Charging to the finish line in his ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards debut, Alex Bowman drove his Venturini Motorsports Toyota away from four close pursuers in a three-lap shootout to win Friday's Herr's Live Life with Flavor! 200 at Madison International Speedway.
The race was the first for ARCA at the southern Wisconsin half-mile since 1973, and Bowman and 32 other competitors provided a show worth the wait.
Bowman (No. 55 St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Toyota) led by nearly a full second with under 10 laps to go and appeared to be coasting to a win, but following a Lap 194 spin by a lapped car, he had to get back into line for a final green flag ahead of four drivers: Chris Buescher (No. 17 Reliance Tool/David Ragan Ford Ford), Venturini teammate Clint King (No. 25 Warehouse Design Inc. Chevrolet), points leader Ty Dillon (No. 41 Hemelgarn/CIPT Chevrolet), and Tom Hessert (No. 52 Federated Auto Parts Chevrolet).
Bowman seemed to spin his tires as he began Lap 198 under the green flag, but beat an inside move by Buescher to Turns 1 and 2. Dillon attacked King, but the top five drivers kept their positions as Bowman took a 0.275-second lead into Lap 199 and a similar lead to the white flag.
Buescher aimed for position in Turn 2 on the final lap, but could not pass Bowman, leaving the debut driver from Arizona only two clean turns away from his first ARCA win. Bowman, who currently sits fifth in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and leads that series' rookie chase, joined Venturini driver Brennan Poole - who also drove the No. 55 to a win - and Andrew Ranger as drivers to win in their first ARCA starts this season.
In holding off the other contenders, Bowman completed a race-ending run in which he led the final 59 laps.
"I can't believe it, to be honest with you," Bowman said. "I knew we were going to have a shot here with Venturini Motorsports. They put a really good car together. To bring home the win is pretty special."
Having held such a sizable advantage, Bowman understandably did not want to see the field bunched up again for the final laps.
"I kind of knew what to expect a little bit, but I was kind of shocked to see how many cautions there were," he said. "I really didn't want to see that caution there at the end when we had a little bit of a cushion on the 17 car (Buescher). Man, I don't know what to say. I'm just so excited."
Though Bowman took the top honors at night's end, King made himself the Venturini driver to watch in Menards Pole Qualifying presented by Ansell earlier in the day. King qualified first and led the field to the start/finish line on his 16th birthday, his first possible day of ARCA Racing Series eligibility. King received a newcomer's education right away, however, as Buescher, the second qualifier, charged around him on the outside and into the lead.
Buescher grabbed a 0.552-second lead over King and Dillon at the conclusion of the first lap and started rolling right away, leading comfortably out of a caution period at Lap 10. Dillon took second from King one lap later, but still faced a half-second margin to Buescher. Buescher led out of another caution at Lap 27, with Dillon, King, Bowman, and Chad McCumbee (No. 1 ModSpace Ford) in his wake. While Bowman had mostly stuck to his starting position, fourth, McCumbee had climbed from seventh into the top five. The clean run ended on Lap 30 when Hessert drove into Sean Corr (No. 82 Roush Yates Performance Parts Ford) while fighting for 10th place.
Buescher continued to lead off of the ensuing green flag, pausing his strong run ahead of the field only to battle lapped traffic. He led Dillon as he worked around Milka Duno (No. 63 CITGO Supergard Lubricants Chevrolet) on Lap 50, finishing the first quarter of the race right where he had been after one lap.
A caution for a single-car spin on Lap 56 sent some cars - including Bowman's - to pit road, but Buescher and other leaders stayed on the track. He did the same at Lap 64 when another car spun, allowing him to keep the lead for the Lap 69 restart. Dillon reached Buescher on Lap 71, and the two cars made slight contact, but Buescher kept the lead. King closed to within a half-second, continuing to prove his worth even as the youngest racer in ARCA Racing Series history.
Buescher, Dillon, and King ran nose-to-tail on Lap 79, with Buescher's advantage trimmed to barely 0.1 second. Behind him, Bowman was making a charge. Having dropped out of the top five by pitting 20 laps earlier, he returned by first passing Tim George Jr. (No. 31 Applebee's/Potomac Family Dining Group Chevrolet) for seventh on Lap 82, moving by Hessert for sixth the next lap, and driving by Spencer Gallagher (No. 05 Allegiant Chevrolet) for fifth on Lap 85.
A single-car spin on Lap 87 bunched the field again, and this time, Dillon and numerous other contenders drove to pit road. Buescher did not, so he kept the lead - but only momentarily. Just after Dillon left pit road and re-entered the race just outside the top 10, Buescher dove to pit road, which handed the race lead to McCumbee on Lap 91.
Buescher and Dillon worked back to 10th and 11th, respectively, but McCumbee held the lead at the race's halfway point, Lap 100. One lap earlier, George had moved into second by bumping Chad Hackenbracht (No. 58 Hampton Farms/Copps Markets Chevrolet).
McCumbee's advantage was short-lived; King drove from third to first on Lap 103 to take his first lead of the night. George pushed past McCumbee for second two laps later, but King was driving ahead to a one-second advantage.
Trouble was not far away. George and King encountered a lapped car together on Lap 108, and soon after that, George spun King in Turn 2 to end the newcomer's run at the point. Under the yellow flag, George led, followed by McCumbee, Gallagher, Hessert, and Buescher. Bowman ran sixth.
Even with a flattened nose following his contact with King, George continued to lead. A Hackenbracht spin brought another caution, allowing George's damaged Chevrolet to lead under the yellow flag. He was even able to pull away when the green flag fell again, moving to a 0.75-second lead and showcasing some of the short track brilliance he had flashed at Berlin in July.
Behind him, Buescher moved to fourth on Lap 120, with Bowman following in fifth. Eight laps later, Hackenbracht lost control of his damaged car and struck an orange cone on pit road. Just before the caution flag flew to clear his stopped car from the track, Bowman passed Hessert for third. Buescher had fallen back to fifth.
Bowman and Buescher were the big movers on the Lap 136 green flag, as Buescher worked past Dillon for fourth and Bowman took second from Gallagher. Bowman had his sights set on George, and it only took six laps for him to erase George's half-second lead and move to first.
Another caution flag for a Hessert spin on Lap 157 sent George, Dillon, and Buescher to pit road from the second through fourth positions, but misfortune was about to befall the Richard Childress Racing cars. Each had to fall to the end of the longest line to serve a penalty for driving past an official stop sign on pit road.
Now, the two Venturini cars of Bowman and King led the field. Bowman continued his advantage from Lap 164 and 169 green flags, seeing his sizable advantage slimmed only by a caution flag when Joey Miller (No. 32 Win-Tron Racing Dodge) slid across the grass on the backstretch.
Buescher charged from fifth to third on Lap 171, and then charged past King on a Lap 180 restart, putting himself into position to make a run at Bowman. In the end, though, he would still need one more position, as Bowman proved he had the car to beat over the final run.
King finished third and Dillon fought his way back to fourth after the penalty. Hessert ended his day in the top five for the fourth consecutive race.
Frank Kimmel (No. 44 Ansell/Menards Ford) ended the race sixth, ahead of Corr, Miller, George, and McCumbee.
The race finished in one hour, 42 minutes, and 50 seconds, at an average speed of 58.344 mph. The 13 caution flags slowed the race for a total of 73 laps. The full finishing order is now available at ARCARacing.com.
Dirt racing will soon be the name of the game again for the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards, as the Southern Illinois 100 on Labor Day is slated as the next race on the 2011 schedule. The 100-lap, 100-mile race will begin at 2 p.m. Eastern (1 local) from the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds on Monday, September 5, with live audio coverage and live timing and scoring coverage presented by ARCA Nation at ARCARacing.com.
Practice will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern (9 local) and will last for one hour. Menards Pole Qualifying presented by Ansell is scheduled to take place at noon Eastern (11 local). The race will be the 16th of 19 in the 2011 ARCA Racing Series season.
The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards features 19 events at 16 tracks on its 2011 schedule. The series has crowned an ARCA national champion each year since its inaugural season in 1953, and has toured over 200 race tracks in 28 states since its inception. The series tests the abilities of drivers and race teams over the most diverse schedule of stock car racing events in the world, annually visiting tracks ranging from 0.4 mile to 2.66 miles in length, on both paved and dirt surfaces as well as a left- and right-turn road course.
Founded by John Marcum in 1953 in Toledo, Ohio, the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) is recognized among the leading sanctioning bodies in the country. Closing in on completing its sixth decade after hundreds of thousands of miles of racing, ARCA administers over 100 race events each season in two professional touring series and local weekly events.