Bill Elliott lingered by his son's car in victory lane on Saturday, his shadow arcing over the door panel with the neon yellow number nine darkened by "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" and his lanky frame. After collecting his thoughts in the car, Chase Elliott finally emerged cool, calm and collected, with barely a drop of sweat on his brow, and stepped into the green jacket given to the winner of the inaugural JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour Mercy 'Masters of the Pros' 144 before collecting the $8,000 check for the top spot. There was no elaborate victory lane celebration, no Gatorade spray elevated into the cool night sky on this evening. No, this is quickly becoming a routine for the 17-year-old Georgia native, and as quickly as he came and stole the show at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, he exited, a shooting star headed toward the peak of NASCAR, escaping his father's shadow as his own legend grows.
Saturday was a special night at Lebanon I-44 Speedway. With over 35 JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour late models entered into the main event, fans showed up in droves to watch stars of the future like Elliott, Ross Kenseth and Anderson Bowen, while cheering on old favorites like Eddie Hoffman and Mike Slone. Elliott got things off to a quick start with a blistering fast qualifying lap of 14.334 seconds, just off the track record.
When the time finally came to race under the lights of Missouri's only asphalt oval, 'Fast' Eddie Hoffman took advantage of his starting position on the outside of the front row and grabbed the early edge over Brent Downey in the 144-lap headliner. The 28-car field was swiftly whittled down after Clemson University student and rising star Ross Kenseth was the victim of an early incident on lap four, ending his night on the hook.
Just 20 laps later, with Hoffman still pacing the field, a restart turned into disaster when a car missed a shift, stacking up the back half of the pack and rendering the frontstretch a junkyard of torn up race cars, parts strewn every which way and disappointed drivers gathering in the infield. Drivers involved in the incident who saw their race come to an early end included Canadian import and female hotshoe Dominique Van Wieringen, Cole Rouse, Jerrod Foley, Grant Sharp, Jason Dietsch, Hunter Baize, Kyle Crump, Wes Griffith Jr., and Cory Deuser amongst others.
After a lengthy red flag period, racing resumed with Hoffman up front and teenager Anderson Bowen nipping at his heels in second. Chase Elliott, who had moved up to third at the start of the race, dropped back to fourth when Cody Coughlin slipped past him on the low side. A caution for another Mike Slone incident on lap 61 slowed down Bowen's run on the inside of Hoffman for the lead and bunched the field back up.
On the restart, Elliott made his move, driving around Coughlin and Bowen on the high side and walking the line down the backstretch before diving to the inside of Hoffman and challenging for the lead. Hoffman kept the top spot with a strong run off the high side of the 3/8th-mile oval and this sequence would repeat itself several times until the lap 99 break. Each time Elliott managed to pull to the inside of Hoffman, the Chicagoland veteran showed the mettle that earned him multiple National Short Track Championships and rode the high line's momentum back into a comfortable lead.
When the competition caution waved on lap 99, teams hustled to their machines and changed tires, made adjustments and talked to their drivers about the final 45-lap shootout. Hoffman had led the first 99 laps and elected not to take tires, and Elliott, riding around in second, decided to do the same and keep the same four tires on his machine for the rest of the race. Chuck Barnes, Jr. also took no tires, and gained track position when racing resumed after the 10-minute intermission, restarting in third.
As soon as the final 45-lap stretch got underway, Elliott flipped a switch, maneuvering around Hoffman on the inside of the track with ease on lap 101 and quickly building up a lead as Barnes, Jr. followed him into second with a power move past Hoffman. A yellow flag for Matt Wallace's slowed car bunched the field up once again and Barnes, Jr. took advantage on the restart, roughing up Elliott in turn one and dooring him on the exit of turn two before the teenager slipped away.
Behind the leaders, Daniel Hemric continued his charge through the field from the back of the pack, pushing past Dave Gentile, Jr. for fifth with 30 circuits remaining after making it into the show via the last chance race. Ahead of him, Chad Finley got around Hoffman for third and started reeling in the leaders. Finley got the caution he needed with 17 laps to go after a Josh Nelms spin.
When racing resumed, Elliott walked away untouched as Finley tried to use the bottom of the racing surface to get around Barnes, Jr. His aggressive move cost him as the JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour regular skated up the track and allowed Hemric and Hoffman to get past him for third and fourth respectively. One last caution flew with nine laps to go after Brent Downey took a solo trip through the spin cycle on the backstretch.
On the final restart, Barnes, Jr. stayed even with Elliott into turn one, but he couldn't get to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver's left rear quarter panel and the Georgia teenager eased away for the final time, cruising around the final nine circuits and running his fastest lap of the race after taking the white flag. After taking the checkers, Elliott neglected to take a victory lap, instead pulling his Hendrick developmental machine into the winner's circle and collecting his thoughts inside of his machine.
When the 17-year-old finally emerged victorious, his father, Grand Marshal for the evening's action and NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, joined him in victory lane after running down from the spotter's stand. Donning the green jacket and showing little emotion, Elliott slapped hands with his crew after notching yet another big win in what has already become an illustrious short track racing career.
"This was a pretty cool deal," Elliott said. "I was just riding around those first 99 laps and trying to save my car for the end. We took no tires to keep track position and then I just went for it and luckily, the car was strong enough to hold its line on the inside."
Runner-up Chuck Barnes, Jr. had a stronger take on the strength of Elliott's machine and his driving talent.
"Chase was far and away the best driver out there tonight and he had the field covered the whole way," Barnes, Jr. said. "Jeff Gordon better look out because Chase is coming and he's gonna kick some butt. I tried to give him everything I could out there, and it was an honor racing against him like that, but he was just too fast tonight."
North Carolina hotshoe Daniel Hemric rounded out the podium with a strong third-place showing after rallying back from an early race spin and a 25th-place starting spot.
"I'm pretty happy with where we finished after what we went through to get here," he said. "I didn't know if we had a third place car tonight or not, but we stayed after it and the car held on until the very end. That red light started showing on the final laps, but it got to the checkers and that's what counts."
A disappointed Eddie Hoffman settled for fourth while Dave Gentile, Jr. hung around the top-10 all night and finished off the top-five with I-44 points contender Cole Williams finishing eighth.
In other action, Tyler Scott wasted no time grabbing the early edge in the 25-lap NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Budweiser Modifieds main event, but he quickly came under fire from Ricky Icenhower's machine. "The Iceman" completed the pass for the lead with a nifty move to the inside on the third circuit and Scott's crossover move didn't work on the following lap.
Icenhower eased away from the field as Scotty Allen and Scott, the defending champion, made contact on the backstretch. Allen cut a tire in the exchange and sparks flew from his car as he slid into the turn four grass to bring out a caution with 14 laps in the books. On the restart, Icenhower pulled away from the pack and started picking off lapped traffic as the race wound down.
Scott did his best to try and cut into the deficit but he ran out of time as Icenhower notched his first feature win of the season. Stephen Counterman collected a podium finish in third while Payton Lucas came home fourth. Terry Taylor rounded out the top-five.
When the green flag dropped on the first Wishard Caviar Consultant/Compliance Fire & Safety Baby Grands feature of the season, Steve Saber soared to the top spot. A caution flew for a spin just two circuits into the 25-lap event, bunching the field back up. Austin Johnson took advantage on the restart and moved into the lead with an easy maneuver around Saber's car.
Another yellow flew with nine laps to go for Bill Wishard's hard hit on the frontstretch wall, and Johnson's straightaway lead suddenly evaporated. Johnson and Saber went door-to-door on the restart for a lap before Johnson once again emerged with the lead. The Oklahoma native once again put enough space between himself and Saber to breathe easy, and this time, there was no caution to slow him down as Johnson collected the first win of the year for the division. Kentucky driver Steven Polley managed a solid runner-up effort while Michael Blair finished third.
Racing returns to Missouri's only asphalt oval this Saturday night, May 25, as NASCAR Whelen All-American Series weekly action returns en masse for a Memorial Day weekend special. The O'Reilly Auto Parts NASCAR Late Models headline the action with the Budweiser Modifieds in action along with the Monster Energy Sportsman and the Hoosier Tire Road Warriors to round out the evening's jam-packed slate of racing action. Gates open at 5 p.m. with the first green flag waving at 7 p.m. sharp.
For more information on Lebanon I-44 Speedway, including a full 2013 schedule and more, visit the track website at www.i44speedway.net or visit the track's Facebook and Twitter pages online.
Lebanon I-44 Speedway - May 18, 2013
JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour Mercy 'Masters of the Pros' 144
1. #9 - Chase Elliott - 144 Laps Completed
2. 55 Chuck Barnes Jr. - 144
3. 74 Daniel Hemric - 144
4. 8 Eddie Hoffman - 144
5. 6 Dave Gentile Jr. - 144
6. 1 Cody Coughlin - 144
7. 12 Dan Leeck - 144
8. 46 Cole Williams - 144
9. 0 Josh Nelms - 144
10. 72 Tom Woodin - 144
11. 77 Landon Cling - 144
12. 25 Brent Downey - 144
13. 29 Anderson Bowen - 144
14. 7 Jason Dietsch - 144
15. 42 Chad Finley - 128
16. 06 Matt Wallace - 83
17. 33 Wes Griffith Jr. - 68
18. 177 Mike Slone - 60
19. 14 Corey Desuer - 38
20. 88 Trent Snyder - 24
21. 04 Jerrod Foley - 24
22. 2 Grant Sharp - 24
23. 5 Dominique Van Wieringen - 24
24. 07 Kyle Crump - 24
25. 13 Hunter Baize - 24
26. 142 Cole Rouse - 20
27. 20 Austin Fullerton - 11
28. 32 Ross Kenseth - 3
2)Car # 7 Ricky Icenhower
3)Car # 12 Scotty Allen
4)Car # 25 Stephen Counterman
5)Car # 6 Richard Lewis
6)Car # 0 Chris Kerperien
7)Car # 66 Terry Taylor
8)Car # 26 Payton Lucas
9)Car # 1 Rocky Rash
10)Car # 88 Paul Jepsen
1) Car # 7 Ricky Icenhower Fair Grove, MO
2) Car # 57 Tyler Scott Nixa, MO
3) Car # 25 Stephen Counterman Fair Grove, MO
4) Car # 26 Payton Lucas Fair Grove, MO
5) Car # 66 Terry Taylor Fair Grove, MO
6) Car # 12 Scotty Allen Urbana, MO
7) Car # 6 Richard Lewis Willard, MO
8) Car # 0 Chris Kerperien Ft. Leonard Wood, MO
DNS Car # 88 Paul Jepsen Rolla, MO
DNS Car # 1 Rocky Rash Elkland, MO
Baby Grands - Heat
1)Car # 22 Austin Johnson
2)Car # 52 Steven Polley
3)Car # 44 Jamie Koontz
4)Car # 81 Mike Blair
5)Car # 57 Daulton Greven
6)Car # 33 Bill Wishard
7)Car # 13
8)Car # 16 Tim McDowell
1) Car # 22 Austin Johnson Inola, OK
2) Car # 52 Steven Polley Scottsville, KY
3) Car # 81 Michael Blair Kansas City, MO
4) Car # 44 Jamie Koontz Rogers, AR
5) Car # 57 Daulton Greven Bolivar, MO
6) Car # 33 Bill Wishard XXXXX, OK
7) Car # 16 Tim McDowell Rogers, AR
DNS Car # 13
1)Car # 57 Tyler Scott