Sunday, March 26, 2023

Max Kennon Steals Win After James Bickford Penalized for Last Lap Pass at Eldora

Max Kennon scored the win in Monday Night Racing’s Joey Mendoza Memorial at Eldora after a controversial finish between James Bickford and Landon Huffman. Photo Credit: Podium eSports

James Bickford has had a tough go at it recently. While he did get his first win of the Interstate Batteries Monday Night Racing Pro Series season a few weeks ago, he does not have a top ten outside of that lone triumph.

On Monday night, in very “2022 Denny Hamlin” fashion, Bickford would have an extremely fast car, but terrible luck combined with a few mistakes would keep him out of victory lane yet again at Eldora, in a race where the whole MNR community honored the memory of Joey Mendoza, brother of MNR’s Race Director Joshua Mendoza.

Bickford, who battled through adversity all day long, would fight his way through the pack and attempt a last lap slider on Landon Huffman. After some huge contact, Bickford would cross the line first just ahead of Max Kennon, but the race stewards would later rule that Bickford’s move was “too aggressive”.

Here is video of the race-winning move, which led to the win being stripped from Bickford:

And here is Monday Night Racing Series owner Ford Martin explaining the decision to remove Bickford as the race winner:

As a result, Bickford was relegated to the last car on the lead lap, while Kennon was gifted a win and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. Meanwhile Huffman, who is right at the playoff cutline, would come home second.

So, how did we get there?

Qualifying, Heats and Last Chance Qualifier

When the night started, it immediately showed that Bickford had one of the best cars in qualifying, as he set the fastest time and started up front in the first heat.

However, Bickford jumped the start at the beginning of the heat race and was unable to rebound from a black flag, and would get stuck in the Last Chance Qualifier [LCQ].

Collin Fern would end up winning heat one, with Max Kennon winning heat two, and last season’s MNR Pro Series champion Adam Cabot snagging the win at the line in the final heat.

The top six finishers from each heat automatically transferred to the feature, while everyone else was forced to run the 25-lap LCQ, where two cars would head home.

On the very first lap, Bickford got turned into the outside wall on the backstretch, and he would head to the back of the field for the ensuing restart.

The chaos continued as Brett Baldeck was spun.

The track stayed green, until another huge wreck happened that involved about half the field. By lap 11, when the track restarted, Bickford would find himself inside the top five.

Just a lap later, George Balfanz Jr. would get spun after contact with Charli Brown. Which brought out another caution.

At the front of the field, Matt Stallknecht faced a challenge from Preston Pardus. Pardus would ultimately steal the lead away and start to pull away from Stallknecht.

With four laps to go, Bickford would advance into second, where he would finish in the LCQ. Preston Pardus would win by 2.1 seconds.

Seth Eggert and Michael Massie would be the two drivers eliminated from the feature.

The Feature

The 80 lap feature got off to a hot start as Cabot would snatch the lead from Fern on the first lap. He would also bring Max Kennon with him.

On lap five, Steven Ellis, Fern, Garrett Smithley and Huffman would be four-wide exiting turn 4. They would make contact and wreck, causing a huge stack up early in the race.

Huffman would come out of the incident fairly unscathed.

The race would return to green on lap 8. Kennon would clear himself in front of Cabot on the initial start, making an aggressive move to take the lead. Meanwhile, Huffman found himself in second and Cabot was stuck in third fending off David Schildhouse and Ellis.

On lap 14, Bickford got turned off the bumper of the other two time winner in this season, Presley Sorah. A number of cars piled in. Bickford would again end up at the back of the pack.

The race restarted again on lap 18, but the green flag run would only last for three laps as Bailey Turner got “turned” (nice one, Stephen) by Will Rodgers. It was at this point that this race, on the virtual dirt of Eldora, quickly became a wreck fest.

On lap 25, racing resumed, and just two laps later, we had a massive crash where two cars flipped. Sorah would get turned around and drift up the race track in front of the field, where everyone in the back half of the field piled in.

Ryan Vargas would have a huge problem on lap 31, and fall through the field with right front suspension damage. Meanwhile, at the front of the pack, Huffman would power his way through to the front. Cabot and Fern would both pass Kennon as well.

Then, on lap 37, we saw some beef develop as Gary Sexton and Will Rodgers made contact to bring out the caution. Under the yellow, Sexton drove right up to the back of Rodgers and dumped him while pacing.

Keep in mind, the race hadn’t even reached the halfway point and tensions were already high.

On the lap 41 restart, Cabot would slide across the bumper of Huffman to take the lead. A couple of laps later, Fern would use the high line to go from fourth to second in what was an absolutely gorgeous move.

In a shocking (or maybe not so shocking) turn of events, we got another caution on lap 44.

Huffman would retake the lead on the ensuing restart, returning the favor to Cabot in aggressive fashion. In doing so, Cabot dropped like a rock through the field, and, as was the theme of the night, was eventually turned.

With 25 laps to go, Turner got dumped again bringing out the caution. Yet another car, Preston Pardus, ended up on his roof in this incident.

The MNR drivers could not even make it two corners on the next restart, as the field wrecked going into turn 1. This marked the eighth caution of the race in the opening 62 laps, which equated to roughly a caution for every eight laps contested.

On the next restart, Huffman again got a fantastic jump, getting out to a lead of almost a second over Schildhouse, and almost two and a half seconds over third place driver Nick Olsen. Meanwhile, a little bit further back, Bickford had rebounded to find himself sixth. With just 12 to go, MNR series owner Ford Martin got turned around by Gary Sexton of Podium ESports, the company that broadcasts MNR. Awkward.

On the ensuing restart, Nick Olsen was slow and stacked up a number of drivers behind him, as virtually the entire back straightaway was blocked. This allowed Bickford to jump into the top five.

After returning to racing, Schildhouse and Kennon made contact as Kennon got into the wall. Schildhouse got turned down the racetrack and collected Fern. Somehow, Bickford managed to hang onto his car even after getting hit by the wrecking Schildhouse, and incredibly found himself in second-place.

Overtime Finish

This caution would bring us to overtime, with Huffman and Bickford making up the top two.

Bickford got a great jump on the start, but Huffman managed to hang onto the lead. The two were bumper to bumper coming to the white flag, but, predictably, the caution flag flew before the leaders could take the white flag. This meant we would have to endure another GWC.

And guess what? On the next GWC, they wrecked again in turn 2. Even the Podium Esports commentators were getting frustrated with the chaotic driving at this point.

On the third and final GWC, Huffman again just barely cleared James Bickford.

This time, the field was able to take the white flag and in what was originally believed to be an absolutely spectacular finish, Bickford threw his car into turn three on Huffman, slamming Landon into the outside wall for seemingly the race win.

Kennon almost took over at the line, pulling up side by side with Bickford. Huffman understandably was frustrated with the result, expressing his displeasure with the way Bickford raced and bringing Bickford’s starts to the attention of the stewards. His bickering clearly had some type of influence, because Bickford received the aforementioned penalty.

In the end though, Max Kennon would end up getting his first win of the year. Huffman still managed a second place finish, and Adam Cabot, who was spun with just twelve to go, found himself in the top three at the end of it all. Ryan Vargas and Sexton rounded out the top five.

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