MERCED, Calif. — East Coaster David Gravel doesn’t have many laps around Merced Speedway, but after Friday night at the central California bullring you would think he grew up at the track.
Gravel charged around the outside of Kyle Hirst on lap 25 and led the remaining 15 circuits to earn the third World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series victory of his career.
Gravel, last season’s Kevin Gobrecht Rookie of the Year, put his ART Enterprises/FMR racing No. 83sa in the winner’s circle ahead of Tim Kaeding, who stormed past several cars in the waning laps of the event to earn a runner-up finish in his Roth Motorsports No. 83 while Kaeding’s teammate Hirst finished third in the No. 83jr car, creating a podium sweep for the 83s.
Joey Saldana was fourth while World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series championship leader Paul McMahan rounded out the top five.
Gravel, whose car honored the late Stephen Allard, was quick from the beginning, resetting the track record and qualifying atop the 32-car field. A fifth-place dash finish set his starting position in the feature.
Hirst jumped to the lead from the pole. Kerry Madsen slowly began to run down Hirst and was on his bumper on lap nine when a caution waved for Sammy Swindell, whose impressive attempt to run his unbeaten World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series streak at Merced came to an unfortunate end.
On the ensuing restart, Madsen shadowed Hirst and began to look for the lead on lap 12. Two laps later Madsen went around Hirst to lead lap 14.
Mason Moore and Steve Kinser made contact exiting turn two in front of the field on lap 18. Madsen was beginning to cruise and was trying to lap cars when Moore and Kinser got together, leaving Madsen with nowhere to go but upside down to bring out a red flag. Madsen, who won last week at Stockton in his American Racing Custom Wheels car, would rejoin the field, but in a heavily damaged car that resulted in a 20th-place finish.
On the lap 18 restart, Hirst inherited the lead. Brad Sweet pushed through the field and picking up a pair of positions and charging to the third position, but a spin in turn four triggered another full restart. That’s when Gravel began to shadow second-place-running Saldana. Gravel snuck by on lap 20, then on 23 with was Hirst leading, Gravel and Saldana all went for the lead. Gravel stole the advantage on lap 24 around the outside of three and four. Immediately after Gravel crossed the line with the lead on lap 25 the caution was thrown for a stopped Madsen.
Gravel handled the next restart and went on to lead the remainder of the race to earn third World of Outlaws STP Sprint Car Series victory. He’s also won at the Talladega (Ala.) Dirt Track and I-94 Speedway in Fergus Falls, Minn.
“Brad (Sweet) showed me the way around, then the yellow came out and I got real lucky there,” admitted the young driver from Watertown, Conn. “Starting out the race in fifth, I got into fourth in the beginning and I just road around. Madsen used the top in three and four and got the lead and I figured I had to do that at some point. I had to wait until it was the right time. Everything worked out and we got the lead. Lap traffic worked our way, cautions worked our way and we got the victory.”
Tim Kaeding thrilled the crowd with a huge move in the closing laps of the race in an effort that eventually moved the San Jose, Calif., native up to second place after starting 12th. Kaeding used the outside of the track to charge from fifth to second from laps 36 to 39.
“We had a great race car all night, just kind of started in the back there,” Kaeding said. “We moved up a little bit and did the big pray and hoped that it stuck. Somehow it did and we ended up in second. I’m trying to figure out how. It’s great for the season we’ve been having.”
Hirst rounded out the top three after leading the event early.
“You hate when people go around you, I’m OK with people going underneath me,” said Hirst. “When they go around you it sucks, I’m not sure if I should’ve moved up, but that’s something I need to do as a driver and just move around. They outdrove me to tonight, congratulations to them and we’ll try again tomorrow.”