Lake City, MI (Saturday, August 7, 2021) - If you asked Rusty Schlenk with 10 laps to go in the 33rd Annual Ed VanDuinen Wood Tic / 4th Annual Dan Salay Memorial at Merritt Speedway on Saturday, if he had a chance to pull off a comeback win, he probably would have told you no. When a caution flew with 9 laps remaining, everything changed, which led to a stunning finish.
Schlenk and Eric Spangler would lead the field to green, (by virtue of their Odd/Even Qualifying race wins on Friday), after an almost two hour delay due to track conditions and continuing preparations. Schlenk would pick up the race lead at the drop of the green flag, but a quick yellow on lap 2 would slow the start, when Greg Gokey would slide off the top of turn two. Gokey would head to the pits with nose damage, ending his night early.
On the restart, Spangler would keep the pressure on Schlenk, and on lap 11, would put his #27 machine out front. The caution would fly again at Lap 14 for an incident that claimed Curtis Roberts and Logan Nickerson. On the ensuing restart, 3rd place running and Overall Fast Qualifier Cody Bauer would blow the top off Turn one and two, losing ten positions before getting his 19X machine back on the racing surface. A flurry of action would then take place, with Schlenk regaining the top spot on lap 17, with Spangler and Brandon Thirlby in tow.
Spangler would once again work around the #91 machine on lap 22. Then on lap 27, Thirlby would work around Schlenk, dropping him to 3rd. A long green flag run would begin to put some in the back of the field a lap down. At the halfway point, it was Spangler in full control, with Thirlby, Schlenk, Chad Finley, and Rich Bell occupying the top five. Finley's solid run would come to an end when he bent the nose under his #42 machine, and went pitside. A couple more cautions would fly, keeping the field tight together.
Following a restart on lap 27, Spangler would once again pull away, leaving Thirlby and Schlenk to battle for the runner-up spot, with Rich Bell and Dona Marcoullier trying to settle things for 4th and 5th. The final caution of the 75 lap event would fly with 9 laps to go, when Mike Vandermark Jr, put his #41 machine on the bike, as he overshot the top of turns one and two.
On the restart, Spangler would once again stretch out a quick five car lead, while Schlenk worked around Thirlby. What came next was a finish for the ages, as lap after lap, the three-time UMP DIRTcar National Champion would cut into Spangler's lead, with Spangler committed to the bottom, and Schlenk using the rest of the track to find speed. With the white flag flying for the rest of the field, Schlenk sailed his machine to the top of turns three and four, while Spangler remained on the bottom. Coming off turn four to the checkers, Spangler couldn't find the grip he needed, and Schlenk found it all, narrowly beating Spangler to the line in front of a roaring crowd.
Marcoullier would get by Thirlby for 3rd, with Bell completing the top five at the finish. Schlenk would collect the largest payday of his career, $33,000 plus lap money. The event was also a points race for the Allstar Performance Late Model Challenge Series, where Marcoullier currently leads the championship standings. In other preliminary action on Friday, Bauer, Spangler, Schlenk, and Nickerson would collect Heat Race wins, with Bauer also picking up the win in the Dash4Cash.
The next event for the Late Model Challenge Series is Labor Day Weekend, September 3rd at Tri City Motor Speedway, and September 4th-5th at Merritt Speedway.
Story - Rich Frantz, Horsepower Happenings
Photo - Randy Ellen