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March 28, 2012   BY DAVE GRAYSON

The Lucas Oil Modified Racing Series, presented by 1 800 Loan Mart, officially kicked off their 2012 season, March 24th, with a 75 lap feature at the Havasu 95 Speedway, a quarter mile paved oval, located in Lake Havasu City-Arizona. From the very beginning of the weekend, it was apparent that this very popular series is going to enjoy a highly competitive season. Their season opening race boasted 29 entries. 

By the time the checkered flag fell on the Hoosier Tire West/Sunoco Race Fuels 75, it was also apparent that Austin Barnes was going to be picking up where he left off last year. The young driver, from Escondido-California, finished the series' 2011 season with six wins, including five in a row. He started the 2012 season by winning at Lake Havasu City. Barnes took the lead for good on lap 37 and held off a late race challenge by Chris Gerchman to earn the winner's check from the Hoosier Tire West/Sunoco Race Fuels 75.

With 29 entries vying for the 22 starting positions in this race, qualifying was, understandably, somewhat intense. Surprisingly it was Barnes and Gerchman running one-two on the qualifying speed charts with identical lap times. Both drivers toured the Havasu 95 Speedway's quarter mile oval with a lap of 15.427 seconds/58.339 MPH. Because the qualifying line up order was based on the 2011 points standings, Barnes turned the fast lap first and that factor earned him the Budweiser Fast Time award. The separation in qualifying times, from first to 22nd, was only 1.6 seconds and it was an early sign of the competitive race that was still to come. 

Unfortunately for Barnes, the pre race inversion ceremony was not very kind to him and he found himself going from first to eighth in the starting line up. The eight car inversion placed series veterans Larry Gerchman and Tim Morse on the front row for the 75 lap feature race. 

Four of the 22 starting positions were determined by a 20 lap B main which was won by Spencer Gallagher. Johnny Luttner, Keaton Swane and Dennis Lovelady earned the other three transfer spots from this event.

When the green flag fell on the Hoosier Tire West/Sunoco Race Fuels 75, Tim Morse made very quick work of jumping into the lead and paced the field for the first circuits before being overtaken by Matt Hicks. 

While Matt Hicks is certainly not a racing rookie, he was making his debut in a modified race car at this event. It was evident early on that he had figured out the transition. He was ranked fifth on the qualifying chart and then won the six lap Dart Machinery Trophy Dash along with the $200 bonus that comes with it. 

It was apparent that the 24 year old driver wanted to collect his second win of the night by using a rock steady sense of rhythm with his lap times. Hicks led the field from lap three to 37. During this time of the race Austin Barnes was methodically working his way to the front. He only needed ten laps to advance his very fast modified from eighth to second. 

There were only three caution flags in this race, due to minor single car incidents. Barnes caught a break from the first yellow flag, on lap 23, because it allowed him to eradicate the real estate between himself and the race leader. From that point it was a game of chase with Barnes working both the outside and inside racing lines trying to claim the race lead while Hicks did everything possible to prevent it from happening. On lap 36 the two leaders were now side by side with the capacity crowd cheering them on. Barnes found just enough racing room, on the lower groove in turn two, to complete what would turn out to be the race winning move. 

However, Barnes run to the checkers wasn't quite home free just yet. On lap 59, Lake Havasu City's Chris Gerchman moved around Hicks to take over second and began the process of chasing down the leader. Needless to say, the packed grandstands filled with Gerchman fans went wild over this development. On lap 67, the presence of lapped traffic almost became a huge factor in the Hoosier Tire West/Sunoco Race Fuels 75. While Barnes was carefully trying to work his way through the traffic maze, Gerchman was coming on strong and worked the deficit between them down to two car lengths. 

However, time and laps just simply ran out and, just like they did in qualifying, Barnes and Gerchman topped the charts in the one-two positions. The final margin of victory was 1.315 seconds. Hicks completed his sensational modified racing debut by finishing third, Doug Hamm, a series veteran driver from Las Vegas, finished fourth while reigning series champion Jim Mardis completed the top five.

Barnes collected $1,000 for winning the Hoosier Tire West/Sunoco Race Fuels 75 plus a $100 bonus from the J E Pistons/Roush Yates Performance Parts Winner's Program. Making the night even more lucrative were additional $100 bonus checks for the Budweiser Fast Time award, the Optima Batteries Hard Charger award and the GEICO Clean Pass award. All of these bonuses came on the heels of Barnes recently celebrating his 17th birthday.

After parking his MasterCraft Safety/1 800 Loan Mart modified in the Sunoco Race Fuels victory lane, it was time for a very happy race winner to enjoy a very successful weekend in Lake Havasu City. "We started out the night by winning the pole again and that was pretty nice," Barnes said adding "but unfortunately I drew an eight, (in the inversion procedure), so we had to start pretty far back. We started on the outside groove and, when everyone else was shuffling around, we moved to the low line and in a matter of laps we were up to third place." 

Commenting on the presence of lapped traffic during the waning laps of the race, Barnes said " they were racing two wide and sometimes even trying to peek in a little three wide action but luckily no one made that move. There was some bumping and banging but luckily we had a pretty good size lead by then and that allowed me to be able to pick and choose when I wanted to pass and that made it kind of nice." 

Taking the effort to thank his supporters, Barnes said "1 800 Loan Mart came on board with us this year and I'd like to thank them. There also returning sponsorship from MasterCraft Safety and Impact Safety Products as well as Electro Tech Powder Coating and  About Service Automotive. I also need to thank my family for their support as well as my amazing  spotter the great Jimmy Dickerson and Steve Teets, at STR Race Cars, for building and crew chiefing this amazing car." 

Now living in the state of Texas, the Havasu 95 Speedway event was an opportunity for Chris Gerchman to visit family and friends while turning some laps in his Peggy's Sunrise Cafe/G&G Automotive/Bridgewater Homes modified. "We had a damn good car tonight," he said adding "but we still need to do just a little extra homework to make it just a little bit better. Austin seemed to be really quick tonight. But, it's a good start for a championship." 

The following day the Gerchman boarded an airline to return to Texas. However, he made it clear that he will be back in California for the series race at the Lucas Oil I 10 Speedway, a track where he's won a few races at in the past. With a big smile on his face, he said "I've already gotten my airline tickets for April 28th."      

It really wasn't that long ago when California driver Matt Hicks was sitting behind the wheel of a much smaller Legend Car. That successful venture led some seat time in the Late Model and Super Late divisions. The decision to take on the open wheel modifieds was quite a contrast for the 24 year old driver. Commenting on his evening, Hicks said "it was our first race ever. I've got Dean Kuhn working on the car for me and they call him the Mod Father." 

Commenting on the difference between driving a Super Late Model and a Lucas Oil Modified car, he said: "they've got pretty much the same horsepower, but a lot less tire. I had to learn not to wear out my tires at the end of the race while in the super late you can drive them to the wall. You just have to be easy on these cars to make them last. Also, getting the power to the ground is another big thing. In a Super Late you can just hammer down and it goes. But the eight inch tires on the modifieds will not take all of that abuse." Let the competition beware: Matt Hicks announced his intent to run the full 2012 modified schedule.  Expressing gratitude to his supporters, Hicks said "I need to thank Dean Kuhn with RBK, my parents who pay all of the bills, Wilehunter Tax Service, my best friend Darren who helps us, my wife and Tonopah Batteries. These Lucas Oil guys really puts on a great racing division. Without them, and 1 800 Loan Mart, we wouldn't have this racing division."   

Following the conclusion of the Hoosier Tire West/Sunoco Race Fuels 75, there were a lot of visible smiles seen in the pit area of the Havasu 95 Speedway. Probably smiling the most were Greg Scheidecker, series General Manager and Promoter, and Bill Rozhon, the series Race Director. 

After the race Scheidecker said "it's the kind of night that you always hope for. We had an excellent car count with a ten car B Main and 22 modifieds starting our A Main. There was more passing tonight than we've every had. I realize that we had some drivers who were upset about our invert being so large tonight. The invert was eight cars tonight and I really don't see any reason to change it. It really made a show. In 37 laps, that Austin Barnes took the lead and he was on it tonight. Look at Chris Gerchman, he started seven cars back and drove through the field, It was pretty spectacular." 

Scheidecker also noted the impressive performance of first time series driver Matt Hicks and said "that young man, from what he has learned from driving through the ranks of the various racing divisions, has become a real deal. He's sure to be a player in our series."   

Rozhon, who is also the Promoter of the Havasu 95 Speedway, said " we had a lot of modifieds here tonight, 29 I believe it was, and I'm very excited about that. At tonight's opener we had a lot of new faces, many of them driving a long haul to get here, There's a lot of interest in our series and I'm really happy about that. It was a good race tonight, I thought the guys put on a good show. It was really a good kick off for our 2012 season."

Commenting on the race winner, Rozhon said: "what can you say about Austin Barnes? That little varmint hasn't forgot lessons learned from last year. He's getting tougher and tougher and he has a lot of patience. When he first started with us he went home with that car wadded up nearly every night and now look how good he is. His car didn't have a mark on it and he went through some of the toughest racers around. Starting eighth and winning the race, that's pretty impressive."   

"I was really glad to see Chris Gerchman out here tonight," Rozhon noted adding "he recently got married and moved to Texas and really put a lot of effort to be here. His Dad, Larry Gerchman, and his guys are working hard to keep that car ready and obviously did a good job on it. Chris ran really good tonight. Then there was rookie Matt, (Hicks), he's really not a rookie driver but he's learning our series and I was very impressed with him tonight."

The series returns to action on April 28th, with the running of the General Tire 75, at the Lucas Oil I 10 Speedway in Blythe-California. For more details dial up the series' official website at www.lucasoilmodifieds.com

The Lucas Oil Modified Racing Series, presented by 1-800-Loan Mart, is powered by a highly potent marketing concept known as "Team Lucas." Team members include: Lucas Oil Products Inc, E3 Spark Plugs, General Tire, GEICO, CANIDAE All Natural Pet Food, MAV-TV, Speedco Truck Lube and Tires/Firestone and Optima Batteries. 

The series is also strongly supported by the presence of associate sponsors featuring: Eibach Springs, Hoosier Tire West, Budweiser, Blue Water Resort and Casino, Sunoco Race Fuels, Franks Radio, Racing Plus, Roush Yater Performance Parts, J E Pistons, Dart Machinery LTD, GoPro Cameras, and 1-800-Loan Mart.

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