SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Brett Hearn lost Saturday’s Gander Mountain 150 when his car’s gas tank ran dry less than two laps from the end.
Sunday, in the VP Small Engines Fuel 200, he was leading with a gallon or two left when rain sent the field to pit road just past halfway and eventually gave him the $50,000 win, closing out Super DIRT Week on a note of redemption.
“I kept thinking about yesterday and telling myself it couldn’t happen twice,” exclaimed Hearn. “I’ve probably got ten laps or so left but that would have been it.”
Hearn and a number of other contenders had been playing the “rain game” since early on but until it actually poured, nobody knew how their gamble would turn out. Matt Sheppard, Jimmy Phelps, Justin Haers and Pat Ward rounded out the top five and all were nervous, knowing they’d passed the 100-lap mark where a race could be declared over but that it could also be restarted.
“We saved fuel by just riding around. If I’d pushed it, we’d have run out. But now that we’ve played that game, if they restart it we’re in a tough situation,” offered Sheppard as he happily watched it rain.
“I had guys watching the radar on a laptop and guys up top looking at the sky,” explained Hearn. “I knew I had the best car and used that to take control of the race, but after that we just had to wait it out. We had two game plans and I would have preferred to use the other one but this worked out OK.”
Fast-qualifier Billy Decker had led off the original green with the third-starting Hearn running easily in second until lap seven, when he decided to take command.
“I sat behind Billy until I figured out where I could beat him off the corner, then I went for it,” Hearn explained. “I wanted to control the pace. Being the leader let me keep the race pace slow and also kept me in clean air. Setting the pace really saves fuel.”
Bobby Varin also passed Decker early on and he shadowed Hearn around the New York State Fairround mile as they cruised easily while others tussled behind them. Tim Fuller clawed his way from 16th to the lead pack, picking off cars one by one, and at lap 75 the top 10 included Hearn, Varin, Decker, Phelps, Sheppard, Fuller, Haers, Ward, Ryan Godown and Tim Hindley.
But by then it was misting and the packed grandstand knew teams would have to choose between a fuel mileage strategy aimed at getting to halfway and having rain stop the race or being ready to run out the 200 laps if it cleared.
Fuller went for an early end, blasting around Sheppard and Phelps to show fourth at the halfway point while Decker pitted on lap 101 to have gas for an extended run. Then Varin ran dry on lap 103, making everyone even more nervous.
Lap 105 brought another caution when a car slowed on the backstretch and a dozen cars pitted, making their mandatory tire change and refueling for a long run. But by the time they’d returned to the track at the tail of the field, the mist turned to drizzle and word spread that the radar showed a heavy rain band in the area.
On lap 113, the slowly circling cars were sent to pit road, just as Fuller, running second, ran dry and coasted to the pits for a quick splash of fuel, a stop that would put him far back in the finishing order. Then it poured.
“We were waiting for enough rain that they’d stop it but I couldn’t see anything for about the last 30 laps,” offered Phelps. “Water was getting between my tear offs and I couldn’t see anything!”
“It was a tough deal,” agreed Ward. “You couldn’t see anything, I had about a half gallon of gas left and it was so slippery you couldn’t tough the throttle at all.”
After 20 minutes, it was obvious that the race could not safely be restarted, so the running order became the official finish. Hearn had his sixth Syracuse win, some 17 years after his last one and 27 years after the first. And at age 54, he replaced Frank Cozze, who won at 43, as the oldest winner of the prestigious event.
Danny Johnson was sixth ahead of Saturday winner Tim McCreadie, Jeff Strunk, Alan Johnson and Billy Dunn.
In preliminary action, Rocky Warner made a thrilling last lap pass of fast qualifier and race-long leader Mathieu Dejardins to claim the 30-lap Sportsman championship. He moved steadily forward from 11 starting spot to show fourth by lap 20, then got alongside the leader just as the white flag waved and finally took command off turn two. Cody McPherson, Chris Herbison and Jimmy Spellmon completed the top five.