BAYTOWN, Texas -- With the two winningest drivers in USMTS history out of the picture, Thursday night’s opener of the 4th Annual Texas Winter Nationals at the Houston Raceway Park turned into a battle between two members of today’s youth movement in America’s premier dirt modified touring series.
From the outside of the front row, Rodney Sanders grabbed the lead from polesitter Chase Allen to lead the first lap of the 30-lap main event.
Sporting a new powerplant from Geddes Racing Engines, Sanders appeared ready to add to his late-season fund-raising tour that includes a $10,000 win in Las Cruces, N.M., two weeks ago and a $10,000 victory in September in Fountain City, Wis.
While the 21-year-old from Happy, Texas, paced the first seven laps, Zack VanderBeek was narrowing the gap with each passing lap and nosed in front of Sanders as they completed the eighth lap.
The two ran virtually side by side for the next nine laps when the race’s second caution flag waved on lap 17 just as the leaders had caught the tail end of the field and were preparing to deal with lapped traffic.
On the restart, VanderBeek again held off Sanders while Chris Brown followed in third behind the wheel of Kelly Shryock’s back-up car and several others jockeying for positions throughout the field.
VanderBeek continued to turn flawless laps but Sanders kept VanderBeek with two car-lengths during the next 11 laps when the final yellow flag was unfurled to set up a green-white-checkered finish.
After quietly working his way to fifth from the 15th starting spot, Ryan Gustin became a factor during the final two laps as he churned the moist dirt on the high side of the racing surface.
Gustin, age 20, picked off two cars over the last two laps, but was unable to reel in Sanders or the 26-year-old from New Sharon, Iowa, who went on to score his second career win at the Houston Raceway Park and pocket the $2,000 top prize.
Brown held on for third while Tracy Denby Jr. raced from 25th on the 26-car starting grid to fifth at the finish. Denby’s career-best USMTS finish earned him the PBM Performance Products Hard Charger Award and also put him in the driver’s seat to capture this year’s Dustin Duncan Memorial “Just Say Yes” Rookie of the Year Award.
Sixth through tenth went to Clyde Dunn Jr., 22nd-starting Randy Timms, Bobby Malchus, Howard Willis and Shane Hebert, respectively.
Noticeably missing from the top ten finishers were Jason Hughes and Kelly Shryock – the two winningest drivers in USMTS history and only ones with multiple wins at the 3/8-mile clay oval in Baytown, Texas.
Shryock fell victim to a broken wheel bearing in his heat race, and then wound up one spot short of earning a transfer spot into the “A” Main after a stout run from the rear of the second Real Racing Wheels “B” Main.
It was the first time the nine-time USMTS National Champion and 2007 USMTS Southern Series titleist failed to qualify for the main event in 67 starts this season.
Hughes, who came into the night’s festivities with a hefty lead over Shryock in the points standings, saw his hopes for a fifth career win at the Houston Raceway Park disappear on the first lap of the main event when he was involved in a four-car melee that brought about the first caution of the 30-lap nightcap.
Nonetheless, Shryock’s misfortune allowed Hughes to add even more to his advantage and can clinch his third straight USMTS Southern Series crown just by taking the green flag in his heat race on Friday and Saturday.
Timms closed to within two markers of Shryock, while Sanders also made up ground in the standings and sits in the fourth spot.
Morgan Bagley, Gustin, Bumper Jones, Steve Holzkamper, Hebert and Steven Whiteaker Jr. round out the top ten in the points standings with two more nights left to go.