There are some things about Maine that you just count on in the Fall: the cool nights, Pumpkin Donuts, great scenery with foliage and Johnny Clark in victory lane in the PASS 300 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.
Years ago, Clark struggled in the 300. He had an average finish of 22nd through the first three runnings of the race. Since then, he has visited victory lane three times in the last four years and has an average finish of 1.75.
Sunday's running did have some moments where you would be eager to bet against the number 54 Clark's Car Crushing Chevy. He started outside the top 20 and stayed out on old tires well past the 200-lap mark when fuel could have been an issue. Once an adjustment was made after a four-tire stop, Clark was back in business and back to the front, on his way to victory.
"We had a long run at the end and the guys opened up the stagger and freed the car up so we could pull away,” said Clark. "This is unreal of how good the year has been. We broke our own record for wins, we now have seven, and now we are eyeing the championship."
The middle part of the race saw the 54 fade outside the top three, but it was by design with the pending fuel issues. Clark backed up and might have saved himself from going down several laps if the car had come up short on fuel.
"We started backing up not because of tire wear, but we were going one-eighth throttle," explained Clark. "I was worried about it because we were one of the only built motors in the field and I got to thinking maybe someone will run out of gas before I do."
The victory was one of the highlights of the 2011 season for Clark as he captured the 300 for the third time in his career. The win also marked his ninth extra-distance PASS victory (races over 150 laps). Only Mike Rowe has more with 10.
Speed51.com asked Clark what are the other highlights of the 2011 season.
"Thompson, Seekonk and the 300,” said Clark. “To win at Thompson with all of us gunning for it there, or at Seekonk, where a PASS regular had not yet won, and the 300 again. They are all big marks and have been huge for us."
People talk about beating the 54 and have been for years now as the Clark team has been in their own zip code the last few seasons. Clark offered a suggestion on how to tackle the 54 team.
"It's not speed, it's drive-ability that we look for," said Clark. "We don't have a car that can lead every lap of every race. That showed today as Lonnie (Sommerville) was all over us for the lead. Teams should throw the watches away and work on making the car drive better. That's what we did."
There also was a time where Johnny was not such a cool customer when racing for championships. He recalls a younger version of himself who had to do all he could do to hold himself in check when battling then-PASS giant Ben Rowe for the title.
"Cassius (Clark) and I were talking during the Sportsman race and they said that the point leader Shane Tatro was having trouble. Cassius looked at me and said 'remember how pathetic you were going for your first title?' I was a wreck, pacing through the pit area and worried about everything."
Clark is on the verge of capturing his sixth overall title and fourth in a row.
DRY SPELL NEARLY ENDS FOR MULKERN
In the closing laps of the Beech Ridge 300, no one was digging harder then Scott Mulkern. "The Colonel" finished second to Johnny Clark after a long dry spell of being out of the top three that dates back to 2006. In the closing laps Mulkern was trying hard to get to the back bumper and wasn’t even sure if he was gaining on Clark because of lapped traffic.
"I was gaining on him? I was not having fun with the lap cars at the end," said Mulkern with a smile. "We were so close there at the end. I felt if we had just the two of us out there with 75 to go I could maybe gotten to him. Heck I am happy to have this. We were a lap down at one point. "
The Mulkern team has been second to only the Clark operation this season as Lonnie Sommerville sits second in points and Mulkern himself (in a part time role) has a pair of top five’s in five starts. The owner-driver is not about to take any credit.
"Gary Crooks has a whole wealth of knowledge," said Mulkern. "I could win some races with him, but we got him to work on Lonnie's stuff and asked him to have Seth Holbrook for this weekend and Seth and I have really worked well together. This weekend was a lot of fun."
No matter what Trevor Sanborn does, it seems like he’s destined for heartbreak every time he hits the PASS 300. That event has been a thorn in Sanborn’s side for years. After a few years of all-out domination, he has nothing to show for it. So just making it to the finish line in 2011 was special after having to go to a backup car in 2010. Sanborn finished on the podium for the second time in his career in the 300.
“I was hoping for some magic," said Sanborn. "I was leading late in 2009 and blew up, in 2008 we led over 200 laps and got the wrong tires on the last pit stop. We survived today."
CREWS ARE THE FUN PART OF THE 300
One of the best parts of the Beech Ridge 300 is the live pit stops. It's almost a dying thing of the past as series and tracks are going more towards pitting during in-race breaks. Live pit stops put lots of strategy in play and all the players up North primarily work with hometown guys. The 300 has not yet been cheapened by someone with a big wallet to hire a 'top notch crew'.
MCKEAGE DOES THE 400
It was a long day for Dan McKeage who ran 400 laps of racing on Sunday, not counting yellows. McKeage ran the Sportsman 100 and the PASS 300, the final two events on the card. At the end of the day he finished all the laps and got a top five in the 300.
"I don't have a whole lot of juice left," said McKeage. "We got in there and were picking cars off and riding pretty good. We figured if we could get to lap 200 then we would be okay for pit stops. We really didn't know what to do for strategy. It worked for us."
The track did tighten up on the 40 team and McKeage felt a top-three finish could have been in the cards.
Earlier in the day he won the 100 lap Sportsman race, but was shadowed by boos in victory lane after a wild final restart where he made contact with Carey Martin. The two went into turn one about in the marbles.
"I caused a major controversy in the first race and Tom Mayberry (PASS President and Race Director) was pretty upset with me. He didn't think I gave the 18 (Carey Martin) enough room on the final restart. He (Martin) door banged me on the two previous starts. I was bummed it ended that way because I like to put on a good show for the fans."
Martin told the crowd on the PA speaker that McKeage was dirty, but PASS officials did not penalize McKeage from the victory.
400 WEEKEND BECOMING A STAPLE IN THE NORTH
It's hard to make tradition stick in a short amount of time, but the Pro All Stars Series have made the Beech Ridge 300 weekend one of the best tickets in town. With a multi-day event having Super Late Models, Sportsman, PASS Modifieds, Wild Cats and other divisions it a great season wrap up for the only NASCAR sanctioned track in the Pine Tree State.
SOMMERVILLE CAN'T REPEAT FROM JULY MAGIC
Beech Ridge was a magical place for Lonnie Sommerville in July where he captured his first PASS victory. Hoping for a repeat performance Sunday, Sommerville got to the front and mimicked the 54 car of Clark until the pit stops. Sommerville's Mulkern Racing machine was strong up until just prior to the pit stops.
"We pitted when Johnny pitted," said Sommerville. "He was the guy we were going to have to beat so we stayed with him. The car started hitting the race track before the pit stop and even with new tires it was doing it. We figured when the pressures built up it would be good and it never was. We think we had a spring collapse on us."
Sommerville has no reason to hang his head as he moved to second in the points heading into the final two events. This is the first year he has run the entire schedule.
"We moved up to second with Ben (Rowe) having trouble and when you say you had a bad day and you're fourth that's not too bad."
CASSIUS TO RUN 2011 SCHEDULE WITH HIGHT
The other Clark, no relation to Johnny, will return to the PASS tour full time in 2012. Cassius Clark made his debut with Hight Motorsports at Beech Ridge and led laps early on. He could have been a factor all day, but a tangle with some other cars while running in the top 10 upset the handling and the car was never the same after the first pit stop. Cassius will be at White Mountain and Oxford to end the season.
CLARK CHASING RECORDS
In 2003, Ben Rowe set a PASS single-season record for victories with eight wins. Johnny Clark is now at seven wins with two races left in the season with a chance to take down the mark.
"We are sitting in a position to be able to tie it or to break it," said Clark. "It's unbelievable. To think all the set ups these cars have and how much money goes into it. We're doing the same old thing, and that's hard work in the shop. We stick to the basics and people just don't believe it."
Clark recently won at White Mountain Motorsports Park, but was vocal about having to be better at Oxford Plains Speedway the final week of the season. Clark was fifth there in July.
AN UNTOUCHABLE MARK
As Clark chases one mark another may be safe forever. Ben Rowe holds the record for most podium finishes in a season as he had 12 in 2002 and 2003. Clark has been close, but not close enough to capture that record.
LONG GREEN RUN STRATEGY GOES SOUTH FOR SCULLY
If, and only if, the race had gone green from the 200 lap mark-on, Tom Scully would’ve had a smile on his face after the Beech Ridge 300. Scully, a Seekonk Speedway regular, pitted for two tires earlier and took the lead and was pulling away when a yellow came out with under 100 laps to go.
"I was praying to God for it to go caution free," said Scully. "I couldn't get by Johnny on old rubber, but we were good when we were fresher. Caution did come out. It's the breaks."
Scully did finish eighth, as he was almost the upset hero from Massachusetts.
ROWE LEADS PASS NATIONAL STANDINGS
It was not pretty race for Ben Rowe or for Southern Series point leader Jay Fogleman, but those two guys who each use the number four are locked in a tight battle for the 2011 PASS National Championship. There are two races to go, one next week at White Mountain and in November at Orange County Speedway (NC). Rowe leads Fogleman by over 30 points.
- Keith McKinnon had a big fiery wreck in his heat race. He came back to miss the show by one spot.
- Three time 300 champ Mike Rowe looked good early only to have mechanical problems after only 40 laps.
- ACT regular John Donahue ran seventh in his first PASS event.
- Donnie Whitten takes a sixth-place finish after nearly winning the Spring event at Beech Ridge.
- Andy Shaw grabbed a win and a podium finish to extend his PASS Modified point lead.
- Dan McKeage won the Sportsman race and then ran all 300 laps to post fifth in the Super Late Model race.
- The only PASS South regulars who made the trip to Beech Ridge for the PASS National Point event were Jay Fogleman, who finished 23rd, and Vermont native Steven Legendre in 19th.