NATURAL BRIDGE — For three weeks Mother Nature had deprived fans and drivers of Saturday night racing at the Natural Bridge Speedway.
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She dumped a late afternoon shower on Saturday, then sent gorgeous sunshine, allowing the speedway’s dirt oval to set up heavy, tacky and fast. The large field of drivers provided a thrill-filled night of exciting racing for the large and appreciative throng in attendance.
Two drivers made it two wins in two starts on the young campaign. Another driver recovered from a wild, wild spin on the pace lap to take the checkers. Two others picked their way through large fields to claim victory, and another was dominant from flag-to-flag.
The Bridge wasted no time jumping back into heavy action, opening the show with a 50-lap Sportsman feature. Pole-sitter Mike Bryant of Shipman had the 14-car field covered for the first 13 laps and was steadily increasing his margin when his machine burst into flames on lap 14, forcing him into the pits where fellow drivers quickly moved in to help extinguish the blaze.
Richard Wells, who had moved steadily from sixth to second, assumed the point after Bryant’s misfortune and showed impressive power and handling, staying in front of the field through several restarts during the remaining laps. The victory was the second for the Gladstone driver in two starts this season and leaves him atop the Sportsman points standings.
Tim Stalnaker of Natural Bridge rolled home second after hooking up with third-place Chris Barger of Buena Vista for some exciting side-by-side racing in the latter laps of the feature, swapping positions on several occasions.
Lexington’s Troy Fitzgerald emulated Wells’ accomplishment by making it two-for-two in the Street Stock division. Clinton Mays led for the first half of the 25-lap feature before spinning out, allowing Fitzgerald to surge to the lead on lap 12. Keith Nelson of Madison Heights ran second to Fitzgerald until lap 20 when reigning Street Stock champion David Brogan of Fincastle completed his move from his ninth starting position to Fitzgerald’s rear bumper. However, Fitzgerald was able to block the door, and Brogan finished second with Nelson garnering third.
Starting on the front row of the 35-lap Late Model feature, Covington’s David Bennett got into some slick stuff on the pace lap between turns one and two, took three spins, left the track and disappeared over the hill. He motored back up onto the track, got back in line and took the green flag like nothing had ever happened.
Pole sitter Damien Wilson of Shawsville showed great strength and led the first 29 laps before spinning out on lap 30. Bennett took advantage and cruised to the lead, pulling away from runner-up Ricky Knight of Gladstone to grab the checkers. Lexington’s David Sibold came home third.
Starting tenth in a 19-car field, Lexington’ Fred Clark skillfully maneuvered his car to fourth place at the end of lap 1 and to the front of the Any Car pack on lap 3 of the 20-lap feature. Clark was never seriously threatened as he pulled away for the win. Finishing second was Lexington’s Jamie Wright, who won the division’s season opener. Lexington’s James Fitzgerald claimed third.
Ricky Fox wheeled off a dominant performance in rolling to victory in the 4-cylinder division, grabbing a flag-to-flag win. Stephen Campbell and Kenneth Clark were second and third, respectively, in the 15-lap feature.
Capping off the show was a 25-lap Pure Stock feature that saw 24 cars take the green flag and then provide the fans with some bumper banging excitement. Two- and three-wide racing was commonplace as was the spectator breath-holding that occurred while watching such tight racing.
On lap 9, Lee Brooks, Danny Bryant and Rick Mayberry, all of whom started deep in the field, had motored to the front and rolled side-by-side with Bryant emerging with the lead with Mayberry second and Brooks third. On lap 16, Brooks made a powerful move high in tun 2 and cruised past Mayberry and Bryant into the lead, which he held until taking the checkers.
Bryant was disqualified as he failed post-race inspection with an engine infraction. Mayberry was awarded second, and Todd Garrett of Evergreen finished third.
Racing continues Saturday at the speedway with a special Pure Stock feature highlighting the program. The first bicycle races of the season will also be held. Gates open at 4 p.m. with the first green flag scheduled for 7 p.m.