IRWINDALE SPEEDWAY OPENS SEASON WITH K&N WEST THRILLER - BY TIM KENNEDY
Irwindale, CA., Mar. 22 – Irwindale Speedway opened its 15th season Saturday with a three division NASCAR event topped by the touring K & N Pro Series-West NAPA Auto Parts 150. K & N rookie Patrick Staropoli, a 24-year old visitor from Florida, won the K & N 150-lap feature on his first visit to the banked Irwindale half-mile. Super stock 30-lap and 40-lap Irwindale Race Truck all-green flag support races for track points preceded the K & N feature. Victories went to 2013 S/S track champion Zack Green and past truck champion Ryan Partridge.
Staropoli became the sixth and final race leader on lap 137 in a wild finish. Nearly all positions changed after the fourth caution of the race. Drivers used high, low and middle lines to snake their way to the front during the final 14 circuits. Fifth fastest qualifier Staropoli, driving the No. 99 Bill McAnally PEAK Toyota, beat runner-up David Mayhew by 1.551 seconds. Third fastest qualifier Greg Pursley, a 46-year old past Irwindale champion, ran second from lap 138-144. He barely retained third spot over pressing Brandon McReynolds and Dylan Lupton. McReynolds, 22-year old son of FOX-TV racing analyst Larry McReynolds, was the fastest qualifier/pole starter and leader of lap 1 and 3-26.
Rounding out the top ten were: Giles Thornton, Idaho's Brett Thompson, the lap 27-128 leader, double-duty driver Partridge, the lap 129-136 leader, Arizonan Taylor Cuzick and Carlos Vieira. Twenty-three of 26 starters finished with 16 drivers on the lead lap. Nine series rookies started and six drivers were making their first start at Irwindale. The race took 60 minutes and averaged 74.794 mph. The series 150-lap track record is 75.664 mph set in 2004. It was the first K & N West victory for Toyota Camry in the 22nd K & N West event at Irwindale.
McReynolds, from Mooresville, N. C., made his Irwindale debut in McAnally's No. 16 NAPA Toyota. He used the top groove to lead the opening lap. Pursley shot under him and led lap 2 “to earn points early for leading” before settling back to save his tires. Early chargers were 11th starter Thompson and 13th starter Partridge, who used the inside groove to reach ninth by lap 7, seventh at lap 14, fifth by lap 16, third on lap 18 and second on lap 28. Thompson reached P. 4 on lap 16 and second two laps later. He used an inside pass to take the lead from McReynolds on lap 27.
The initial caution (laps 34-39) followed a solo spin. The last place car spun on lap 55, causing caution to lap 64. The two leaders had opened half a straightaway advantage over third place prior to the lap 55 yellow. A spin on lap 121 caused another two by two restart. Leader Thompson lagged on the start after he used a higher gear for the restart after spinning his wheels on prior restarts. Partridge, driving the No. 77 Toyota in his K & N debut, led lap 129 but the caution flag flew on the next lap.
Jessica Brunelli, a 21-year old Hayward resident, started 16th and ran an impressive P. 4 from lap 73-110. The formula car, USAC Ford Focus midget, S2 stock car, and modified racer had her No. 88 Ford still in P. 5 on lap 121 when it was hit and spun “by the 9 car and then finished by the 26 car”. It occurred during close racing in heavy traffic as cars jostled for position on the front straight. Her car spun into K-rails lining the inside edge of the front straight just past start/finish. She lost two laps under caution and finished 18th.
Staropoli's route to victory from fifth starting slot was interesting and indicative of the “comers and goers” nature of the race. He was third on lap 1, second from lap 3-17, fifth on lap 18, seventh on lap 25, eighth at lap 28, ninth on lap 42, 13th on lap 50, tenth at lap 65, fifth two laps later, tenth at lap 83, P. 8 at the century mark, fifth on lap 115, fourth at the lap 121 caution, second on the lap 129 green flag and first from lap 137-150. Winner Staropoli told the crowd, “I've watched races from this track on TV and wanted to race here. It's a privilege. This is an awesome track.” He thanked car owner McAnally (from Northern California) and Michael Waltrip for his development driver contract.
Last year Staropoli won a “PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge” contest that attracted 800 entries. He only had five prior K & N Series starts before his Irwindale debut. He had two top tens in three K & N East starts, plus two races in K & N West where he had two top ten finishes, including a top five. The happy winner was on his cell phone calling family shortly after the 9:36 pm checkered flag. Staropoli is a neurobiology summa cum laude graduate (top 10% in his class) from Harvard University. He currently is in his second year of medical school at the University of Miami. His next scheduled race for McAnally is May 17 at Iowa Speedway in a combined K & N West and East Series race.
Second and third fastest qualifiers Mayhew and Pursley used a similar strategy by fading back to P. 14-17 to save tires for a closing rush in the final 50 laps. Many drivers were unexpectedly running strongly including teams new to Irwindale, which last hosted K & N West cars in July 2011. Mayhew and Purlsey admitted they questioned their strategy to hang back until the final 50 laps. Pursley said, “It was tough to get through there. I was too loose at the end.” Mayhew stated, “I had the same plan as Greg. I got up to 12th and stalled out. A couple of caution enabled us to get back to the front. You had to pass four or five cars at a time at the end. My car got too tight late.”
TRUCKS: IRT drivers used a four truck inversion, putting past truck champion Partridge, 25, on the pole in Steve Latina's Toyota. Quickest qualifier Joey Licata, Jr. started fourth. Following a complete restart after a one truck spin on the initial lap, the race ran 40 green flag laps in 15 minutes. Partridge led every lap and won by 0.969 over Licata. His 35th IS feature triumph moved him into sole possession of fifth place on the list of most prolific winners at the speedway. Todd Cameron, Lucas McNeil and Luis Martinez, Jr. completed the top five. All 15 starters finished, with 11 on the lead lap. The winning speed was 75.568 mph. Race Liberante's original third place truck was disqualified during post-race tech inspection for using a non-legal carburetor.
SUPER STOCKS: Nine super stocks (eight Chevy Camaros and an Impala SS) started. Curtis White led the first 11 laps from outside row one. Eighth starter Green, 22, put his Camaro into the lead with an inside pass in turn four during lap 12. He won by 0.904 over fastest qualifier/fourth starter Gary Read. They had a straightaway advantage over third finisher Gary Frankovich, from Apple Valley. White and Henry Miles followed as the top seven drivers completed all 30 laps.
Irwindale Events Center President/CEO Jim Cohan announced the good news to all present prior to the first race that the facility's landlord, Lindom Co., has extended the operating lease for IEC beyond 2014 to include the 2015 season. The next racing event at Irwindale Speedway on April 5 will feature four divisions and five events, including twin features for Lucas Oil Late Models. A fireworks show is on tap as well. The entertaining March 22 K & N West 150 was taped for telecast on the FOX-Sports 1 Network Friday, April 4 from 9:00-10:00 am PDT.
NASCAR GUESTS: With NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series nearby at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, several drivers and NASCAR officials came to Irwindale to watch classic Saturday night short track stock car racing action. Suite guests included Cup driver David Gilliland and in his first Irwindale visit Jeff Gordon (in Bob Bruncati's suite). Gordon's step-father, John Bickford, had his nephew James Bickford, 16, competing in the K & N 150. The 2013 Roseville, CA late model champion from Napa drove Bruncati's No. 6 Ford to fourth fastest qualifying time in his second K & N event. It is the car Derek Thorn drove to the 2013 K & N West championship. Cup driver Clint Bowyer also visited Irwindale for this first time and waved the green flag for the super stock main at 7:00. Chase Elliott and his NASCAR Cup champion father Bill attended. Chase, 18, finished sixth in the NNS Fontana 300 Saturday afternoon. In that race USAC's Irwindale USAC Turkey Night Midget GP 2011 rookie of the year Kyle Larson, 21, won his first NNS race. He earned $68,800 for his thrilling victory over pressing Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Chase called Irwindale an awesome track and said the top groove seemed to be fastest. Larry McReynolds was in the pits helping his son Brandon. Brett Bodine, a retired NASCAR Cup driver and current NASCAR official, also visited IS to watch upcoming K & N drivers compete.