Berry & Whitwell Star As Duel In The Desert Opens

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LAS VEGAS – The 22nd annual Duel in the Desert opened Thursday at The Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with Tom Berry Jr. and R.C. Whitwell claiming the IMCA modified twin main events.

Michael Johnson won the IMCA Northern Sport Mod main on the first of three nights of action at the big half-mile.

A 202-car field of modifieds was joined by a record 102 sport mods, edging last year’s 303 total. Modifieds ran 20 heats and 10 B mains while sport mods had half as many preliminary races to set the 30 car fields.  The top two from each of the 30 heats moved directly to an A main.

For each preliminary main, the 10 heat winners redrew for the first five rows and second-place drivers redrew for rows six to 10.  The top-two from B mains were added to create 30 car fields.

Sport mods ran 20 laps with the top-six locked into Saturday’s $777.77 to win main.  The two modified mains were 25 laps and the top four from each going straight to the $7,777.77 to win Saturday finale.

Berry won the first of a pair of IMCA modified mains by doing something not often seen, passing multi-time event champion Terry Phillips, to earn the win.

Phillips had taken the lead on the backstretch on lap three, speeding past Jeff Aikey.  When Aikey tried the top side of turn four on lap 10, Berry was able to get underneath Aikey into turn one to take second.  Four laps later Berry drove past Phillips on the low side in turn two and led the remaining dozen laps for the win.

Berry’s $777 win after starting ninth sends him to the Saturday finale along with Phillips, Aikey and Ethan Braaksma. A last turn pass under Jeff Taylor earned the final transfer spot for Braaksma.

The second modified main only scored 13 of the 25 laps after the track lights went out except for the frontstretch. It was determined that substantial time would be needed to fix the issue and the race, having gone just over half way, would be called complete.

This worked for Whitwell as he had taken the lead on that 13th lap when Benji LaCrosse slid up the track in turn two, allowing both Whitwell and Chaz Baca to pass the Green Bay-based leader.

Whitwell’s third to first effort in turn two came at the right time for the Tucson driver to earn the Saturday finale transfer, joined by Baca, LaCrosse and Ricky Thornton Jr. Whitwell started ninth in the shortened race.

The IMCA Northern Sport Mod main was dominated by Bakersfield, Calif., driver Michael Johnson, but it was still a passing filled 20 laps.  Johnson started 10th and took just two laps to take the lead for the final 19 times around the half-mile.

Several restarts gave hope to challengers, but it always took less than a lap for Johnson to stretch his lead. The strongest challenge came from Cody Thompson following a restart with two laps remaining when a slider in turn two put Thompson ahead briefly. Johnson used a crossover move to regain the lead entering the back stretch.

Thompson finished second from 21st starting while third went to 11th-starting Guy Ahlwardt.  Coming from 16th, Jason George was fourth, 22nd starter Brandon Schmitt was fifth and the final Saturday transfer spot went to Shawn Harper.

Thursday modified winners plus another pair on Friday will redraw on the final night to set the first two rows.  Second place cars redraw for rows three and four, with third and fourth place finishers redraw to fill rows five through eight.

Friday will see the same program minus the pre-qualified cars.  Drivers that drew the back half of a Thursday heat will draw on Friday from the lower numbers so that every driver gets an equal chance to start if the front half of a heat race.