Mario Merenda has been one of the fastest cars all season long in the MPI Cup Series, he simply had not been able to put all the pieces together. That all changed at Phoenix Sunday evening, as Merenda was the class of the field for the entire race.
Merenda started third, but it took just one lap for him to get the lead from pole sitter Ross Harlow. From that point on, Merenda was up front basically the rest of the way up to the checkered flag.
Stage one was shockingly uneventful.
After Merenda took the lead, he would not relinquish it for the rest of the way. There was a little bit of action inside of the top ten, but for the most part, passing, as it is in real life, was very difficult.
Merenda was followed by Zach Wilson and Steven Stempien to the line at the end of the stage break, although Merenda had a lead of almost two and a half seconds. Warren Kieth and Austin Reedy, both of whom have at least one win this year, would round out the top five.
The top five from the end of stage one would also be the first five off pit road, with the only change being a position swap between Reedy and Keith.
Merenda would get a good jump and quickly gain the lead, but Steven Stempien was not so lucky. He would quickly drop to sixth on the start. Just a lap after the start, Joseph Mahar would make some contact and end up in the wall after racing on the outside of the top ten. The track would stay green, but Mahar would drop outside the top-30.
Meanwhile, back at the front, things were mostly single file.
There were about twenty or so laps of green flag racing, until disaster struck one of our top contenders. Point-leader Austin Reedy would hit the outside wall, spin, overcorrect, and bounce off the inside wall. He was running inside the top five at the time of the incident, and with 36 cars on the lead lap, this would be a huge setback for Reedy.
At this point, 18 cars stayed out with just 14 laps to go in Stage 2.
This caused a huge mix up in the field, as Wyatt Brackett and Brandon Banks would lead us to green. Very quickly, Austin Shoemaker would make his way to second.
Within just three laps, Mario Merenda was inside the top ten and ripping through the field. With just eight to go though, Zach Wilson would cause a huge wreck. After getting loose in the dogleg, he would slide up the race track directly in front of the field, dealing damage to a number of drivers.
The green flag would come back out on lap 87, but wouldn’t stay out for long. Just a lap after the green flag came out, Alex Muscarella on the bottom of three-wide would slide up the track and hit Richard Swavley, who would put Shane Parrish in the wall. A few more drivers got damage from this incident.
The caution would be scored as the end of Stage two, with Wyatt Brackett winning, followed by Shoemaker, Merenda, Banks, and Eric Stanford.
A few drivers would stay out at the stage break, as they had pitted during the lap 82 caution.
Parker Bland and Mahar, who was involved in the earlier incident, made up the front row. Austin Reedy, another driver involved in an incident, would move up to second quickly, and would bring Keith and Merenda with him.
It only took about another lap and a half for Merenda to run down and pass Reedy. Within another half a lap, Merenda would pass Bland for the lead too. Bland would try a crossover, but would get loose and fall to 14th.
With Zach Wilson, the only driver who seemed to have the speed to match Merenda, out of the race, things were looking good for the driver of the No. 99 at the halfway mark.
Fifteen laps later, Wyatt Brackett ran down Merenda and pulled up to his bumper. However, Brackett struggled to pass Merenda and began to drop back.
On lap 129, Ross Harlow was the first car to pit, trying to gain track position. By this point, Merenda had stretched his lead to one and a half seconds.
On lap 142, Lawson Peel would get loose and wreck bringing out our fifth caution of the day. This would really hurt Harlow, who was one of the only drivers to pit up until this point. After pit stops, the top four would remain the same: Merenda, Brackett, Reedy, and Keith.
We would return to green on lap 147. Kieth would get around Reedy for third, and a great battle for fifth ensued. Banks, Stempien, and Stanford all looked to fill the final spot in the top five. By the time thirty to go hit, Brackett was still within a half second of Merenda, while Austin Reedy had fallen victim to both Banks and Stempien, and was down to sixth.
On lap 180, another caution flag flew. This time, Richard Swavley half-crashed, but actually made a fantastic save. However, the caution was thrown even though Swavley held on, so everyone would bring it back down pit road. Merenda would win the race off, with Warren Keith taking second. Brackett would fall to third, Stempien fourth, and Reedy fifth. Brandon Banks, who went onto pit road fourth, would come off seventh.
There were only a few green flag laps before Austin Shoemaker, who had been running inside the top ten and was fighting for sixth, wrecked off turn four, and went head first into the outside wall. Shoemaker would be out of contention. At this point, there were only 20 cars on the lead lap.
The green flag would come back out with ten to go, with Merenda, Keith, and Brackett ready to duke it out. However, just two laps into the run, Brackett, who had probably the second best car left in the field, would lock up the brakes going into turn two, and slam the outside wall. After being consistently in the top three all day, Brackett was out.
Merenda would get a massive jump on the start with just three to go. Brandon Banks would follow him through to second. After a calm three laps, Banks, who had second all but locked up, would go wide in turn two, and lose positions to both Keith and Reedy and finish fourth. Merenda would go on to win by almost a second. Alex Muscarella, after an up and down day, would finish fifth.