race. Fourth in points was Frank Deiny, Jr. who also ended up on the hook as his #5 car ended up in the turn one wall around the midpoint of the race.
With all the others having trouble during the race, Ritch knew he needed to just survive to have a good day in the points. But survive wasn’t all he was going to do after as he drove by Mark McFarland for the lead by using the bumper with just over 50 laps remaining after a red-flag restart and drove off for the win.
“Pit strategy was the key,” said Ritch. “We were going to pit on lap 55 or 60 but the problem was that they pitted on lap 31. That is still 220 laps on your tires. You went faster if you put tires on. Our tires had about 30 laps less than everybody. Before the red flag we were a bit loose and after it the car tightened up and here we are.
“I told McFarland I hated to get into him but that is the only way to pass here. The problem that killed him was a lapped car choked him down and I had a full head of steam and got in the back of him. He retaliated the same way I did. He wasn’t really happy but that is the only way to pass here.”
While McFarland wasn’t too upset after cooling down following the race, he was still disappointed seeing the win slip through his fingers.
“I thought we had a car to win until that red flag came out,” said McFarland. “We sat there for a while and all my stuff cooled down. It never took off like it did in the beginning of the race. I just drove my hardest to try to keep up with him (Michael Ritch). He had a good car. I called for no changes on our stop and I don’t know if I could have made it better before that red flag came out. I don’t know if the tires cooled down or if one cooled down more than the others. It doesn’t take much. This series is so competitive that you cannot be off any to be able to win these things. We were just off a little bit.
“It was tough out there. It is almost like a small Bristol out here. You almost get like in a daze and lose track of laps and where you are at because you are hauling the mail through the corners. It is fun but I wish the groove was a little wider. It would have prevented a lot of those wrecks and we would have a little better race.”
Behind Ritch and McFarland at the finish was Jay Fogleman, who hasn’t had the season he would have liked to date. Even though he crossed the line third and not the win, Fogleman was all smiles after the race.
“To be honest with you, with the way this year has been and everything that has taken place this is basically a win for us,” said Fogleman. “We changed a lot on the car. My guys have really put in the effort trying to get something I could drive again. We really hit on it, and we will just tune from here and progressively get better. We are back in the ball park with what I can drive as far as what I want in a race car. We hit on something and got us back where we needed to be. I can take a third from here and continue on this year.”
Ritch (#28, top) has had a lot of people in shock this season, while Mark McFarland (#81, bottom) finally looks to be on the comeback trail.
While Fogleman was ecstatic on his great run, he was still a bit critical of the track and the racing it provided after the resurfacing.
“We were all bunched up,” said Fogleman. “I got turned around there on about lap five or six (because of it). Then I ended up turning Woody around over here. You just stand on the brakes and just can’t get stopped. Everybody is just bunched up on the bottom with the lapped cars, the lead lap cars, the fast cars and everybody. Track position is huge at this place. But it will get better. As soon as they work up and get the marbles off it will be better.”
Fogleman and McFarland were satisfied with their finishing positions, but Ritch enjoyed the spoils of the victory, and even more so, the increase of his points lead.
“I was a little bit worried there being the points leader and running back there in the pack but it looks like we have a significant points lead now because everyone directly behind us had a bad night.”