Dave Darling winning the season’s opener may seem routine, but this event was anything but. Darling again found himself in victory lane, but the inside story became edgy for the six-time champ. He started in the second row after setting top speed in the time trials. But on the low side of the same row sat six-time Champ Freddy Astle. Fred was sporting a brand-new car.
In front of them sat Dylan Estrella on the pole and The Rocket – Ryan Vanasse at the outside pole. Last year, Estrella turned Darling’s own tactics against him enroute to a late-race pass which gave Dylan the opening day win. And The Rocket was running at the top of his game as well.
At the start, Vanasse was commanding the lead coming out of turn two and Darling was battling Estrella. Lap two saw Darling settle into second and fix on Vanasse’s bumper. Estrella settled into third and acquired Astle at his bumper. Nick Johnson had fifth, a spot he would hold until lap 18. Tom Scully was bothering Johnson over position.
Vanasse slid up-track in turn three of lap 5 and Darling pounced, going under and into the lead. Vanasse dropped onto his tail and Estrella stuck to third with Freddy on his tail. Scully and Johnson followed. Ten laps in and Darling led by five cars The field had stretched out single file and Estrella took a couple looks under Vanasse. But on lap 16, Mike Mitchell spun in turn four. His back brushed the outside wall and he took it pit-side but was able to return.
Darling nosed away from The Rocket on the restart and Vanasse dropped in. Estrella and Astle followed, with Fred going to the outside to begin six laps of side-by-side. They whipsawed their positions as Darling moved on, generating an eight-car lead over Vanasse, who was six cars up on Astle and Estrella. Finally, Estrella came loose and went around in turn four. Mitchell, Dick Benoit and Estrella headed to the pits for adjustments and returned.
Vanasse was outside Darling for the restart and Astle was behind him with Scully on the outside. Darling slid ahead of Vanasse and Astle stayed on Darlings bumper, sticking The Rocket on the outside. He was able to drop in between Astle and Scully as Radical Rick Martin ran in under Scully, keeping him in the second groove.
But Austin Blais came through turn four, trailing smoke from the rear of his car and went into a sudden spin on the front stretch, ending up in the infield in turn one. The problem cut short his night and he went off on the hook.
The lineup for the lap 20 restart had Darling and Astle at the front, followed by Vanasse and Scully, then Martin and Kyle Casper. Row four was Kevin Casper and Nick Johnson. Darling pulled ahead and Vanasse looked under Astle but Freddy shut the door in turn four.
The distance between Darling and Astle swayed between on-the-bumper and 2 car lengths. Darling could not dispose of Astle, nor could Astle get past Darling. Vanasse followed, but Scully was all over his bumper. Martin ran fifth and Kevin had passed Kyle to pursue Radical Rick. Behind them, a resurgent Estrella had gotten under Kyle, looking to move toward the front. Brightman and Mitchell were giving chase.
The field stretched out, running single file. With four laps to go, Darling and Astle lapped Bob Hussey. The field behind them had changed little since the last caution. Now, Brightman was working his way under Kyle Casper and they ran side-by-side.
They fired through the final lap with Darling and Astle exchanging withering fire all the way. At the stripe, it was Darling with Astle on his bumper for 1-2.Vanasse claimed third, just ahead of Tom Scully, Jr. and Martin completed the top five. Rounding out the top ten came Kevin Casper, Estrella, Kyle Casper, Brightman and Mitchell.