Fighting off both Scott Bloomquist and Jimmy Mars in the closing laps, Earl Pearson Jr. of Jacksonville, FL captured the Lucas Oil Late model Dirt Series sanctioned 24th Annual Ralph Latham Memorial on Saturday Night at Florence Speedway. Pearson's third series win of the year was worth $10,000 as he recorded his first ever win at the half-mile track. Bloomquist fell one car length short to Pearson at finish with Mars taking a close third. Completing the top five were Darrell Lanigan of Union, KY and Audie McWilliams of Walton, KY.
Ray Cook and Pearson made up the front row for the annual event with Pearson gaining the early advantage over Cook and Lanigan right from the start. Pearson stretched his lead to eight car-lengths by lap three as he set a blistering pace in the Bobby Labonte owned car. By lap nine, Pearson had already picked up the tail end of the field as Cook, Lanigan, Bloomquist and McWilliams made up the top five.
By lap 13 Pearson's lead was up to an astounding 15-car length lead over Cook, who had settled in second, just in front of a great battle between Lanigan and Bloomquist for third. The first caution came out for sixth running Scott James on lap 18 as the veteran driver came to a halt in turn two.
On the restart Cook drastically fell off the pace in the running order; falling from second to fifth within a lap as Lanigan, Bloomquist, and McWilliams all went past him. The race stayed green for eight circuits until Matt Miller slowed on lap 25, the halfway mark of the race. Pearson was still in the lead with Lanigan, Bloomquist, McWilliams and 14th starting Jimmy Mars now in the chase as he was up to fifth.
On the restart, Bloomquist and the Mars would subplant Lanigan from second as he dropped to fourth on lap 26. Pearson then opened up some breathing room for himself as Bloomquist and Mars found themselves dicing it out for second. With no caution flags in sight, Pearson started to pick up the back end of the pack again, allowing both Bloomquist and Mars to close the gap.
With ten to go, Bloomquist had his sights set on Pearson. Pearson was negotiating traffic and Bloomquist started knocking on the door for the race lead. With five to go, Bloomquist was only a car length behind as Pearson dove to the inside of a lapped car just as Bloomquist put his car up against the retaining wall in turn three in an effort to pass Pearson coming off of turn four. Pearson's well-designed moves through traffic allowed him to hold off Bloomquist for the win.
With Bloomquist and Mars right behind Pearson, the trio of drivers took the white flag and coming off of turn two Bloomquist tried the high-side again into turn 4 and hoped his momentum would carry him past Pearson heading to the checkers, but Pearson was able to get off turn 4 good enough to beat Bloomquist to the finish line by a car length to grab the win.
In Lucas Oil Victory Lane for the 20th time in his career, the 38-year-old, 4-time LOLMDS Champion was elated to win for the first time at Florence. "The track crew did a great job with this track as they always do, we didn't know how it would turn out with the rain chances for the day, but it turned out to be superb and the fans saw a helluva show," said the second generation racer, who is third in the Lucas Oil Championship Points' Standings behind Bloomquist and Owens.
"I have to thank my crew Jason, Matt and Eric. This car was perfect tonight, we got out there to that big lead and stayed up top there and we was hoping the top would stay good for the whole race like it usually does here, we had a couple of cautions there and that slowed our momentum and I saw Scott's nose there a few times and in traffic I thought I have to make the right move here or he was going to get me and fortunately we held on and it's great to get this win for Bobby (Labonte) he's going to be real happy when he about this and we got two wins for him this weekend," said Pearson who was referring to his win at Florence and teammate Brad Neat's win on Friday Night at Tazewell Speedway.
The MasterSbilt Dodge Charger driven by Pearson is powered by a Larry Wallace Racing Engines and sponsored by Lucas Oil Products, Red Buck Cigars, PRC, Sunoco Race Fuels, Hoosier Tires, Asi Racewear and Ohlins.
Bloomquist, who finished second in his Miller Brothers Construction/Vic Hill Racing Engines/Bloomquist Race Cars Monte Carlo SS, congratulated Pearson afterwards for a great race. "That was fun out there, Earl drove a really good race, I was hoping he would get caught behind that slower car there and I would be able to pass him, the track was great during the feature, we love coming up to race and can't wait to get back here in August," said Bloomquist who maintains the series points lead over Jimmy Owens and Pearson by 150 points.
Mars, the defending Sunoco Race Fuels North/South 100 winner last August at Florence was happy with his performance, "that was a good race out there between Earl and Scott, I thought we had something for them there at the end, the car was working real good there, but we just ran out laps, but we'll be back in August ready to go,' said the driver of the Deppe Enterprises/Pro Power Racing Engines/MB Customs Malibu.
Fourth went to Lanigan in the Gotta Race/Cornett Racing Engines/Rocket Monte Carlo SS who was followed by former Florence Speedway track champion Audie McWilliams in the Weber Racing/Sparks Contractors/Rocket Impala SS.
Completing the top ten were Don O'Neal of Martinsville, IN; Jason James of Lawrenceburg, IN; Dale McDowell of Chickamauga, GA; Jimmy Owens of Newport, TN; and Randy Weaver of Crossville, TN.
For the latest breaking news on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, log on to www.lucasdirt.com or call the series office at (951) 532-2503.