HUMBOLDT, Kan. – Ryan Gustin is known to most everybody in the dirt modified racing world as ‘The Reaper,’ but until next March you can call him ‘The King.’
After taking the lead from polesitter Terry Phillips on lap 25, Gustin held off several challengers over the final 75 circuits Saturday night at the Humboldt Speedway to win the main event at the King of America III Modified Nationals.
With the first three starting spots occupied by the three drivers with the most experience in long-distance dirt late model races, the advantage before the green flag belonged to them in the first-ever 100-lap United States Modified Touring Series race.
The opening lap saw the trio of Phillips, Jeremy Payne and Al Purkey take charge, but by the seventh lap Gustin had moved into second to challenge Phillips for control of the race.
For the first quarter of the race, the field of 24 starters tested multiple lines on the three-eighths-mile clay oval. While Gustin was studying his favored high line, Phillips used the bottom and middle of the surface to pace the first 25 laps.
Phillips lapped his first competitor with 24 laps complete and faced a hive of back-markers just ahead. Two laps later, Gustin used a lapped car to power around the inside of Phillips and then streaked beneath the flagstand as the leader of lap 26.
Meanwhile, Payne kept the leaders within sight as last year’s King of America runner-up, Zack VanderBeek, raced with Jason Hughes and Chris Brown for a spot in the top 5.
Phillips, who led the first 15 laps of this event one year ago, never let Gustin get out of reach and shadowed the two-time defending USMTS national champion every orbit the first caution flag since the fifth laps waved with 73 laps in the books.
Like a shark smelling blood in the water, the front-runners made their moves when green flag racing resumed. Brown jumped past Payne for third, but Payne used the low line to regain that spot as well as second place from Phillips.
Payne challenged Gustin on the low side of the track, but Gustin remained flawless and held Payne at bay while Brown shuffled Phillips back to fourth. Six laps later, Hughes stopped on the track to bring out the final yellow flag of the contest, but was able to return for the restart with fresh tires.
Back under green, Gustin continued to dive low in turns one and two and then shoot to the top of the track and dance with the wall in turns three and four. Meanwhile, Brown made a strong run in turn 3 and moved ahead of Payne and into second place.
About this time, Joey Jensen made his presence known. After clawing his way through the “C” and “B” Mains to get a spot in the big dance, Jensen wrestled fourth away from Phillips as the top five crossed the start-finish line less than a second apart with 15 laps to go.
With 10 laps remaining, Brown was all over Gustin. While Gustin was stronger in turns 1-2, Brown was flying through the third turn and nosed underneath Gustin each time around.