By Kevin Kovac
WAUSEON, Ohio (July 14) — Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., already had his third consecutive UMP DIRTcar Summernationals championship clinched before taking the green flag in Friday night’s 40-lap feature at Oakshade Raceway. He celebrated by adding another victory to his ledger.
Surging past race-long pacesetter Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, in lapped traffic on lap 32, Pierce assumed command and turned back a furious comeback bid from Schlenk over the final circuits to kick off the 3/8-mile oval’s Birthday Race weekend with a $5,000 score.
The 20-year-old sensation registered his fifth Hell Tour triumph of 2017 — tying him with Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., for winningest-driver status — and his first-ever victory at the down-home track located about a half-hour’s drive west of Toledo.
“This is one of my favorite wins just because it’s so hard to win here,” said Pierce, who tallied his 23rd career Summernationals checkered flag. “And Schlenk, he’s so good here Schlenk, he’s so good here … to beat guys like that at a place you know they’re good at, that says a lot about your team.”
Schlenk, who turns 31 on July 20, settled for a runner-up finish, 0.509 of a second behind Pierce. The race’s polesitter had kept his self-owned Rayburn No. 91 at the front of the pack until a miscue while negotiating slower traffic through turns three and four on lap 32 opened the door for Pierce, who started fourth, to vault ahead for good.
Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., hustled forward from the seventh starting spot to place third in his Pierce Race Car. Outside polesitter Cody Mahoney of Hanover, Ind., finished fourth in the Bowman Motorsports Black Diamond and third-starter Jon Henry of Ada, Ohio, who won Oakshade’s Birthday Race finale last year, completed the top five in his Club 29 mount.
Pierce had a simple synopsis of his winning move: “I was in the right spot at the right time.”
Indeed, Pierce, who reached second place with a lap-21 pass of Unzicker and caught Schlenk about 10 circuits later, was perfectly positioned to take advantage of Schlenk’s slip on lap 32. When Schlenk made contact with the lapped Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., between turns three and four, he slipped out of the prime lower groove and could only watch Pierce grab the top spot.
“Rusty was having trouble with lapped traffic,” Pierce related. “It’s really hard sometimes for the leader — do I go to the outside of him, or do I dive to the inside? When it started rubbering up a little bit, I’m sure it got hard for him to know where to go. Then he dove down in there and he got into Gordy a little bit … I think he just overshot it a little bit. It doesn’t take much. When he hit him, I think he let off the gas because Gordy almost was spinning, they both kind of shoved up, and at that time I was right there and just shot right by them.
“After that I was just trying to hang onto the lead. Luckily, we held on, but (Schlenk) was right there on my bumper the whole time.”
Schlenk was able to get completely underneath Pierce off turn two on lap 37, but he couldn’t complete the pass.
“He almost got me back,” Pierce said of Schlenk. “I was trying to get around (Bob) Gardner there (to lap the East Peoria, Ill., driver in the closing laps), and, every single time in (turns) one and two, when you’d hit it wrong it would be like you were on ice coming off of two. I realized I had to get lower and lower and lower … I thought I was low enough, but obviously I wasn’t because (Schlenk) peaked his nose in there, but he gave me enough room to get back down to the bottom in front of him (entering turn three).”
With the Summernationals crown in his back pocket before the start of Thursday night’s series event at Merritt Speedway in Lake City, Mich., Pierce was a driver totally at ease while celebrating his triumph.
“It’s really nice,” Pierce said when asked about his early clinching of the title. “My first time I won the Summernationals (in 2015) it came down to the final night (at Oakshade) with me and Little Billy (Moyer Jr.). I think I was running like eighth in the feature while he was leading it and at that time I would’ve lost the points, but I got up to fifth or fourth in that race and won by only 10 points. It was a really close battle, but this year, we don’t have to worry about points. We can kind of just relax this whole weekend and go for the win.”
Schlenk, meanwhile, thought he was destined to secure his first Summernationals victory since the 2010 Birthday Race at Oakshade until he made a critical mistake on lap 32.
“Driver error,” said Schlenk, a six-time Oakshade points champion. “I missed my entry into three. My entry into three was four, five car lengths better than everybody’s, and when I got to lapped traffic I had to try and figure out how to get through there. Well, I set the car down too early trying to keep from getting into the back of the 11 car (Gundaker) and I just got tight and pushed up out of the rubber. Once I pushed up out of the rubber I left Bobby the whole bottom, so I was a sitting duck until I could get back down in it.
“I think we were still better than (Pierce) at the end … we were better in the slick. It wasn’t quite rubbered up down in one and two, so I could roll through there a little bit better than him. The whole bottom half of the racetrack was slick, and all of one and two was slick because those crumbs kind of kept it clean.
“About three to go there I was about half a car ahead of him,” he added. “But he caught that rubber out by the wall (on the backstretch) and put two, three car lengths on me. That was about it. I didn’t want to get in there and door him. He never runs me like that, so I wasn’t gonna do that to him.”
The race’s lone caution flag flew on lap 18 when Brent Larson of Lake Elmo, Minn., spun in turn two right in front of the leaders. Schlenk had Unzicker in position to challenge when the incident occurred.