By: Bobby Sweeney
VERNON, NY – Erick Rudolph clawed his way past Mat Williamson in the late stages of the DIRTcar 358-Modified Series race at Utica-Rome, scoring his first win on the tour this season.
Mat Williamson and Todd Root ran door-to-door in the opening laps of the St. Lawrence Radiology 100, swapping the lead the first few circuits. It wasn’t until lap five that Williamson finally cleared Root, but didn’t get a chance to pull away as a lap seven yellow for Lance Willix kept Williamson in check. On the restart, Billy Dunn drove from fourth to second, railing the cushion past Root and Erick Rudolph. A few laps later, Rudolph also made his way past Root and went chasing after Dunn for second.
Williamson originally built up a two second lead over Dunn and Rudolph, but the lead had visibly shrunk as the race hit the one-quarter mark. A lap 28 yellow for a slowing Ryan Bartlett erased what lead Williamson had, but the top three remained status quo when racing resumed. One more caution for a slow car on lap 38 stalled the action, but on this restart, Rudolph wasn’t content with the lane he had been running.
Prior to the caution, the top three had all been railing the cushion on the rather tacky surface, especially tacky considering the recent heat wave. Rudolph dropped low on the restart, diving under Dunn for second on lap 44. After slipping to third, Dunn fell many more spots in a hurry, as a flat left rear sent him to the pits on lap 46, drawing a yellow in the process.
Mike Mahaney was the new third place car, but couldn’t quite keep pace with the top two. By lap 60, Williamson had stabilized a steady, but slim, five car-length lead over Rudolph, and it was a ways further back to Mahaney and company. Rudolph stayed within striking distance as the laps clicked off, but nearly had the lead handed to him. On lap 66, a lapped car spun in the middle of turns three and four, stopping right in Williamson’s lane. Williamson got the car slowed up, but still clipped the stopped car with his right rear tire. Despite the scare, Williamson kept the lead on the restart, and yet another caution flew on lap 72 as Mahaney slowed from third with a flat left rear, the same scenario as Dunn earlier.
By this point in the race, Williamson and Rudolph had well-established lanes. Rudolph went low in one and two while Williamson went high, but both ran the middle to top in three and four. Critical information for the lap 75 restart, as both drivers went to their respective lines in one and two, and ended up side-by-side down the backstretch. Rudolph shot it hard into turn three, sliding up in front of Williamson to take the lead.
Once out front, Rudolph wasted no time building up a lead, but a lap 83 yellow for a spinning lapped car erased what he had. It didn’t take long for Rudolph to reestablish his gap and then some, as he ditched Williamson and took off the second the green flag dropped.
Behind Williamson was a heck of a fight for third. Dunn, all the way from the back, was beating the cushion to pieces up top, while Corey Wheeler was making good work on the bottom. Third place Pat Ward was left to fend off both of these challenges, and each time he gave up the position to Wheeler and/or Dunn, he snatched it right back. The brawl lasted the final fifteen laps of the race, and while fun to watch, was certainly not as much fun as Rudolph was having. After 100 laps, the checkered flag fell over Erick Rudolph, claiming his first DIRTcar 358-Modified Series win of the year. Mat Williamson crossed in second, while Pat Ward nosed out Corey Wheeler for third. Fifth place was Billy Dunn, who held off a last lap charge by Mike Mahaney, who pitted with 17 laps left and restarted tail.
“I was a little concerned early,” Rudolph said. “It seemed like the top two were a little bit faster than us. As the race went on, the track came to us a little bit, and we were able to get here to victory lane. Just have to try as hard as you can every lap. Yeah, it’s 100 laps but it’ll be over before you know it.”
Mat Williamson had won five of his last six events, including three in a row on the 358-Modified Series before tonight. He led a race-high 73 laps, but finished a rather dejected second.
“Erick had a good car, he was better than we were at the end,” stated Williamson. “I think I got some damage from hitting the lapped car that spun out in front of me, but I could give you a bunch of excuses as to why we didn’t win. It is what it is, we’ll load it up and come back next race.”
Pat Ward started eleventh and quietly worked his way up. Getting to third was quiet and uneventful, but Ward needed to fight hard to stay there.
“We came up through there fairly well, the car wasn’t super good but it was working well for me,” said Ward. “When we got towards the end, I had Dunn and the 47 (Wheeler) all over me, that was a heck of a race we were having.”