STOCKTON — A huge crowd packed the grandstands to see the return of several driving stars from the past in the Annual Night of Champions event at the Stockton 99 Speedway on Saturday night.
Among the returning alumni were Ken Boyd, Harry Belletto, Jeff Belletto, John Gaalswyk, Dave Byrd, David Philpott, Dan Reed and special guest Ernie Irvan, who won the 99 track championship in 1977 before going on to win 15 times, including the 1991 Daytona 500, in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“It is a lot of fun to be back here,” said Irvan. “It is great to be with all these people I have not seen in a long time, talk with them and sign some autographs.”
The fans were delighted to get up close and personal with their heroes in an autograph session before the night’s main events which, judging by the smiles on their faces, was equally enjoyed the guests of honor.
“I love coming out and seeing our old fans. I have lots of great memories here,” said Boyd. “Stockton will always have a special place in my heart.”
There was an abundance of present and future driving talent on hand as well for the Stockton Late Model 100-lap feature which paid $10,000 to the winner.
Besides drawing all of the top 99 Speedway regulars, the field of 24 cars included Jarod Irvan, Ernie’s son who won the Night of Champions race last year and former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor Kenny Wallace, who won at a dirt track in St Louis the night before.
“It is so cool to race on the same pavement where my dad raced and won on,” said Irvan, age 20.
Jarod, driving a car prepared by Manteca’s Strmiska family, set the low time in qualifying, but started from mid-pack in the 20-car field for the main due to an invert draw of 10.
“I think he is a better driver than I ever was, but I am his dad,” acknowledged Ernie Irvan with a smile. “I have run against him in a Legends car and he beat the pants off of me.”
Thanks to the invert, defending track champion Arron Shankel, of Lodi and Adam Coonfield, of Modesto, shared the front row as the field roared to the opening green flag.
The first third of the race was orderly until Shankel became sandwiched between Gridley’s Larry Tankersley, who was desperately trying to stay on the lead lap and the hard charging Kyle Gottula of Modesto while trying to protect his lead on lap 37.
Shankel went under Tankersley in turn #4, but the two touched bouncing Tankersley high into the air and then the outer concrete wall. Shankel was able to continue, but was forced to retire several laps later due to damage from the incident.
Once in the lead Gottula put the whip to the horse as he slowly pulled away while the rest of the field jostled for position behind him.
The final 15 laps saw five different yellow-cautions as several contenders, including Irvan, Sam Solari and Christian Roche, both of Escalon, succumbed to accidents or fading tires.
Gottula was able to get the jump on each restart to retain the lead and had victory in his grasp when Modesto’s Mike David went hard into the turn #3 pit exit gate on lap 99.
Luckily David was not hurt, but the scary accident brought out a checkered-yellow-red to finally hand Gottula the win.
“Those final laps and restarts were nerve-wracking,” admitted Gottula. “This is so cool to beat a field like this. This is probably the biggest win of my career. It is certainly the biggest purse.”
Kenny Wallace, who moved up several positions in the final laps without making a pass, finished in second and Chris Lyon, of Greeley Hill, completed the top three.
“Those final laps were like throwing a piece of raw meat to a pack of hungry dogs. I just kept moving up as they wrecked and I was waiting for them to give me the win,” explained Wallace. “Like my friend Dick Trickle used to say ‘you must first finish, to finish first’ and we almost pulled it off.”
Manteca’s Robert Dueck led for 29 and ¾ laps, but Stockton’s Joey Sarafin was able to inch under and pin him to the wall coming out of the final corner to steal an exciting victory in the 30-lap Bomber main while Stockton’s Barrett Sugden captured the B-4 win.
The 99 Speedway will be hosting a program featuring the Gun Slingers Wing Sprint Car Series next Saturday, August 11th and the SRL Southwest Tour Series the following Saturday, August 18th.