BARRE -- Maybe it was a bit late, but that made Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.'s first win in the CARQUEST Vermont Governor's Cup 150 at Thunder Road on Thursday night all that much sweeter. The Hudson, N.H. driver, who turned 20 years old less than a month ago, crashed off the backstretch and out of an almost certain victory at the Barre track on Memorial Day weekend. He'd lost a couple of shots at winning the season-ending Milk Bowl. He'd been wrecked there countless times.
But now that's all behind him.
You couldn't ask for a better setting: Spectacular weather with a twilight start to a big event, a visiting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion in Tony Stewart, a packed house -- maybe an all-time record crowd -- jamming the hillside seats at the track. And Polewarczyk, despite what he might have said earlier, was still seething over his latest loss at Thunder Road.
The youngster wasted no time in getting to the front; after starting in eighth place on the 30-car grid, he was fifth by the end of lap 5. By lap 18, he was third. On lap 57, he was in the lead, a position he would never relinquish. But although he was never passed for the top spot, Polewarczyk was never really comfortably out front until lap 148.
A 45-lap duel with sophomore hometown favorite Nick Sweet, beginning at lap 101, kept the crowd holding its breath -- Sweet hugging the low lane trying to nose ahead, Polewarczyk rim-riding the high side, leading the race by a matter of only a foot at times -- and could likely be thought of as one of the finest battles for a victory in recent Thunder Road memory. A late caution period, followed by a surprise visit to the front by defending Governor's Cup winner Cris Michaud only hightened the tension.
After all, Polewarczyk was running the same high line on Memorial Day when he crashed. Sweet had never won in Late Model competition and was hungry to break through, and both he and Michaud were itching to earn a possible qualifying berth for the ACT Invitational at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, one of the prizes awarded to the winner of the Governor's Cup 150. And with the caution and impending restart bunching the field with just five laps to go, who knew what was going to happen?
Green flag: Sweet gets the jump in the outside lane, a place he hasn't seen -- other than in lapped traffic -- since the 1/3-mark of the race. Sweet tries his best to hold his advantage, but Polewarczyk is too strong and leads the lap. Suddenly -- and everyone saw it coming, it seems -- the pair swap lanes, trying to get back to familiar territory. It works, but only for a moment, as Sweet opens the door and Michaud ducks underneath him, taking away second place. As the two-to-go signal comes from the flagstand, Polewarczyk eases into a two car-length lead.
White flag, almost there. What could go wrong now?
Turn 1: Tore the whole nose off on Labor Day here last year.
Turn 2: Popped a radiator here in 2005.
Backstretch: Remember Memorial Day?
Turn 3: Got into it with Karl Allard here at the Milk Bowl last year and got black-flagged.
Turn 4: Ouch, that first trip in 2004. A chunk of the wall ended up inside the car that night.
Frontstretch: And none of that matters anymore. Checkered flag. It's over.
The victory lane interview with Ken Squier was barely audible over the thousands of cheering fans that had not only come to see Tony Stewart, but to see if this kid Polewarczyk had what it took to win at one of the toughest race tracks around. He was drained, physically, emotionally, mentally. In 85-degree heat, he had raced his tail off for the win, and all the memories had undoubtedly haunted him to no end.
In the inspection area a few minutes later, he'd had a bit more time to let it sink in. So Joey, you've won at Thunder Road, how does it feel? Sweat-soaked, beat red, and wearing a winner's medal around his neck with the CARQUEST logo on it, a big grin comes across his face: "Pretty friggin' good."
And that's all he needed to say.
In support action, Pete Ainsworth and Jimmy Hebert celebrated split Tiger Sportsman feature victories in two very different ways. Middlesex racer Ainsworth was more or less uncontested as he notched the 10th win of his career in the division, boosting him into elite status among the all-time winners of Thunder Road's oldest class of race car. For him, it was just another day at the office. However, 18 year-old Hebert, of Williamstown, battled another youngster, Bradford's Derrick O'Donnell, and earned his first-ever win. He paused during his victory lap for a impromptu smoke show and donut on the backstretch.
"I bent my steering shaft down punching [the steering wheel] I was so excited," laughed Hebert. "I couldn't hardly turn doing the burnout."
Ainsworth was trailed across the finish line by Shawn Fleury and Doug Crowningshield, and a razor-close finish between David Finck and Joey Laquerre; Finck got the position. Following Hebert and O'Donnell were Mike Ziter, Eric Badore, and Jeff French.
Tommy "Thunder" Smith of Williamstown drove his Thunder Road 50th Anniversary-themed car to his first win of the year in the first of two Street Stock/Junkyard Warrior features after starting 19th. Bruce Melendy finished second after contact with David Greenslit approachign the final lap sent Greenslit spinning into the infield; Greg Adams, Jr. was third over Joe Blais and Troy Gray. David Whitcomb of Elmore earned his first Street Stock main event win in the nightcap, over Tim Campbell, Mike MacAskill, Ron Gabaree, and Gary Mullen.
Donny Yates of North Montpelier and Kevin Streeter of Waitsfield were the top Junkyard Warrior drivers in the respective features; each driver took his third win of the season.
UNOFFICIAL RESULTS -- CARQUEST Vermont Governor's Cup 150
Thunder Road Int'l Speedbowl, Barre, Vt.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Pos.-Driver-Hometown (# - denotes rookie)
1. Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., Hudson, N.H.
2. Cris Michaud, Northfield
3. Nick Sweet, Barre
4. Jamie Fisher, Shelburne
5. John Donahue, Graniteville
6. Dave Pembroke, Middlesex
7. Trampas Demers, South Burlington
8. Phil Scott, Montpelier
9. Joey Laquerre, East Montpelier
10. Eric Williams, Hyde Park
11. Rich Lowrey, Williston
12. Brent Dragon, Milton
13. Tony Andrews, Northfield
14. Jason Bonnett, St. Albans
15. Eric Chase, Milton
16. Tony Stewart, Rushville, Ind.
17. Craig Bushey, Cambridge
18. Dennis Demers, Shelburne
19. Mike Bailey, South Barre
20. Joey Becker, Jeffersonville
21. Dave Paya, Milton
22. Reno Gervais, Island Pond
23. Steve Fisher, Shelburne
24. Brooks Clark, Fayston
25. Doug Murphy, Tunbridge
26. Cal Poulin, Braintree
27. Jean-Paul Cyr, Milton
28. Matt White, Northfield
29. Patrick Laperle, St-Denis-sur-Richelieu, Qué.
30. Robbie Crouch, Tampa, Fla.
Tiger Sportsman Feature #1
1. Pete Ainsworth, Middlesex
2. Shawn Fleury, Middlesex
3. Doug Crowningshield, Barre
4. David Finck, Barre
5. Joey Laquerre, East Montpelier
Tiger Sportsman Feature #2
1. Jimmy Hebert, Williamstown
2. Derrick O'Donnell, Bradford
3. Mike Ziter, Williamstown
4. Eric Badore, Georgia
5. Jeff French, Northfield
Street Stock/Junkyard Warrior Feature #1
1. Tommy Smith, Williamstown (SS winner)
2. Bruce Melendy, Danville (SS)
3. Greg Adams, Jr., Hardwick (SS)
4. Joe Blais, East Barre (SS)
5. Troy Gray, Fairlee (SS)
12. Donny Yates, North Montpelier (JW winner)
Street Stock/Junkyard Warrior Feature #2
1. David Whitcomb, Elmore (SS winner)
2. Tim Campbell, West Topsham (SS)
3. Mike MacAskill, Williamstown (SS)
4. Ron Gabaree, Barre (SS)
5. Gary Mullen, Tunbridge (SS)
14. Kevin Streeter, Watisfield (JW winner)
(PHOTOS: 1. An exhausted Joey Polewarczyk, Jr. (right) is joined in victory lane by Vt. Governor Jim Douglas after Polewarczyk's win at Thunder Road on Thursday night; 2. Tiger Sportsman winner Pete Ainsworth. Photos by Justin St. Louis/VMM)