Brett Hearn had led all but one lap since the first green flag flew to start the 2010 Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar 358-Modified Championship Series opener Monday at Merrittville Speedway.
Still, just one more time around the racy third-mile clay oval and the outcome could have easily been different as Hearn outlasted a late-race charge from runner-up Jimmy Phelps to score a narrow victory in the headline ‘Zavitz Financial Strategies & Employee Benefits 100’ on Victoria Day north of the border.
“I knew sooner or later the bottom was going to be the preferred line, just didn’t really know if I was gonna be as good down there,” remarked Hearn, who edged Phelps by a scant 0.123-sec. after pacing the field for 99 of 100 laps in the ’10 tour lid-lifter. “So I just hung in there until the end. Pretty fortunate from what I’m told that (race) wasn’t another five laps.”
Hearn led a brigade of Big-Block invaders across the line with Super DIRTcar Series stars Phelps and Danny Johnson pulling away near the end from track owner Pete Bicknell and third-generation driver Stewart Friesen to fill out the final front-five. His DIRTcar-best 69th career 358 Series victory was worth $4,000 and provided the 2006 overall Small-Block champion an early lead in the point standings.
“We knew we had a good car tonight right from hot laps. Then setting fast time was another good indication, especially going out late and still being the quickest. I’ve always liked racing here, its really cool when you can come out to someone else’s home track, run this good and be able to pick up a win,” said Hearn, following his second 358-Modified feature win at Merrittville that matched a pair of Big-Block victories posted there from 1986-91.
Hearn’s 31st career Bilstein Shocks Fast Time Award was just the start of another magical night in Canada for the Sussex, N.J. speedster. He also dominated his qualifying heat before selecting the pole-position as the top-two finishers from each race re-drew to determine the first five rows for the main event.
Grabbing the lead from the outset was certainly no surprise by Hearn. Relinquishing that spot to Merrittville regular Scott Wood, however, was much more unexpected, yet lap 21 amounted to the only time Hearn took a back seat to anyone all evening.
While Hearn kept the Madsen Motorsports no. 20 Wentworth Custom Homes-Fox Hill Campgrounds/TEO entry ahead of the field all night, constant battle for positions in his rear-view mirror were up for grabs throughout the century grind. As Wood pressured Hearn early after starting fifth on the 31-car grid, Johnson began 18th and cracked the Top-3 for the first time at the halfway point. Phelps drew 10th yet after the 20-lap mark would never run out of the Top-five the remainder of the way.
Johnson blasted into second for the first time with a pass exiting turn four on lap 56, although Wood returned the favor and regained the runner-up slot with 65 in the books. D.J. executed a perfect slide job low to return to second on lap 86 yet could not challenge Hearn for another lead change over the final dozen circuits.
Contact between third running Wood and Todd Gordon brought out the seventh and final caution flag on lap 94, knocking Wood from contention while seemingly providing new life to hard-charging Phelps. On this night steering the Blue Cross Blue Shield no. 7 Flexcare/Troyer machine in place of regular driver Scott Kerwin from Newfane, N.Y., Phelps closed in on Hearn and even pulled alongside as the checkered flag waved to ultimately settle the score.
“When I first saw Danny’s number pop up on the scoreboard, knew I needed to just stay on our game. Stay on our line and do what we gotta do and think is right,” added Hearn, who last won a 358-Mod Series opener in 2007 when Autodrome Drummond kicked off the annual agenda.
“You saw how much I changed my line during the course of the race. The groove was certainly getting pretty wide up there at the end so we’re happy to hang on. I’m even happier for everybody on this team, we had a skeleton crew today. Its gonna be a real nice ride home this time,” Hearn said.
Finally securing second-place with less than a handful of laps to go, Phelps, wasted little time cutting the gap between him and the leader. A last-ditch effort on the white flag lap barely fell short as the frontrunners traded paint in their dash to the finish exiting turns three and four.
"The car just started getting better towards the end as the rest of the track slickened up,” assessed Phelps, 35, who finished second to Larry Lampman Jr. last spring after leading up to 48 in the 50-lap nightcap steering his own J&B Installations no. 99J Town Mechanical/Troyer ride. “Then I could roll the bottom well.”
“Earlier in the middle part of the race I could still roll the bottom good, (low) just wasn’t the fast lane at the time … it just came to us a lap or two too late. Just gotta thank this team for the opportunity, it’s a great race car and they’re a great group of guys. They’ve got some good things coming their way this season,” said Phelps, a 358-Modified winner on tour each of the past two seasons.
Putting on a patented display of rim-riding and throughout much of the race, Johnson settled for the show position in a race he has won on four occasions, including three consecutive years from 1989-91.
“Really happy to do as good as we did, got up to 2nd from 18th and challenged for the lead for a moment,” said Johnson, 50, teaming with owner Mike Payne in ’10 and buckled into the #27J Waste Management-Rochester Americans-Honeoye Auto Parts/Bicknell car this season. “Definitely happy with our finish and performance, just came up a little bit short. Will try to do better next time, that’s all you can ask for.”
Racing in the Mr. DIRTcar 358-Modified Series resumes in six more weeks when Autodrome Edelweiss lures the top Small-Block teams across the border into Quebec on Thursday, July 1 for the second 100-lapper backed by Gauvreau Top Soil.
Brett Hearn’s first-ever fast time (15.547 sec.) at Merrittville was just off the track’s 358-Mod series mark of 15.518 sec. set by Alan Johnson on Aug. 4, 2003. His only other Small-Block tour victory at the Thorold oval was scored in 1995. The ‘Jet’ also garnered a fast time award for the Super DIRTcar Series in ’07, while taking his only Big-Block tour checkered flag in 1991 … Second-generation driver Todd Gordon debuted a brand new color scheme and car number, mirroring the paint job of long-time favorite Dave Lape. While Gordon’s ride carried the number 28 and Lape has sported #22 since the 1960s, both boast traditional 13-point flames on the side panels first gaining notoriety with legendary pilot Pete Corey …
Mr. DIRTcar 358-Modified Championship Series Race #1 – Merrittville Speedway, May 24, 2010 ‘Zavitz Financial Strategies & Employee Benefits 100’ Event Summary
FIN STR CAR# DRIVER
1 1 20 Brett Hearn/Sussex,NJ ($4,000)
2 10 7 Jimmy Phelps/Baldwinsville, NY
3 18 27j Danny Johnson/Rochester,NY
4 7 42 Pete Bicknell/St.Catharines,ONT
5 16 6* Stewart Friesen/Niagara-o-t-Lake,ONT
6 6 6m Mat Williamson/St.Catharines,ONT
7 24 3b Chad Brachmann/Sanborn,NY
8 27 96 Fred Carleton/Niagara-o-t-Lake,ONT
9 3 7* Danny O'Brien/Kingston,ONT
10 8 26 Rick Richner/Niagara Falls,NY
11 9 1f Adam Ferri/Pt.Colborne,ONT
12 31 72 Tommy Flannigan/St.Catharines,ONT
13 15 6 Pat O'Brien/Kingston,ONT
14 12 22c Mario Clair/St-Edmond,QUE
15 11 98h Erick Rudolph/Ransomville,NY
16 26 1h David Hebert/St. Damase,QUE
17 23 71 Mike Bowman/St.Catharines,ONT
18 5 38 Scott Wood/Thorold,ONT
19 29 22j Jeremy Wilder/Fort Plain,NY
20 30 99L Larry Wight/Phoenix,NY
21 22 38L Luke Whitteker/Iroquois,ONT
22 28 28 Todd Gordon/St.Catharines,ONT
23 19 66x Carey Terrance/Akwesasne,NY
24 20 15j Tim Jones/Sanborn,NY
25 17 52 James Friesen/St.Catharines,ONT
26 21 3t Gary Tomkins/Clifton Springs,NY
27 13 69 Rob Pietz/Gasline,ONT
28 2 22 Eric Gauvreau/Chelsea,QUE
29 25 08 Mark D'Ilario/Smithville,ONT
30 14 37s Boyd MacTavish/Ransomville,NY
31 4 77x Dale Planck/Cortland,NY
GATER NEWS LAP LEADERS: Hearn (1-20), Wood (21), Hearn (22-100).
CAUTIONS: 7 for 22 laps.
HEAT WINNERS: Ferri, D.O'Brien, Williamson, Bicknell, Hearn.
CONSI WINNERS: Tomkins, Whitteker.
BICKNELL RACING PRODUCTS WINNER AWARD: Brett Hearn.
SYRACUSE SUPER DIRT WEEK QUALIFIER: Jimmy Phelps.
HALFWAY LEADER: Brett Hearn.
BERT HARD CHARGER: Fred Carleton.
BILSTEIN SHOCKS FAST TIME AWARD: Brett Hearn (15.547sec/77.185mph).
TOTAL PURSE: $22,375.
CARS ENTERED: 44.
NEXT EVENT: Autodrome Edelweiss - July 1, 2010.
DID NOT QUALIFY(13)
12-Chad Chevalier/Port Colborne,ONT®
71s-Shawn Sliter/Port Colborne,ONT®
76-Travis Braun/Jordan Station,ONT
82-Ken Winfield/Fort Erie,ONT
97-Michel Chicoine/Ste-Cecile de Milton,QUE
108-Bill Bleich/Port Robinson,ONT