Chad Simpson officially became a two time Lucas Oil MLRA Series Champion on Saturday night, piloting his GATR Truck Center/Liebe Trucking #25 to a picture-perfect finish which marked his third series win of the season and netted him the 2018 season Championship. The win was worth $5,000, plus an additional $500 bonus in memory of the late Ron Jenkins, the Wheatland Raceway’s original builder.
Night one of the 5th Annual Fall Nationals suffered from rain, so track crews worked throughout Saturday to prepare the track for the 44 car field which would invade Lucas Oil Speedway that night. Simpson entered the weekend with a tight 24-point advantage over six-time feature winner Will Vaught of Crane, MO.
Tony Jackson, Jr. fired from the pole beside last year’s Fall Nationals winner, Jesse Stovall, and paced the early laps before trouble beset contender Vaught. Exiting turn two on lap four, Jackson slowed, bunching up the pack and resulting in contact between Vaught and Logan Martin. Though able to continue, both drivers had to re-start from the rear.
Stovall took command at this point, but was saddled with multiple short run re-starts. Finally able to put together a long caution free stretch, the field ran well until the yellow flew again on lap 28, this time for Rickey Frankel. During the extended caution period, the red flag was displayed to let drivers change helmets and tear offs. The race, originally scheduled for 50 laps, was reduced to 40 before turning back to green for the final 12 circuits due to track conditions and the threat of incoming rain.
Stovall led back to the green, but a slip on the following lap in turns 1-2 left room for Simpson to slide into place. Stovall pushed up the track, allowing Simpson to make a champion’s move off the exit of turn two, driving past second-running Sullivan and Stovall to take the lead. Simpson said of the battle for the lead, “The track was brutal and I knew it was going to be a survival type deal, and I just had to wait for the guys to mess up – and then I had to take my shot.”
As Simpson headed for victory, the hard charging XR-1 Rocket of Logan Martin looked to steal the show. Coming from tail-back due to the lap four contact, Martin took advantage of a rare mistake by Simpson and drove past for the lead as the field crossed the line with a mere 7 laps to go.
Martin’s attempt came to a harsh end as he went high and made contact with the turn three wall with barely four laps remaining. Martin ended his bid at the win on the hook, returning the top spot to Simpson.
Simpson took it back without faltering and cruised straight to the championship night win, capping a great championship journey on an emotional night. Sullivan came home in second, while Raymond Merrill had his best run of the season in third.
As a light rain shower began to fall, an emotional Simpson said from Victory Lane, “I’m going to be honest: I’m a little choked up right now. It didn’t hit me until after we took the checkered.It’s been a great ride with these guys.”
On that same Saturday night, Payton Looney wrapped up the 2018 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors by virtue of his 5th place finish-his 8th MLRA top five of the season.