Jeff Gardner showed on Saturday night why he is the hottest driver on the California Asphalt Sprintcar Association (CASA) circuit when he rallied to win the Mike McCreary Memorial Firecracker 100 at Champion Speedway.
The Fresno, Calif., driver was towed to the pits with a shattered rim and flat right rear tire after a collision with Minden's Amy Barnes on Lap 3, then returned to the track and worked his way back from the back of the pack to win a race that took one hour, 33 minutes to run and saw the yellow flag drop 10 times.
"It was just long and hectic," Gardner said afterward.
Gardner has now won three of four races and his hot streak continued in Carson City, as he sped to fast time (12.42) in qualifying and then used a explosive burst to overtake Nick Rescino Jr. on the next-to-last lap to win the Mike McCreary Memorial Dash for Cash.
The evening's show was named in memory of McCreary, one of the founders of CASA who passed away on Sept. 24, 2004. McCreary began his racing career at the Carson City track in 1964 and ultimately won two Northern Auto Racing Club titles. His last win at Champion came in the Firecracker 100 Dash for Cash on July 3, 2004.
Winning a race dedicated to McCreary's memory was all the more special to Gardner.
"I drove his car one time, and it was here in Carson City," Gardner said. "Mike was one of those positive people ... just being on the list of guys who drove for him and had relationships with him. I know Carla (McCreary) and I got to know Mike, so to win this race tonight means a little bit."
Ricky Green, an 18-year-old rookie from San Jose who was coming off his first victory one week before at Altamont Raceway in Tracy, Calif., surged into the lead on Lap 4 and remained out front until Lap 70, when Gardner tracked him down and passed with an inside move on Turn 2. The move gave him the lead for good and put him into position to collect what Champion General Manager Les Kynett announced as $900 in cash donations from fans. Donations were taken for every lap of the race, but the prize lap was 71 - McCreary's number.
"He just got a little loose going to the turn so I made my move," Gardner said. "I wasn't even keeping track of the lap count, although after I took the lead, I heard about 71 being a big deal."
Just being in the lead was impressive considering he had been on the hook and on the way to the pits three laps into the race.
"We were running pretty good, then we had that little mishap," Gardner said. "We had to change the right rear tire and we bent something in the front end ... it was real tight when we came back. But we were set up for the long haul and the car seemed to run better and better as the race went on."
Gardner wasted little time getting back into the race. He moved from 15th in the field of 16 cars and his number was on the scoreboard when he took over fourth-place on Lap 16. He moved into third on Lap 22 and passed Ryan Baumgartner into second-place on the backstretch of Lap 31. Gardner lost the position on Lap 38 after he got caught up in traffic, but passed Baumgartner again one lap later.
At the finish, Green was second, ahead of Rescino in third-place and Glenn Hopper in fourth. Rescino, who won the Memorial Day weekend "Salute to Indy" feature race and had won in four of his five appearances at Champion in the last two years, had a long night that included a collision with Joe Hauck that sent him to the back of the field on Lap 5.
"I got real impatient and knocked my brakes out when I ran the guy over," Rescino recalled. "I had rear brakes, but no front brakes, and I ran that way for about 30 laps.
"I never came into the pits, but I pulled off to the side at least four times. It turned into a long race, but that was fortunate for me. I needed it to be long. There were a couple of perfectly timed yellow flags that really helped me out when I was bottled up in traffic."
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Main event (100 laps): 1, Jeff Gardner; 2, Nick Green; 3, Nick Rescino; 4, Glenn Hopper; 5, Tony Iacobitti; 6, Ryan Baumgartner; 7, Jessica Helberg (99 laps); 8, Scott Clough (97 laps); 9, Pat Bliss (96 laps); 10, Eric Silsby (94 laps); 11, Joe Hauck (94 laps); 12, Marvin Mitchell (91 laps); 13, Amy Barnes (74 laps); 14, Bob Beck (64 laps); 15, Earle Stanton (13 laps); 16, Trevor Cummins (9 laps). Yellows: 10.
Dash for cash (6 laps): 1, Gardner; 2, Rescino; 3, Cummins; 4, Helberg; 5, Bliss; 6, Hopper.
Fast time: Gardner 12.42.