In Sprint Car racing, the lead isn’t always the best place to be.
Track conditions can change quickly. The preferred line can shift in a lap. Before you know it, the second place car can power ahead leaving the former leader scrambling to switch grooves.
That was exactly the case Friday night at River Cities Speedway as the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars invaded the Grand Forks, ND oval. After running second a majority of the 40-lap Feature, David Gravel crept up on James McFadden and slipped by on the 36th circuit before holding on to seal the victory.
“I think running second there all race was the best place to be,” Gravel said. “I knew the top was the fastest, but it’s hard to get there when you start on the bottom. That last restart when I was in the lead there, I probably should’ve started on the outside. But I fell back to third or second there, and then I was letting James go. It was one lane around the top, so he could go wear stuff out or maybe he was conserving, too. I just let him go and get to lap traffic, and I knew that was my only chance. I searched down there (Turns 3 and 4) for two laps. It was a little slower, but I felt it coming. Once it came in, it latched up really good.”
Gravel’s win was his fifth of the 2023 campaign with Big Game Motorsports, enough to equal him for the most this season. It also marked his second career Victory Lane visit at River Cities, making him the sixth driver through 30 Series visits to the North Dakota bullring to own multiple wins.
The Watertown, CT native began the race from the pole after topping the Toyota Racing Dash. Gravel took the lead at the drop of the green, but a caution flag after a lap allowed outside pole-sitter – Brad Sweet – to have another shot at him.
“The Big Cat” would not be denied on the next attempt as he drove ahead of Gravel to secure the top spot. Over the next handful of laps, Gravel stayed within striking distance as the lead duo neared traffic. When Sweet’s slider on a slower car in Turns 1 and 2 didn’t clear, the door opened again for Gravel.
Heading down the backstretch, Gravel went under Sweet and cleared him with a slide job in Turns 3 and 4. But Gravel and Sweet opened themselves up to attack in the next set of corners. Gravel went low to protect, and Sweet followed him around the bottom. Behind them, a hard-charging James McFadden nailed the cushion and ripped around both of them to take the top spot.
From there, McFadden began to distance himself in the Roth Motorsports #83. The Alice Springs, NT native survived a flurry of cautions by driving every restart perfectly. McFadden appeared to be in control and heading toward back to back World of Outlaws wins for the first time in his career.
Then Gravel began to chip away at the advantage. Lap by lap the gap continued to shrink until Gravel neared the tail tank of the Roth #83. Coming to four laps to go, Gravel pulled the trigger and rolled through the middle of Turns 3 and 4 right by McFadden.
In the closing couple circuits, Gravel struggled with a lapped car allowing McFadden to close back in. But a lane to regain the lead never opened, allowing Gravel to take the checkered flag with a three tenths of a second gap.
“I felt urgency like I had to pass that lapped car with two (laps) to go,” Gravel explained. “I couldn’t clear him. Then I heard J-Mac right on me, and I was like I’ve got to run it as hard as I can as close as I can, and if he was going to pass me, he was going to have to go around me.”
Behind Gravel, it was McFadden claiming the runner-up position after leading 25 laps of the main event. With holding the top spot a majority of the race, McFadden couldn’t help but be a little disappointed with losing the lead late. But after a win on Monday and the second place effort Friday, McFadden walked way encouraged with the performance.
“I still felt pretty decent on the top,” McFadden said of the closing stages of the race. “I felt like I could run it in pretty hard. It was sketchy, but I didn’t feel like I was spinning the tires a lot and struggling for grip. I got super tight behind a lapped car there, and that was probably enough for him to sneak by us. Nothing to hang our heads about. Sometimes it’s nice to be in second place.”
After leading early then slipping back nearly outside the top five, Brad Sweet rallied to bring the Kasey Kahne Racing #49 home third. The four-time and defending champion is now up to 11 podiums on the season, and his latest helped him narrowly regain sole possession of the championship lead. Sweet felt that a couple laps early in the Feature changed the trajectory of his race as he struggled with traffic.
“That first lapped car just threw me for a loop,” Sweet said. “He did a 360 and got me slowed up. I thought I had enough of a run to slide him, but then he kind of gained some speed, and it kind of made me a sitting duck. I needed to clear him, and I didn’t get it done. It was really top dominant tonight, so once I got (tire) spinning and David got me, we raced down there and he went to the bottom of (Turn) 1 and we were both sitting ducks. I just felt like there were a couple things I didn’t do good, and it set me up for a few bad laps.”
Grand Forks’ own Austin Pierce earned the KSE Hard Charger Award with a run from 23rd to 14th.
The battle at the top of the standings is now incredibly tight with Sweet leading both Gravel and Macedo by only two points.
Carson Macedo claimed his Series-leading eighth Simpson Performance Products QuickTime Award to begin the night, marking his third consecutive QuickTime and the 27th of his career.
CASE No.1 Engine Oil Heat One was topped by Carson Macedo (92nd Heat win of career). NOS Energy Drink Heat Races Two and Three were claimed by David Gravel (215th of career) and Gio Scelzi (26th of career).
Tim Estenson topped the MicroLite Last Chance Showdown.
If you can’t make it to the track, catch all of the action on DIRTVision.
NOS Energy Drink Feature (40 Laps): 1. 2-David Gravel; 2. 83-James McFadden; 3. 49-Brad Sweet; 4. 41-Carson Macedo; 5. 1S-Logan Schuchart; 6. 18-Giovanni Scelzi; 7. 1A-Jacob Allen; 8. 15-Donny Schatz; 9. 5-Spencer Bayston; 10. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild; 11. 3Z-Brock Zearfoss; 12. 13-Mark Dobmeier; 13. 7S-Robbie Price; 14. 2A-Austin Pierce; 15. 11M-Brendan Mullen; 16. (DNF) 14T-Tim Estenson; 17. (DNF) 9-Kasey Kahne; 18. (DNF) 8-Jack Croaker; 19. (DNF) 8H-Jade Hastings; 20. (DNF) 26-Blake Egeland; 21. (DNF) 20G-Noah Gass; 22. (DNF) 17M-Zach Omdahl; 23. (DNF) 0-Nick Omdahl; 24. (DNF) 99-Jordan Graham