Rodgers Rules Road Courses and Championship Battle Gets Jumbled
It is certainly no secret that road-course racing can play a major role in the season long championship race. It may be early on in the 2018 campaign, but New Jersey Motorsports Park lived up to that excitement and drama as the series made its first road-course stop of the season.
It may also be a race to look back on should someone be able to make a charge in the standings.
Will Rodgers is now 3-for-3 on the east coast as he returned to Victory Lane in the JUSTDRIVE.com 125 on Saturday. Rodgers, who was named to the 2018 NASCAR Next class early this season, won twice a season ago on road courses at Watkins Glen International and New Jersey.
It is no secret that certain drivers know their way through the twists and turns of a road course better than others. Rodgers has proven to be a name on that list of “ringers.”
“I think it’s just consistency, I mean this place is really hard to stay consistent and if you can every lap it will really show” said Rodgers in Victory Lane. “You can start to gap people, and one car length each lap adds up a lot so that’s probably my trick here. Just keeping it on the pavement and doing my deal.”
The Murrieta, California, native has an average finish of 1.25 in four career K&N Pro Series starts on road courses. The only blemish on his resume is a second-place run to Kevin Harvick at California’s Sonoma Raceway in 2017. Rodgers will head from one side of the country to the other as he looks for redemption in wine country this weekend.
“Sonoma is definitely the monkey that I got on my back right now. That’s the one race I really want to win and obviously finishing second to Kevin Harvick last year was huge for us and really boosted our program, but now going back a whole year later I think we are ready to seal the deal.”
— NASCAR Home Tracks (@NASCARHomeTrack) June 16, 2018
A Debut To Remember
A lot of eyes were on 20-year-old, Rev Racing driver Ernie Francis Jr. who made his first appearance with the series in New Jersey. The four-time Trans Am champion is a former winner at NJMP with that series and was looking to find similar success in a stock car. Francis got the day off to a strong start after earning the pole. He would lead laps early on before settling into his groove.
“I was just trying to pace the car and figure out what pace I could run at to keep the car consistent to the end” said Francis. “Will (Rodgers) was putting some good pressure on me there and I knew I couldn’t hold him behind me forever. Once he was able to go by we kind of followed him around a little bit, I made a mistake in the back section and kind of lost distance from him.”
When all was said and done, Francis was able to impress a lot of people over the course of the day. Earning the pole and never dropping outside of the top five during the race was a solid first showing and one that the young driver will look to build off of going forward.
“I learned a lot about how these cars drive and what’s needed to make them run around this track and run around road-course races” Francis continued. “They definitely fall off a lot as the tires wear off on these cars but I think this was a good learning experience for me and will definitely help out at the next one at Watkins Glen.”
“Overall a very good day. A podium finish is always good especially in the first race and pole before the race started so definitely a good weekend and a good race.”
Chaos On The Final Restart
For the majority of the JUSTDRIVE.com 125 the field found itself spread out around the 2.250 mile road course. A competition caution on Lap 28 followed by a yellow for debris on Lap 34 were the only times the field got bunched back together. That was until David Levine came to a stop, bringing out the caution on Lap 48 and setting up what would become a drama filled final five laps.
As the field roared into Turn 1 on the restart, drivers started to make their moves knowing that opportunities to do so were few and far between. Contact was made between points leader Tyler Ankrum and third-place Ruben Garcia Jr. which sent the race winner from Memphis around and out of contention.
“Those last four laps were all really hectic” said Ankrum. “I screwed up through the chicanes when I was trying to get around the 6 (Garcia) and I was on his back bumper and we were going over the curbing and I gassed up and he didn’t and I spun him out. It was unintentional and I didn’t mean to at all. I hate for what happened to them because I really didn’t mean it.”
That is not where the action would stop, however. As the field took the white flag it was Rodgers who led by a considerable distance over Ankrum, Tyler Dippel and Francis. The two DGR-Crosley teammates who would tangle late in the final lap as they battled for second.
Ankrum felt that the team was en route to a 2-3 finish which would have been considered a successful day considering both drivers limited experience on a road course.
“Tyler (Dippel) was about 1 or 2 (car lengths) back and he really just you know, drove it in there to hard, ended up wheel hoping and locking the right front up and just getting into me and spinning both of us out, taking us both out of contention” said Ankrum.
Dippel on the other hand did not want to settle for third quite yet.
“Everything was going well up until that last corner, trying to get position on (Tyler) Ankrum there for 2nd and I don’t know, I feel like it was a hard racing deal” said Dippel. “I felt like he came down on me a little bit, you know, nobody wanted to give any room and it ended up taking us both out.”
“It just stinks that it ended up that way for us.”
Ankrum would cross the line ninth after regaining control, while Dippel would finish in 11th.
“We are going to go to Thompson, Connecticut, and try to win one there and try to build up some more points again because what a good points day turned out to be a no points day at all” Ankrum concluded.
- Despite the late race incident, Tyler Ankum still holds on to the series points lead by 16 points of Dippel.
- Rev Racing continues to show speed. Their teams qualified first, third, fifth and eighth but were only able to place one car inside the top five at the end of the race.
- Jefferson-Pitts Racing has now won seven straight races on a road course. They will look to make that eight in Sonoma.
- Global RallyCross driver Cole Keatts made his series debut at NJMP. The 17-year-old finished 10th. He’ll make his second series start at Sonoma.