MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Gerald Benton took advantage of a little luck and a late-race dash to score his first-career Southeast Limited Late Model Series victory in Friday’s Daytona 1 Challenger division feature at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
In addition, by simply starting the Race Chaser 50, fourth-generation driver Thad Moffitt – grandson of seven-time NASCAR Premier Series champion Richard Petty – clinched the division championship in his rookie season.
Benton assumed the lead under caution with 14 laps to go in the 50-lap main event, after outside polesitter and race-long leader Alex Reece pitted for a flattening tire, falling out of contention for the win in his series debut.
From there, Benton held off a furious late charge from Ty Gibbs, the grandson of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Joe Gibbs, for the biggest win of his career and a trip to Myrtle Beach victory lane.
“We just had a good car,” Benton said in victory lane. “It was a little tight in the center, but I do think that helped me not to burn the tires off at the end of the race. I hate that the 18 (Reece) had that tire problem, because I still think we had a car that could have raced him for the win, but we just bided our time and it all worked out.”
Adam Congrove started from the pole but lost the lead to Reece by the end of the opening lap, with Reece opening up a near-one second advantage before the first caution of the night flew at lap 11, when Congrove got into the back of Lexi Gay and spun the both of them out in turn two.
The contact meant that both drivers would restart at the tail of the field, while Reece led the field back to green ahead of Moffitt and Gibbs.
The calm only lasted a lap, before a multi-car incident on the frontstretch eliminated the cars of Congrove, Gay, John Gustafson and Miguel Cesar Jr. among the casualties – forcing a red flag for cleanup.
After a six-minute delay, the race resumed with Benton beginning his charge to the front, taking third from Gibbs as Reece and Moffitt settled into the top two spots.
Benton would wait until the halfway lap to make the move on Moffitt for second, just before more trouble for Gay brought out the race’s third caution and set up the first challenge to Reece’s dominance all night long.
On the lap 26 restart, Benton gave a challenge to Reece’s No. 18 off turn two, but the former Legends car standout responded by holding the lead and setting the race’s fastest lap (21.988 seconds) the next time by the flagstand.
The gap would remain the same until a two-car melee in turn two with 14 to go eliminated both Clifton Black and Kevin Ellis, seting up the race’s sprint run to the finish.
After Reece’s deflating left front tire forced him pitside for service, Benton commanded the final run, holding off Gibbs by 0.665 seconds at the checkered flag.
Lee Faulk Racing rookie Omar Jurado finished third ahead of Mark Goins and Moffitt, whose solid night completed his championship season.
Through the series’ seven-race season, Moffitt scored one victory at Anderson Motor Speedway in August, which kicked off a string of four top-five finishes to close his season.
The championship marks the first time a member of the Petty family has won a major series title in their rookie season of racing.
“Starting off the year, we had it rough. I never imagined that we would even be in position for a championship come November, let alone winning a championship,” Moffitt admitted. “It’s an awesome feeling and a great end to our year. I have to thank all the folks at Empire Racing (crew chief) Grumpy (Cheeks) … my mom and dad, Transportation Impact, JACOB Companies and everyone that’s been on board and supported me throughout the season. I can’t believe we did it. I really can’t. This is amazing.”
Reece rallied from 19th to finish seventh over the final run.