PARK CITY, Kan. – Race fans waited nearly two months to attend Thursday night’s ninth annual USMTS Park City Sunflower State Showdown at 81 Speedway and they were rewarded with a barnburner from the Summit USMTS National Championship fueled by Casey’s.
Postponed in April by government restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the event returned to the calendar when elected officials in Kansas eased restrictions in late May.
With an assist from a pair of caution flags with seven laps to go, Ryan Gustin made his way into the winner’s circle at the end of a USMTS feature for the 102nd time in his 12-year career.
Piloting a Hughes Racing Chassis out of the Ramirez Motorsports stable, Gustin followed up his third-place finish Wednesday at the Lucas Oil Speedway with some late-race heroics that extinguished Tanner Mullens’ red hot run of three straight wins in five days.
Including last Saturday’s USRA Modified season opener at 81 Speedway, Mullens won Sunday at the Humboldt Speedway – home of the next stop for the series – prior to picking up his first USMTS win 24 hours ago in Wheatland, Mo.
The 27-year-old from Wichita looked to be on his way to a fourth win in a row Thursday when the yellow flag waved with three laps remaining in the 40-lap main event.
Gustin, who passed Zack VanderBeek for second moments before the caution, elected to fire off from the inside for the double-file restart despite making his advances to the front using the top side of turns one and two.
Mullens got a strong jump when the green waved while Gustin slipped back to fourth and VanderBeek jumped back into the second spot, but it was all for not as the yellow light came on again before a lap could be completed.
Gustin chose the outside lane this time and stayed close to Mullens as the pair began pulling away from the pack after a couple of laps.
With three laps to go, Gustin nailed a strong run and overtook Mullens down the backstretch before slamming the door on him in turn three.
From that point, Gustin increased his margin and beat Mullens to the checkered flag for the $2,500 top prize.
“Everybody’s just kind of running the bottom there and I figured ‘Hell we’ll give it a shot up there’ and it stuck,” Gustin said in victory lane. “To save a little momentum them guys on the outside we had to get back down in (turns) three and four.
“That yellow saved us there. Without that, Tanner would’ve won. We’ll take ’em any way we can get ’em.”
Despite enjoying arguably the best week of his racing career, Mullens was not satisfied with his runner-up finish.
“I screwed it all up down there in (turns) one and two and just stumbled a little bit,” Mullens said. “I pushed the front end out and that was the end of that. I don’t know. This sucks.”
One night earlier, Mullens was on the other end of heartbreak when misfortune found Terry Phillips with just three laps to go. His failed engine allowed Mullens to go on for the win that night.
For Vanderbeek, a third-place showing was a welcome effort after posting a 12th-place result Wednesday night, but he too was left wondering what might have been.
“I think I showed Ryan you could carry a little momentum on the start there and just kind of get position on the guy on the bottom,” VanderBeek said. “He knew what he had to do there. He was good. I wish I had went up to the top there like he did and make make the straightaway longer and diamond the corner because that’s what got him the win.”
In his second start of the season, Jake O’Neil finished fourth while three-time and defending USMTS national champ Rodney Sanders wound up fifth.
Ryan Gustin, Tanner Mullens, Zack VanderBeek, Jake O’Neil, Rodney Sanders, R.C. Whitwell, Dereck Ramirez, Cole Traugott, Darron Fuqua, Jason Hughes, Hunter Marriott, Jacob Bleess, Terry Phillips, Tyler Davis, Jake Nightingale, Calvin Iverson, Brooks Strength, Casey Skyberg, Jared Russell, Joe Duvall, Tyler Wolff, Adam Kates, Dustin Sorensen, Kevin Rutherford, Chris Kratzer, Nathan Hagar.