By Kevin Kovac
WAUSEON, Ohio (July 15) — Kent Robinson thought his hopes for victory in Saturday night’s UMP DIRTcar Summernationals-sanctioned Birthday Race at Oakshade Raceway were effectively over as soon as he drew the sixth starting spot for the 60-lap feature.
With passing expected to be at a premium because the 3/8-mile oval’s track surface had already taken rubber, Robinson looked at an outside third row position as being virtually impossible to overcome.
“I wasn’t very happy,” Robinson said later. “I was like, ‘That isn’t gonna get it done.’”
Yet come the end of the A-main, there was Bloomington, Ind.’s Robinson, standing on the roof of his family-owned Billy Moyer Victory Race Car to celebrate the biggest win of his career. He couldn’t believe the turn of events that made him the winner of his first-ever Summernationals event and $10,000 first-place prize.
“I thought it was gonna be a little more one-lane than it turned out,” the 30-year-old driver admitted.
There was enough racetrack for Robinson to surge forward following a lap-21 restart, using a higher line around the speedway to go from fifth to first in a matter of seven circuits. He completed his charge by driving around the outside of race-long pacesetter Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., for the lead on lap 28.
Robinson faced late-race pressure from Oakshade points leader Devin Shiels of Britton, Mich., but held on to beat his 37-year-old challenger by a modest 0.536 of a second.
Thirlby settled for a third-place finish after leading laps 1-27. Jon Henry of Ada, Ohio, who won last year’s Birthday Race, improved one spot from his starting position to place fourth and outside polesitter Brian Ruhlman of Clarklake, Mich., slipped backward to complete the top five.
Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., who clinched his third consecutive Summernationals points title before Thursday night’s series event at Merritt Speedway in Lake City, Mich., capped his 25-race march to the championship with a quiet 10th-place finish. He was officially crowned the champion in a post-race ceremony during which he held aloft the the $25,000 check he received for his hard work.
Robinson picked up a smaller check, but the $10,000 payoff was nonetheless quite exciting for him. It marked the first time he captured a five-figure win.
And Robinson did it with a flourish, putting together a post-restart push forward that left him amazed.
“Really, at the beginning, we knew it was gonna rubber — it was already rubbered — and I was like, ‘Man, it’s just gonna be so hard to pass,’” Robinson said. “It was rubbered down the backstretch, all of (turns) three and four was rubbered, and then you kind of drove out of it down the frontstretch and all of one and two there was no rubber, so it was a little tricky.
“I wasn’t really thinking there was anything on the outside so I wasn’t gonna try it, but I just got kind of shuffled out there to the outside on that restart. I was outside (Jon) Henry going into one and I was like, ‘This isn’t good.’ I didn’t think we were gonna be able to stick out there, and we did. Then I passed a couple cars down the backstretch (Shiels for third off turn four on lap 24 and Ruhlman for second moments later) and went off into three and I was really good there. The next you know, I was passing Thirlby and in the lead.
“I was pleasantly surprised, I guess you could say,” he added. “I realized the rubber was actually wider than I thought.”
Robinson wasn’t sure what allowed him to find traction higher on the track.
“I didn’t feel like I could go out there before the restart, so maybe it was just a culmination of a little bit of moisture coming back up and the tire combination we’re running,” Robinson commented. “This tire combination is a little bit different. We were all on right-rear (LM) 40s but then we can’t do anything but 20s everywhere so that combination of the hards with the softs … maybe they cooled off together just right and we were able to stick because of it after that restart. I mean, the tires started wearing obviously, but I never felt like I got any better after that.”
Robinson had to stave off bids from Shiels, who moved his family-owned XR1 Rocket by Thirlby for second on lap 34 and was right behind the leader by lap 40. Shiels nosed underneath Robinson a few times — including following the race’s second and final restart on lap 53 — but he couldn’t make a move stick.
“Jason (Palubicki) was giving me signals,” Robinson said of his crewman. “I couldn’t get through one and two very well so I figured (Shiels) was gaining on me there, but I was really not running 100 percent through three and four because I was so good down there and I wanted to save my right-rear when I could. I just thought, if anybody gets next to me it’s gonna be through one and two, but I was pretty confident that if that happened I could get back by him in three and four by running a little harder.
“Luckily we didn’t have to do that, but I knew he was close,” he added. “We were able to hang. I’m just really proud of my team right now.”
Shiels fell just short of what would have been a win unlike any other he’s experienced. He said the most money he’s ever collected in his racing career was $1,500.
Unfortunately for Shiels, he needed something extra to reach victory lane.
“There was nothing left of the tires,” said Shiels, who was scheduled to start seventh but move up to fifth when pole starter Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., relinquished his spot because his car stuck in gear after driver introductions and he had to be towed to the pit area for hasty repairs. “I used every bit of them. I could see we were gaining (on Robinson) and I tried everything I could do, but it just wasn’t there.
“He found the high line first and that won him the race. He passed three or four cars when there wasn’t much passing, and then he just kind of stayed in that rubber area and kept ‘er out front.”
Shiels didn’t hang his head, however, after recording his career-best Summernationals finish.
“To be able to run with these guys, that’s great,” Shiels said. “We’ve been running good here this year, we’ve got three feature wins, and this just boosts our confidence a ton.”
Thirlby, 30, faded slightly after leading most of the race’s first half in his family-owned XR1 Rocket. He tipped his cap to Robinson.
“I used it up (the tires), and I was so conscious about blocking the bottom that it was really screwing up my entry,” said Thirlby, who noted that he had three bald tires at the race’s conclusion. “I never thought anybody would roll me on the top like that, though.
“But this whole weekend has been awesome. I wish I could’ve finished last night (he retired with apparent suspension trouble while running fifth). I know we had a top-five car, and maybe at least second, last night … and if we did that, we might have won the Champions Week points (the FK Rod Ends-sponsored final-week standings that were claimed by eighth-place finisher Billy Moyer Jr. of Batesville, Ark.).
“I just can’t be more proud of the car and the crew,” he added. “We set fast time (on Saturday night) and I had never done that in the Summernationals — and hell, I’d never run top-five in the Summernationals until this week (he finished third Tuesday night at Michigan’s Hartford Speedway and second Thursday evening at Merritt), so I’m happy.”