It’s been a long time since Will Rodgers has seen victory lane in the Interstate Batteries Monday Night Racing Pro Series. Like, three full seasons long.
But finally, after consistently showing speed and running inside the top ten, Rodgers took his second career checkered flag in MNR after a chaotic race at World Wide Technology Raceway that saw tempers reach a boiling point.
One of the odds on favorites to win, Landon Huffman, put it on pole along side James Bickford. This led to some question about how the start would go as the two drivers have had run-ins already this season.
At Eldora, Bickford completely wiped out Huffman trying to steal the win away on the final lap and was penalized for aggressive driving tactics.
However, at the start, there was aggressive — yet clean — side by side racing at the race start between Huffman and Bickford. Huffman claimed the lead but Bickford was right on his tail with Garrett Smithley not far behind.
There wasn’t a whole lot of movement inside the top ten after that, until the battle for the lead reignited on lap 11.
However, Ryan Vargas hit the wall hard on the exit of turn 4 and got hit by Adam Cabot and David Schildhouse. All three drivers were running inside the top 10 at the time.
In the ensuing caution, most of the top half of the field, including the slightly damaged Schildhouse and Cabot, stayed out. However, even after seeing the importance of track position during the Cup race here a few weeks ago, Huffman pitted. It did not take long for Huffman to regret that decision.
There would be a huge crash on the restart, as Gary Sexton hit the wall. A number of cars were involved and, unsurprisingly with the luck he’s had, Huffman crashed and was forced to pit again with damage.
Up at the front of the field, Bickford had a great restart. The race wouldn’t stay green for long as the head of MNR, Ford Martin, brought the caution back out on lap 23 after being spun by Shane Van Gisbergen. Fortunately there wasn’t no real damage to anyone.
Van Gisbergen, who has been absent from the series since his second place finish at Watkins Glen in mid-May, would make a point to get a lot of camera time as he spun Dakotah Curtis on the next restart.
With the two cautions involving SVG, the race now had four cautions in about a span of 15 laps.
On the next restart, Leighton Sibille gets spun from inside the top10, as he turned across the nose of Rajah Caruth. Sibille made a fantastic save to get the car pointed in the right direction and keep the track green.
On lap 36, Max Kennon, who had an uncharacteristically poor day in terms of speed, turned Shane Lewis. Again though, the track stayed green.
Something unthinkable happened on lap 38: Michael Massie, who was 26 laps down after connection issues early in the race, attempted to get his slower No. 27 car out of the way, but he would get run over by David Schildhouse trying to stay out of the way.
Massie, as a result, was thrown into the outside wall and collected numerous top10 competitors including: Nick Olsen, Gabe Wood, Ryan Vargas. This incident would not be the last time Massie would make an appearance on the Podium eSports broadcast.
At this point in the race, Rajah Caruth had worked up to the third position. Huffman meanwhile would have to pit again under caution and was now scored in the 32nd position.
Nothing too dramatic happened on the next restart, but another caution would fly on lap 45 as the red hot George Balfanz Jr. and Max Kennon made contact. In the chaos, Ford Martin ended up flipping.
Racing would resume at the midway point of the event, after Smithley hit pit road.
On lap 52, Kennon would be involved in another incident, this time a crash with Matt Stallknecht. Steve Auffant would also get dumped, and ended up parked off the side of the racetrack. The track remained green.
By lap 54, Rodgers made his way up to third, and began challenging to take second from Caruth.
Just about five laps later, Sibille pitted, which started bringing people down pit road for their stops. Bickford would pit from the lead with 40 laps to go. Caruth tried to pit at the same time, but missed pit entry and nearly took out Brad Perez in the process. Caruth went on to pit the next lap.
This strategy would prove to be a disastrous call, as there was trouble with 34 laps to go when Smithley sendt Vargas into the wall, who then got into the back of TJ Majors and spun off of turn two. With this incident, the caution would come out, trapping the dominant leaders of the race a lap down.
Most would end up taking the wave around under caution, however, Bickford would be the only car trapped one lap down.
Most of the leaders would pit under this caution, but Balfanz, Kennon, Schildhouse, Cabot and a couple of others decided to stay out.
The race would restart with 28 to go, with Balfanz leading the field and he would have a great start. But a huge wreck would ensure after Noah Lewis turned Kennon while fighting for second. Kennon would still rebound to finish ninth on the day. About half of the field piled in on this one.
A number of drivers, including Huffman, who’s horrific day continued, suffered significant damage. Bickford would receive the free pass.
The next restart would showcase another great start from Balfanz, with Perez in second, Wood third, and SVG in fourth. The order would stay that way for about a lap, until Presley Sorah wrecked big with just 23 laps to go.
Unfortunately, during the ensuing caution period, Perez’s internet disconnected causing him to fall to the back.
Balfanz had yet another great start, but the damaged Sorah got run over by Mike Clay in the back of the pack, and in very MNR fashion the field failed to make it 500 feet under green flag conditions.
Van Gisbergen, who had been having a brilliant day up until this point, received a black flag from second after jumping the next restart. The race would stay green for a couple of laps, until another big wreck with 15 laps to go.
In a repeat of our first big wreck, Adam Cabot got too tight off of turn 4 and did exactly what Vargas did earlier, causing damage to a couple of cars in the process.
After the yellow flag came out, Caruth spun Smithley going into turn 3, causing huge damage to Smithley’s Ford. Smithley went and tracked down Caruth under caution and slammed into him, despite Caruth’s attempts to apologize.
Balfanz, who was loving all the chaos, got another great jump on the following restart. But shockingly (not really), it wouldn’t matter for long, as the caution came out once again.
Caruth would spin. This wreck was especially frustrating, as Massie — remember him? — wrecked Caruth after entering the corner basically down by the grass still 26 laps down.
Even the Podium Esports booth, which is usually mild mannered when frustrated, couldn’t hide their displeasure on this incident.
Balfanz, even with aging tires, had another great jump over Robby Lyons on the ensuing restart. Rodgers then made the move of the race as he stole second from Lyons. However, Balfanz, who had mastered the art of the restart, this time got loose off of two.
This started a huge flight for the lead, with three wide racing down the back stretch, as Rodgers took over the top spot. Nick Olsen powered his way through to second.
This caused an accordion effect at the front.
In the mess, Bailey Turner turned Huffman, who had been rallying, fighting inside the top10. A chain reaction crash followed, and during the caution period, Huffman flew through the field, found Turner, and absolutely dumped him under caution.
Huffman would be disqualified from the race, and later on the broadcast discussed his displeasure with MNR and said he would not be returning to the series.
The race would restart with three laps to go, and Rodgers used a perfect restart to get about a four car length lead on his competitors. There was a three-wide battle down the back stretch between Lyons, Olsen, and a rebounding Schildhouse, but Lyons got loose and fell all the way to the back.
Rodgers managed to take the white flag without a yellow coming out, with Olsen and Schildhouse fighting for second behind him. Rodgers then cruised to his second career MNR win, locking him into the playoffs in the process.
Nick Olsen hung onto second place behind Rodgers. Schildhouse, who needed a good finish as he continues to hover around the playoff cutline, muscled his way back to a third place finish.
In a story of comebacks, Sibille came all the way back from a spin to finish fourth, while SVG, who had to overcome his earlier restart violation, still managed a top five in what was an impressive showing.