In a tight championship battle, any win can be a statement win. Ryan Kuhn might just have delivered his statement win Friday night.
The second-generation star emerged from chaos to post his second Pro All Stars Series North win of the year in the headline event of Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel Milk Bowl Friday, the opening day of competition for the 60th Vermont Milk Bowl at Thunder Road International Speedbowl.
Kuhn took advantage of a dustup between late leaders Max Cookson and Gabe Brown, holding off defending race winner Trevor Sanborn to earn a victory at the track where his 2020 Milk Bowl attempt ended in a dramatic wreck.
Thunder Road ace Bobby Therrien and Sanborn brought the field to the green flag, with Therrien and Sanborn pacing the field for the first 17 laps. Sanborn and Therrien swapped places for a few laps, with rookie Max Cookson following Sanborn’s lead to take the top spot on lap 29.
Cookson, the fresh-faced newcomer who just locked up Oxford Plains Speedway’s weekly Super Late Model crown in his native Maine, handled the high-banked Vermont oval like a veteran. While title challenger Eddie MacDonald and five-time PASS North champ DJ Shaw worked their way to second and third, Cookson set a brisk pace on a long green-flag run. Racing in anticipation of a full-time touring schedule in 2023, Cookson was on track to score his first touring Super Late Model win.
But the race’s complexion changed drastically on lap 104. Shaw slipped around MacDonald to take second, but as “The Outlaw” swung to Shaw’s inside to take the position back, the two veterans made contact in turn one. Shaw spun up the bank while MacDonald pounded the outside wall, ending his night just past the two-thirds mark of the race.
Kuhn ascended to second for the restart, but the East Bridgewater, Mass. racer could not get by Cookson, with Gabe Brown sneaking by for second. Brown ran down his championship rival in a few laps, taking the lead on lap 109. Two weeks after losing his second PASS win of the year to a post-race scoring review, Brown was focused on making good on a promise to win at the “Nation’s Site of Excitement.”
Jimmy Renfrew, Jr.’s blown tire on lap 134 slowed Brown’s victory march, though, putting Cookson back in contention for the win. The young racers battled for the lead from the drop of the green flag, with Brown fending off Cookson to hang onto the lead and Kuhn shadowing the combatants out front.
The battle for the lead turned physical with only a few laps to go. Brown countered Cookson’s turn-one move to take the lead, sliding up the hill as Cookson snuck past on the inside. Brown dove back under Cookson in turn four, nudging the leader into a spin. Cookson gathered his car up as the caution flew one more time, and officials sent Brown to the rear of the field for the contact.
Kuhn inherited the lead with Jake Matheson restarting outside. Matheson, who finished an impressive third a year ago, fought hard on the outside but found himself playing defense against Sanborn and Joe Pastore as Kuhn drove away.
After earning a big home-track win at Seekonk Speedway earlier in the summer, Kuhn held on to take his second career PASS win and his first victory ever at Thunder Road.
Sanborn was a season-best second. Sparks flew for third on the last lap, with Pastore edging out Matheson for third while Matheson rode the frontstretch wall to a fourth-place finish. Cookson, who won last year’s PASS Modified feature at Thunder Road, recovered for fifth, with Brown sixth at the stripe.
Early contender Bobby Therrien was seventh, the final car on the lead lap. Renfrew, Shaw, and Dan Winter rounded out the top ten. MacDonald was relegated to 13th after his mid-race wreck.
Kuhn’s victory, coupled with MacDonald’s crash and Brown’s late-race incident, could be the turning point in what has been a close but calm championship battle. Seven of this year’s fifteen features have been won by two drivers, with Shaw winning four and reigning champ Johnny Clark winning three. But the typical weather delays and mid-season schedule alterations that befall the busy PASS itinerary have kept Shaw, Clark and a number of other competitors from making every race.
Kuhn, MacDonald and Brown are the only three drivers to attempt every feature thus far. All three have been maddeningly consistent. MacDonald drove to an early-season win at Stafford Motor Speedway. Brown shook off a heat-race crash that sidelined him at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to break through with his first PASS win in July at Oxford. A couple weeks later, Kuhn followed suit with a $10,000 victory in the second Bay State Classic.
But with Brown’s near-miss at White Mountain Motorsports Park, none of the title threats had earned that second win, with only thirty markers separating the three entering the Thunder Road weekend.
All three spent time near the front of the pack, but it was Kuhn who emerged with the best outcome by far in his first start at Thunder Road since 2020’s edition of the Milk Bowl. Kuhn, a full-time American-Canadian Tour racer at the time, earned the pole and was in contention for the overall victory when a suspension failure sent Kuhn for a wild ride that ended with the young racer on his roof.
This time, Kuhn kept all four tires on the pavement.
And with only a few races to go in the PASS North season, that might prove to be the difference that makes Kuhn a champion.
Unofficial Results, PASS North Lenny’s Shoe & Apparel Milk Bowl Friday 150 at Thunder Road International Speedbowl:
1. (72) Ryan Kuhn
2. (29) Trevor Sanborn
3. (20) Joe Pastore
4. (52M) Jake Matheson
5. (39) Max Cookson
6. (50) Gabe Brown
7. (5X) Bobby Therrien
8. (00) Jimmy Renfrew, Jr.
9. (60) DJ Shaw
10. (81) Dan Winter
11. (09) Jeremy Davis
12. (10) Kate Re
13. (17MA) Eddie MacDonald
14. (00) Jeremie Whorff
15. (14) Scott McDaniel