First Win for Merrell
July 9, 2011 | 10:43 P.M. EST
Matt Merrell captured his first career ARCA Racing Series win on Saturday. (Photo: ARCA)
Matt Merrell had already lost the lead off of pit road once, and after finishing second at Berlin Raceway two years earlier, the Texan seemed destined for runner-up honors again in the Hantz Group 200.
However, 194 laps do not make a complete race, and that's a fact Merrell kept in mind as he powered past Tim George Jr. on a Lap 195 restart to take the lead, an advantage he would hold over the final six laps to win at Berlin and take his first victory in 23 career ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards starts.
The win was the first for Win-Tron Racing since Justin Marks led the team to Victory Lane at Palm Beach International Raceway last February.
"This car was awesome," said Merrell. "We could arc it in, and drive it down off the bottom a lot of times on people. I had to keep telling myself just to be patient, patient, patient, because at this place you can overdrive it so easily. We probably never got to full throttle anytime except coming to the checker there. The Champion Dodge was awesome, and so were all these guys at Win-Tron. It was an awesome night."
George (No. 31 Applebee's/Potomac Dining Group Chevrolet) had led the race since Lap 122, just after beating Merrell (No. 32 Champion Oil Dodge) out of the pits, and appeared to be coasting to his second win in the last five races. Contact between rookie points leader Ty Dillon (No. 41 Richard Childress Racing Development Chevrolet) and Levi Youster (No. 23 Fox Realty/Hixson Construction Ford) on Lap 189, though, brought out a pivotal caution flag, setting up the fateful restart on which George spun his tires and Merrell had enough momentum to drive into the lead.
"(George) kind of took off down the backstretch (on Lap 194, the final yellow flag lap)," said Merrell. "I went to catch up with him and he kind of slowed down. I figured he was going to try to play some kind of game; everybody tries to do something. When he went, he went to protect the outside, so I knew I wasn't going to get to him by the stripe. I went to the bottom and tried to set myself up in (Turn) 1 and it worked. I drove down on the flat, controlled him, and luckily beat him before the caution came out."
Indeed, the caution flag flew again as the leaders closed Lap 195, as three-time Berlin winner Frank Kimmel (No. 44 Ansell/Menards Ford) spun between Turns 3 and 4. That caution period, which saw Merrell run first and George second under yellow over the final laps, set up a green/white restart on Lap 200. Merrell easily coasted to a 0.289-second victory on the one-lap shootout, holding George to a runner-up finish.
Grant Enfinger (No. 36 Hoosier Tire Midwest/RaceTires.com Dodge) led the opening 75 laps after winning his first career Menards Pole Award presented by Ansell, but had difficulty stretching his advantage over Merrell past one full second. Merrell, who had started third, passed Wyoming, Mich. native Brian Campbell (No. 24 Hantz Group/Wolverine Power Systems Chevrolet) on the race's opening lap when several drivers - including Dillon, Chris Buescher (No. 17 David Ragan Ford Ford), and Jeb Burton (No. 6 Eddie Sharp Racing Toyota), among others - got stacked up to bring out the race's first caution, which lasted for the first three laps.
Merrell passed Enfinger for the top spot in the first turn on Lap 76, and sped away to a 0.727-second advantage on that lap. George passed Enfinger for second two laps later. The two leaders started to stretch their advantage over the field, picking cars off of the lead lap one by one. When George looked inside Merrell - but could not pass - for the lead on Lap 92, just nine cars remained on the lead lap.
George found himself trapped behind several lapped cars on Lap 96, helping Merrell stretch his advantage to more than a second. Patrick Sheltra (No. 12 Mad Croc Energy Drink Dodge) was third, but nearly three seconds off the pace. Merrell continued to build his lead, finishing Lap 100 and the race's first half 2.737 seconds before George.
Driving before his home crowd, Campbell was able to drive off the track after suffering a flat left front tire on Lap 103, keeping the race green. However, Burton was not as lucky, as his flat tire on Lap 117 brought out the race's second caution flag and set forth a pit cycle that would arrange the order of the field for most of the race's latter portion.
Chad Hackenbracht (No. 58 Tastee Apple Chevrolet) stayed out of the pits to lead Lap 121, as George was busy beating Merrell off of pit road to take the second position. When Hackenbracht ducked onto pit road one lap later, George found himself in the first position.
George built his lead to a full second within two laps, and to three seconds by Lap 152. With 25 laps remaining, he continued to check out over the field, holding a 4.757-second lead on Merrell. Enfinger trailed in third place, but only until being passed for the position by Kimmel on Lap 183. By then, George had six lapped cars between him and Merrell - and fittingly, a six-second lead.
The Lap 189 Dillon/Youster incident, however, tightened up the field, setting the stage for the all-important third of four restarts.
ARCA Racing Series officials reviewed the Lap 200 finish to determine the order of the third- through sixth-place finishers, as several cars crossed the start/finish line backward. The digital transponder report differed from video review, with Hackenbracht and Tom Hessert (No. 52 Federated Auto Parts/Tape Wrangler Chevrolet) spinning toward an interior retaining wall.
In the end - following the start/finish line video review - Enfinger was credited with third place, Sheltra was fourth, Hackenbracht finished fifth, and Hessert ended the race sixth.
Buescher clawed back into seventh place after falling off the lead lap and recovering his position, and Kimmel finished eighth following his late accident. Michigan driver Michael Simko (No. 27 Brann's Steakhouse/Wolverine Power Systems Chevrolet) finished ninth, and Kenzie Ruston (No. 55 MelMark Pipe & Supply Toyota) repeated her debut finish at Toledo, driving home 10th.
Dillon finished 11th but maintained his points lead. Sean Corr (No. 82 Empire Racing Ford), Max Gresham (No. 25 World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park Toyota), Campbell, and Chad McCumbee (No. 1 ModSpace Ford) rounded out the top 15.
The race finished in one hour, 10 minutes, and 21 seconds, over seven minutes faster than last year's record-setting race that was won by Joey Coulter. Four caution periods slowed the race for 20 laps, and four drivers led the field.
The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards returns to action next Saturday, July 16, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. The Prairie Meadows 200 will air live on SPEED at 4:15 p.m. Central. Two practices take place Friday, July 15, from 3-4:20 and 5:30-6:20, and Menards Pole Qualifying is set for 12:10 on Saturday. All times are local.
The 200-lap, 175-mile race will be the 11th of 19 in the 2011 ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season, and the sixth at Iowa Speedway since 2006.