Rick Sexton went into Wednesday’s Kalamazoo Klash XVIII at Kalamazoo Speedway in Michigan having not won a feature race in nearly two seasons. Leaving Kalamazoo Wednesday night, Sexton was rewarded for his long wait with more than $10,000.
Sexton didn’t have the fastest car in the first 100-lap segment of the prestigious 150-lap Outlaw Super Late Model race. Instead, he rode at a comfortable distance behind Kalamazoo Speedway regulars Trent Hellenga and Phil Bozell early on. Hellenga dominated the first 100 laps and Bozell didn’t feel too much pressure in the runner-up spot either, but Sexton wasn’t showing his cards yet and went into the 10-minute break before the final 50-lap shootout in third. After the invert of the top-three finishers from the first segment put Sexton on the pole, he checked out over the final 50 laps and held off Bozell and Hellenga to score the 39-year-old from Mattawan, Michigan's biggest win ever.
“This is huge,” said Sexton. “We’ve been trying. I think this is my ninth or 10th year here at the Klash. It’s been almost two years since I won a feature. We never really had a good run (in the Klash), but we were able to put it together tonight. It’s awesome.
“I knew I was good in the first 100. I was waiting to see what the inversion was going to be and I was lucky that it put us right on the pole.”
Over the final 50 laps, several cautions bunched the field back up and put Bozell on the outside of Sexton on the double-file restarts. Bozell would keep pace on the high side for a few laps, but eventually heeded the lead to Sexton, who never quite realized just how big of a lead he had – even when he had as much as a full straight-away lead on the field.
“I had a guy in the corner the first 100 telling me that if had a little bit of a lead (on the car behind me), but I think he got nervous and took off on me in the second 50. I just kept running because I didn’t know.
“I tried the outside earlier in the 100-lapper, but the outside just wasn’t as good tonight. Usually there’s a real good outside groove here. I knew being on the bottom, we’d have the advantage, so I just stayed on the bottom and it worked out.”
Bozell, who had momentum on his side going into the Klash with a $20,000 Outlaw SLM win at the New Paris Speedway in Indiana last week and a Super Stock feature win at Kalamazoo just before the Klash went green, could not mount up enough of a charge on the outside of Hellenga in the first 100-lap segment nor Sexton in the final 50.
“Every time we had a yellow flag, I was up there, so I had to make the best of it,” said Bozell. “Really I drove harder than I needed to up there. But I think if I could’ve gotten down in front of those guys, I could’ve held them off. But, that’s just how it was. The track really wasn’t as racy tonight as it has been. We’ve been having two grooves here, but for some reason it wasn’t as good as it has been. We just shot for the bottom there, but we had to play with the cards we were dealt and I was dealt with the outside lane.”
The inside groove on the final restart with about 15 laps remaining was to Sexton’s advantage, but even has he stretched out his lead in the closing laps, he never thought the race was his.
“The last 10 laps, the car started getting a little loose going in, so I started letting off a little early to get it down on the bottom of the track. I thought Phil was a little bit closer to me because I could hear something, but that’s when (I heard) the bugs that you start to hear, so I just tried to keep it on the bottom. Even coming off (the turn) I was pinching it a bit, so if there was somebody there, I wasn’t going to give them room.
“I started letting off and the car was getting loose. I said ‘Man, we don’t need this now.’”
Instead, Sexton took the checkered flag and earned the winner’s $10,000 check, plus the bonus lap money for leading the last 50 circuits.
HELLENGA’S CHANGES DON’T PAY OFF
Trent Hellenga dominated the first 100 laps of the Kalamazoo Klash. He was in his own zip code most of the time, putting cars down a lap at a blistering pace. Despite being so good, Hellenga admitted that it wasn’t good enough at the break before the final 50-lap segment, so changes were made to his #14.
Those changes ended up costing Hellenga the victory and left the driver dejected after the race, even after still holding on for third.
“We put on four new tires, which they weren’t new,” said Hellenga. “They were scuffed the week before. Plus we put a round of wedge in each corner of the car. It just wouldn’t go through the middle of the corner at all. We had them covered the first 100. We should’ve left the car alone and we didn’t. It was a little loose coming off the corner, so I figured we could make a few adjustments. We just went the wrong way on them and tightened it up too much.”
Having such a good car for the first segment and a car that wasn’t as good when the big money was on the line left a bitter taste in Hellenga’s mouth.
“The taste is bad. We’ve had such bad luck this year. We were due to win one, but we lost it on our own. We should’ve left the car alone after the first 100 and we didn’t. It was our own fault, but we live and learn and we’ll get them next time.”
BOZELL RIDING THE WAVE
It’s been a good week to be Phil Bozell. He won the $20,000 New Paris Summer Sizzler last week, took the Super Stock win at Kalamazoo Wednesday night and earned $7,500 for his second-place finish in the Klash. For the 27-year-old driver who has seen just about every high and low that can be seen in the short track game, Bozell plans to ride this wave of success as long as he can.
“Don’t get me wrong, second place is like kissing your sister, but it’s still a way good payday,” said Bozell. “I’d like to be the winner, but Ricky (Sexton) drove an awesome race. They hit the setup perfect at the halfway break. With this second-place and the Sizzler win, that’s a good week. I’m definitely happy to get out of here in one piece, so we’ll figure out where we’ll go race this weekend. If dad (Klash fourth-place finisher Andy Bozell) will let me, we’ll go race somewhere.
“When you’re on a roll, you have to keep rolling with it because you’re going to hit a hill sooner or later. I’m just going to keep going until I hit that hill. We’re just going to keep plugging away. Between me and dad, the last 15 or 16 times we’ve left the shop, we’ve either won or finished second. It’s been a phenomenal Summer. We’ve won probably 20 races between me and my dad this year and we’ve only raced maybe 35 times. We keep all the trophies from this year in the shop and we’re getting a pretty hefty pile.”
WHAT TO DO WITH $10K PLUS?
Ten-thousand bucks for a night’s work isn’t too shabby, but for Rick Sexton, that money earned for his Kalamazoo Klash victory will go towards making sure it’s not another two-year span before the next victory.
“Everything will go right back in the car,” said Sexton.
- Pre-race favorite and driver who was the fastest in Tuesday night’s open Klash practice, Terry Senneker, had a mechanical failure in the right-front corner of his car on Wednesday’s practice session and clobbered the outside wall in turn-one. He did not compete in the event thereafter.
- Senneker’s TAG Racing teammate, Steve Needles, ran up front in the first 100-lap segment, but also had troubles of his own, suffering rear-end trouble that knocked him from contention. Needles finished 25th, having completed only 56 laps.
- Multiple-time CRA Super Series Champion Scott Hantz finished 11th. He had not been planning on competing in the Klash, admitting to Speed51.com that he’s not typically good at Kalamazoo Speedway, but he made a last-minute decision to compete in this year’s event.
- Former NASCAR Busch Series, Truck Series and 2006 Kalamazoo Klash winner Johnny Benson was competing in the top-five when he “started hearing parts falling off, and that’s never good.” Benson wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but believed it was something in the area of the drive plate when Speed51.com caught up with him after the race. Benson finished 16th.
- Corey Ryman earned his way into the feature by winning the Last-Chance race. Ryman parlayed that into a 13th-place finish in the main event.
- Floridian Steve Dorer was entered into the Kalamazoo Klash in the #11 car, but he put track regular Dan McEndarfer in the car Wedneday to get it into the show. McEndarfer did just that by transferring through the Last Chance race, but neither McEndarfer nor Dorer put the #11 on the track for the feature and sat out the Klash.