MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — On many occasions over recent years, Kyle Larson has left Williams Grove Speedway with a sour taste, either defeated or, in some ways, embarrassed.
The historic paper-clip half-mile will eat drivers and crew for lunch if there’s no real feel for it, and that was Larson for too long, until Friday.
On a night that seemed the stars would align for Lance Dewease to secure his long-awaited 100th victory at the track, Larson flipped the script.
Larson mastered Williams Grove at last, scrapping to earn his first career win at the speedway in the $15,000-to-win Mitch Smith Memorial. He led the final eight laps of 30 and, fittingly, earned a 2.248-second victory over Dewease.
“[This win] ranks up there really high,” Larson said. “It’s been a tough place for me in the past. The first few times I came here, I sucked. The Pennsylvania Posse fans have always been really tough on me coming here. To have a strong week like we’ve had and get Williams Grove really puts a statement on this team.”
It’s a statement with an exclamation point, or two, or maybe even three. Larson exited round eight of nine on Friday with an 184-point over Danny Dietrich, which is two points away from clinching it by an entire race since 185 points is the max one can accumulate throughout a night.
Much like Larson’s laborious rise from California bullrings to the winner’s circle on unconventional Pennsylvania half-mile tracks, he had to work for all of it. Even though he started the feature in third, he fell to sixth on an ensuing restart for a five-car incident involving Brock Zearfoss, Chase Dietz, Jeff Halligan, Matt Campbell and Mike Wagner.
By then, with rain having delayed the program for a good hour, making the race surface stickier than normal, Larson didn’t know what to think when he filed behind Brian Montieth in the early going.
“I thought I’d be stuck,” Larson said.
But by the time Larson reached the start-finish line for lap two, he had already maneuvered around Montieth and Rico Abreu to take hold of fourth. Two laps after that, he powered around T.J. Stutts and then battled Dewease most of the race for second while Marks led 20 laps in between.
With 12 laps to go, Larson slipped by Dewease for second and moved to within a second of Marks, the race leader.
“I had to work for it for sure,” Larson said. “Had to get by some good cars there and get by Lance, who’s been the best here for a long time. It was good.”
Then, rounding the start-finish line for lap 23, Larson plotted his pass for the lead. On the backstretch a half a lap prior, Marks approached the lapped car of Tim Wagaman rather quickly and needed to duck to Wagaman’s inside going into turn three. Marks slid back up the track and maintained the top, but Larson timed his pass around Wagaman a step better. Instead of changing his line, Larson stayed on the bottom and didn’t flinch, generating a head of steam as the two barreled into turn one with eight laps to go.
Larson, who had control of the inside, planned a slide job for Marks, who occupied the top. But Marks stayed low and the two eventually made contact. It wasn’t intentional, but Marks was booted up the track and Larson drove right by him.
“I was expecting Marks to go back up there, so I was going to commit to sliding him in [turns] one and two,” Larson said. “He lifted and I was already committed. I’m just glad we didn’t both wreck. … I hit him and I didn’t mean to.”
Before the rain moved in, the conditions were playing into the hands of Dewease — sweltering weather and a hard racing surface. But once rain moved in, it changed the whole complexion of the night.
“We weren’t good at all tonight,” Dewease said. “This deal for us isn’t good to have it that wet. When the straightaways stay that wet, we hook up too hard and can’t get down the straightaways fast enough. Then we’re not right in the corners. We knew when that rain came we would be hurting a little bit.”
“But Kyle did shock me when he got by me there,” Dewease said. “‘I think the best car won the race tonight.”
“We had the best car,” Larson said. “[The rain] made the track, at least for me, better with my driving style,” Larson said. “You can be more aggressive because there’s more moisture in it. If the rain hadn’t come, it would’ve been really slick and that’s where Lance is really good here.”
Feature (30 laps): 1. Kyle Larson. 2. Lance Dewease. 3. Brent Marks. 4. Rico Abreu. 5. Freddie Rahmer. 6. Danny Dietrich. 7. Ryan Smith. 8. TJ Stutts. 9. Chad Trout. 10. Lucas Wolfe. 11. Sammy Swindell. 12. Kyle Reinhardt. 13. Brian Montieth. 14. Robbie Kendall 15. Kyle Moody. 16. Tim Wagaman. 17. Tyler Beard. 18. Rick Lafferty. 19. Brock Zearfoss. 20. Anthony Macri. 21. Mike Wagner. 22. Chase Dietz. 23. Matt Campbell. 24. Jeff Halligan.
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