Dakoda Armstrong needed no more inspiration to win at Winchester Speedway than that which was provided by over five dozen friends and family members seated just above the start/finish line, standing and cheering throughout the Winchester ARCA 200 presented by Federated Auto Parts.
Armstrong stuck in the top five for most of his first start in the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards since May 15 at Toledo Speedway, and pounced upon the lead with 10 laps to go after moving into position because of a key pit decision by veteran crew chief Paul Andrews.
Andrews had elected to give the No. 22 Cardinal Ethanol/ICM, Inc./Murex Dodge just two fresh tires and less than a full load of fuel on a Lap 170 pit stop, the move that the New Castle, Ind. driver said helped him to the third win of his ARCA career.
"We didn't fill all the way up, just so we'd stay a little bit free," said Armstrong, who only entered the race Wednesday after combining enough sponsor funding to make the start possible.
"We were getting a little bit tight as the night went. The car was perfect. I think a couple people started pushing through the center, and we were still rotating and could actually drive off. It was a great call, and it was a great run."
Armstrong's start was his fifth of the year for Cunningham Motorsports. In three weeks - on his 20th birthday - Armstrong will make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut at Iowa Speedway for ThorSport Racing.
Rookie points leader Ty Dillon (No. 41 Richard Childress Racing Development Chevrolet) had assumed the race lead at Lap 162 when Ryan Blaney (No. 25 Lauren Briant/Venturini Motorsports Chevrolet), who had led 154 laps, suffered a flat right front tire, knocking him out of contention in his ARCA debut. Dillon seemed primed to win for the fifth time in nine races this season, using the same strategy he had taken to victory twice before in June: staying patient while the leader suffered trouble, and then advancing into the lead and running away to the checkered flag.
A late two-tire stop for Dillon, though, left him with bad left tires and forced him to bottom out and drive loose in the turns, allowing Armstrong to make the pass for the lead and the eventual win on Lap 190.
Earlier in the day, Blaney - the son of NASCAR and World of Outlaws veteran Dave Blaney - had sped to a Winchester ARCA qualifying record of 15.837 seconds (113.658 mph), but Dillon charged around him on the outside at the start and seized a 0.119-second lead on the first lap. Blaney stormed back inside of Dillon in the third turn of the next lap to lead for the first time in ARCA Racing Series competition.
Though Chris Buescher (No. 17 David Ragan Ford/Roulo Brothers Racing Ford) challenged Dillon for second and came exceptionally close to overtaking him on Lap 7, Dillon kept the position. The early battle was a sign of things to come for Buescher and Dillon.
Matt Merrell (No. 32 Champion Oil Dodge) crashed coming out of the third turn on Lap 10, with Blaney holding a 0.721-second lead. The first caution period of the race lasted four laps, and Blaney kept the lead off of the Lap 15 restart. Mike Young and Blaney's Venturini Motorsports teammate John Blankenship both spun in separate incidents over the next 15 laps, and Blaney continued to lead out of each ensuing restart.
A five-car incident involving Maryeve Dufault, Richard Harriman, Young, Levi Youster, and Darrell Basham brought the field to the red flag at Lap 37. After a seven-minute delay, the race began again, with Blaney leading the field through a small cloud of fluid-drying material laid on the track through the exit of Turn 1 and the entrance of Turn 2.
With Frank Kimmel (No. 44 Ansell/Menards Ford) passing Armstrong for fourth on Lap 45 and Buescher continuing to battle Dillon for second place, Blaney began to run away from the field. Clean air in front of him helped Blaney to a 1.187-second lead by Lap 57, a 2.025-second advantage six laps later, and more than three seconds on the field by Lap 69.
Tim George Jr. (No. 31 Applebee's/Potomac Family Dining Group Chevrolet) ran sixth at the time, and Chad McCumbee (No. 1 ModSpace Ford) passed Tom Hessert (No. 52 Federated Auto Parts Chevrolet) for seventh. Chad Hackenbracht (No. 58 Tastee Apple Chevrolet) followed suit and got by Hessert at Lap 72, but Blaney continued to extend his advantage over the entire group.
By the time Jared Marks crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 91, Blaney had moved his lead above four seconds. The leaders all came to pit road, though, and it was Hackenbracht who assumed the top spot after taking just two tires. George followed in second, with Blaney, Dillon, and Buescher rounding out the top five.
Hackenbracht led through the halfway point of the race, but Blaney was quick to take back the lead, moving past Hackenbracht by a very slim margin on Lap 101. Three laps later, Blaney had built an advantage of more than a second on Hackenbracht, and Dillon and Buescher soon passed Hackenbracht for second and third.
Blaney again built his lead over the field, and received a boost when Dillon and Buescher continued to battle. Dillon first used lapped cars as picks to keep Buescher at bay, but Buescher pulled the same trick at Lap 130, as Kimmel acted as a block to help Buescher move past Dillon for second. Meanwhile, Blaney extended his lead to nearly four seconds, and was then able to send Hackenbracht - formerly the leader - off of the lead lap.
At Lap 160, Dillon passed Buescher for second, and just two laps later, Blaney's tire blew, sending him to pit road and Dillon to the lead. Dillon created a three-second advantage as Buescher also experienced issues, but the Lap 170 pit cycle truly shaped the finish.
With Armstrong having moved to second after taking just two tires, Dillon initially opened up a short lead but almost immediately saw sparks come from under his car. Armstrong closed in little by little, shortening Dillon's lead with every lap as fans from his hometown just a 35-minute drive away stood and cheered in the center of the grandstands.
Armstrong grabbed the lead at Lap 190, and drove away to a 0.9-second victory in front of his friends and family, backing up a similar home state performance achieved in his win at Salem Speedway last September.
"It just couldn't have been better," Armstrong said. "Our sponsors had a hospitality tent, so we brought out about 60 or 70 people. You can't get any luckier than that, to get a win when everyone's here and it's just 35 minutes from my home. It's huge for us."
Buescher, who had been making the Armstrong-Dillon battle a three-man fight, passed Dillon to take second for the fourth time this season and third time in the last four races.
"Let me just say that I can't believe we're leaving Winchester without any damage to the car; that's a good thing," Buescher said. "We finished second again, so we've got to break this little streak we have going. But it's not bad."
After earning his way back on to the lead lap, Hackenbracht passed for third place - a fourth career-best in his last five races - and Dillon drove home fourth. Hessert finished fifth, the final driver on the lead lap.
Blaney ended the race sixth, one lap down, and led McCumbee, Kimmel, Grant Enfinger (No. 36 Hoosier Tires Midwest/RaceTires.com Dodge), and Blankenship in the top 10.
George finished 11th, followed by Marks, Sean Corr, Levi Youster, and Young.
Though Armstrong led 11 laps, including the most important, Blaney walked away with the top total at 154 laps. Dillon led 29, and Hackenbracht led six. The race was slowed by six total cautions for 34 laps, and ended with an average speed of 77.782 mph after one hour, 17 minutes, and eight seconds.
The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards returns to action after the Independence Day holiday weekend, with a race Saturday, July 9 at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich., just outside Grand Rapids. The Hantz Group 200 is scheduled as the 10th race of 19 on the ARCA Racing Series schedule, and will begin at 8:30 p.m. with live timing and scoring coverage provided at ARCARacing.com. The event will be the 24th for the series at Berlin since 1958.
ARCA Racing Series practice begins at 2:30 p.m., and will last for 90 minutes. Menards Pole Qualifying presented by Ansell follows at 5, and the ARCA Racing Series drivers will participate in an autograph session at 6:15, just before the race. ARCARacing.com will feature live timing and scoring coverage of all events.