Story and audio by Steven Ovens – Photo by Mike Petrucci/RaceProWeekly.com
It’s safe to say that Billy Dunn took one on the chin Saturday during the Salute to the Troops 150 here at the ‘Moody Mile’. Dunn had worked out his pit strategy so that he could make it all the way to the end on fuel. But he fell one lap of VP Race Fuel short. As the Syracuse 200 wound down, Dunn and his crew again put him in a position to win on the mile. This race, however, they pulled it off.
There was a particularly noticeable buzz on pit road prior to today’s running of the Syracuse 200. Drivers, crews and media talked amongst each other about the rule changes put into place for the 2013 edition of the 200. In years past, it had been rules mandating a pit stop on a certain lap or mandating a pit stop with a tire change or jacking the car into the air. For 2013, the rule change for the Syracuse 200 would be all laps after 175 had to run under the green flag.
Had the race gone green to end the event, the teams wouldn’t have to think anything about it. But so many times we have come to the New York State Fairgrounds and seen the race go 201, 203 and even 210 laps due to caution laps counting and a finish under green being required. One crewmember today on pit road told me, “If you don’t plan for at least 10 extra laps, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.” What crewmember said that you ask? One of Billy Dunn’s top crew and strategy guys.
The Syracuse 200 saw Sprakers, NY driver Stewart Friesen lead the field to green with Sussex, NJ driver Brett ‘The Jet’ Hearn alongside. Friesen set the early pace with Hearn second, Jimmy Phelps 3rd and Matt Sheppard moving into the 4th position. Friesen had pulled away to a comfortable 8-10 car length lead but Hearn closed up to the back bumper while working lap traffic as they worked laps 13 and 14.
The first yellow flag of the day would come on Lap 15 as Gary Tomkins in the Pole Position Raceway #84 had a problem on the speedway. The Top 3 remained the same with ‘Lightning Larry’ Wight asserting himself into the 4th position. Sheppard slid to 5th and Tim McCreadie climbing his way to 6th at the caution.
An uncharacteristic week was seen for the NAPA Auto Parts machine of Billy Decker, who had to qualify through the Last Chance Qualifiers race Sunday morning just to make the show. Decker is a 4-time winner of the 200 and has been coined ‘Mr. Fuel Mileage’ as his wins in the late 90’s and early 2000’s saw his team stretch the fuel mileage to new lengths. By Lap 32, Decker had moved up to the 26th position and looked to use pit strategy to move up even further in the running order.
A Lap 41 caution flag for Eldon Payne’s 28p slowing on the speedway also spelled trouble for ‘Super Matt’ Sheppard. Sheppard came into the day’s events a mere 4 points behind Hearn in the Mr. Super DIRTcar series points. But the yellow flag saw Sheppard’s car with smoke pluming from the F.X. Caprara Chevy 9s. Sheppard brought it behind the wall and told Race Chaser, “I think we broke a piston. We’re done for the day. This is a big hit in points for us.”
In keeping pace with their pit strategy to move forward, Billy Decker and Kenny Tremont came down the tight Syracuse Mile pit road for their off-sequence pit stops. Some other drivers followed them but the leaders remained on the track. It appeared that the leaders were looking to go further to about Lap 80-90 before making their pit stops. Billy Dunn also pitted at Lap 44, sticking with their 2 pit stop strategy that they had laid out earlier in the week.
As the race continued, the leader began making aggressive moves to get around lap traffic. For laps 64 and 67, the moves seemed too aggressive. But that aggression shown by Friesen let him open up a wide margin on second place Hearn until a Lap 81 yellow flag slowed the field.
This brought wholesale pit stops as almost everyone in the Top 20 came down pit road, hoping that a 1-stop strategy would be enough to bring home the $50,000. Many of us in the media center and fans posting on Twitter wondered ‘Can you go 116 laps on fuel if there are cautions within the last 25 laps?’ Many of those drivers pitting on Lap 84 took that gamble. Some drivers, like Danny Johnson, even came back in on a Lap 93 yellow flag to top off and throw a fresh set of tires on.
These pit exchanges gave Vic Coffey the race lead with Kenny Tremont running second. These two drivers waged war to try and lead at Lap 100 and pick up the free Modified chassis that was up for grabs by leading that lap. Coffey would win the half-way bonus at Lap 100, but would need to make a pit stop shortly after as he had not pitted. Before Coffey had to stop for fuel, Tremont made a daring move on the outside going down the front stretch to take the lead on Lap 110.
Tremont, knowing he needed to stop again for fuel, ran as hard as he could and pulled out to a substantial lead. This left Tim McCreadie, Stewart Friesen and Brett Hearn to battle for 2nd place- and battle they did. They knew this battle would eventually be for the race lead.
Lap 139 saw Tremont make that fuel stop but the crew had trouble fueling the car, requiring the driver of the S&S Paving #115 to come down a second time for 2 cans of fuel. This put Tremont multiple laps down and essentially out of the running for a great finish.
McCreadie led Friesen and Hearn over the course of the next 25 laps and then the race started to take its twists and turns. A yellow flag on Lap 165 started to change the shape of the race. Several cars came down the pit lane at the completion of Lap 166 starting 167, including Andy Bachetti, Billy Dunn, Duane Howard, Tim Hindley and Jeff Rockefeller. Overheard on the Billy Dunn crew chatter was, “Billy, this pit stop is going to win us the race.”
As racing resumed, the race started to get yellow fever. Drivers were taking chances they normally wouldn’t take and some drivers’ frustrations began to boil over. Lap 171 saw Rockefeller spun in Turn 1, Lap 186 saw a yellow flag for debris in Turn 3. This yellow was crucial because now the drivers were making laps that did not count with the new rule put into place for the Syracuse 200. Lap 191 saw Bobby Varin stop on the racetrack in his #710 with a flat Right Rear sneaker. Under this yellow it was noted that Friesen had a Left Front tire going soft and may have been losing air.
When the field went back to green, Billy Dunn was up to 6th and charging. On his Lap 166/167 pit stop, they put in a can of VP Race Fuel and bolted on a fresh set of Soft Hoosiers so the Watertown, NY hot shoe could give it 110% until the end of the race.
McCreadie led the field to green but Friesen ‘sold the farm’ and took his #44 higher into Turn 1 than anyone had drove all day. His sprint car experience this year shined as he sailed it straight in the corner, but McCreadie muscled back by on the bottom coming out of Turn 2. As they raced into Turn 3, Friesen again went to the top shelf and completed the pass on McCreadie to take the lead. However, it wouldn’t count as Keith Flach’s car was stopped in Turn 4 and brought out another yellow.
At the same time this happened there was a nasty pileup behind the leaders that carried into the entrance of Turn 3. Several cars including Andy Bachetti, Donnie Carellis and Ronnie Johnson all sat at rest in the corner. Young star from Australia, Peter ‘Batman’ Britten came into the pileup at an incredible rate of speed and slammed into the Bachetti 34. A very scary looking crash from both the grandstands and the media center. Both drivers got out and walked away. The track was blocked with safety vehicles and the Red Flag was displayed.
Under the red flag, the leader McCreadie, reported to his crew he heard a tire actively leaking air as the cars sat in Turn 2 under the Red Flag. When the cars refired, McCreadie was forced to come down pit road as his Right Rear tire was completely flat. The 200 once again bit the World of Outlaws Late Model star as ‘TMac’ still has yet to conquer the Moody Mile in the Syracuse 200.
The field would take the green for the final time on Lap 191. Friesen with the front tire going flat led Hearn, Phelps and Billy Dunn who moved into 4th on a blazing outside move in Turn 1. Lap 193 saw Billy Decker run out of gas. Lap 197 saw Brett Hearn and Tim Fuller run out of gas.
The last 4 laps of the race were hard to keep up with. Every time you looked in a different direction, another car was falling victim to running out of gas. Lap 198 saw both Jimmy Phelps and Stewart Friesen run out of gas. Bill Dunn blew by Phelps, who at the time had the lead, to take over the lead of the Syracuse 200. The crowd, the 49 crew and the members in the media center all roared at one time. If Dunn could pull off this lose Saturday and win Sunday story, it would be a 200 that would go down as one of the most exciting finishes and great stories in recent memory.
Dunn would lead the final two circuits unchallenged; to take home the $50,000 win. Larry Wight would come home second. Ryan Godown, who told Race Chaser on Friday morning that fuel mileage, would decide the race, finished third. Surprise finishes for Tim Hindley and Duane Howard with his “Team of Rookies” came home fourth and fifth.
We have complete audio coverage, please enjoy these interviews from your Top-5:
Billy Dunn, winner of the Syracuse 200, speaks with the media after stepping off the Victory Stage
Larry Wight talks about bouncing back at Syracuse for the Gypsum Express team
Ryan Godown talked about his gamble paying off to finish 3rd
Tim Hindley talks about bringing home a finish for his underdog team
Duane Howard talks about a ‘Saturday night special’ bringing home a Top-5