BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS FROM JESSICA HUNSICKER
You can’t taste without the sense of smell.
Bobby Gerhart was so close, he could smell it. And the reason he knew what it was, was because he had tasted it before.
On Saturday evening at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in Florida, Gerhart was in contention late in the ARCA Series season-opening Lucas Oil 200, before settling for a 12th-place finish. While it certainly could’ve gone better for Gerhart, it was another solid run for the veteran Lebanon stock-car racer at a venue where he is an eight-time past champion.
Ultimately, the checkered flag went to Michael Self in overtime, on the 92nd lap of the scheduled 80-lap race. Willie Mullins ran second, Sheldon Creed came in third, Tom Hessert was fourth and pole-sitter Natalie Decker fifth.
Rounding out the top ten were Max Tullman, Noah Gragson, Leilani Munter, Andrew Belmont and Riley Herbst.
The race took two hours, ten minutes and 35 seconds to complete, and the average speed was 105.680 miles per hour.
“It’s the biggest platform all year,” said Gerhart of Daytona. “We worked vigorously for the last two months. There’s just a tremendous amount of man-hours that goes into it. After it was over, we weren’t overjoyed, but it could’ve been worse. I know a little more now than throwing a dart.
“To me, it’s everything,” continued Gerhart. “You put yourself in position where you’re trying to eclipse the bar you raised yourself. If our team has achieved anything, it’s that. To some degree it’s a blessing, and in other ways it’s a curse. In the race, I see a lot of cars who many not want to help me. But ultimately, everybody’s going to look to help themselves.”
After working his way up to the front from an undesirable starting position, Gerhart was in position for a top-three finish. But on a late-race restart, Gerhart encountered transmission trouble and dropped back to 12th.
“The day went as planned, until the last lap,” said Gerhart. “We climbed the ladder and got to second or third. I shifted into high gear, it hesitated and we went back to 12th. The race itself was a slug-fest. Although the car (Chevrolet Monte Carlo) was aerodynamically challenged, it worked good in a group. This was the first year for big bodies for these cars.
“What happened is we got to a point where we were 15th or 16th,” Gerhart continued. “We were pulling the second train. That was a safe place to be. Where all the contact was going on was the lead pack. All that kind of played out the way I expected. When you start that far back, you’re at a disadvantage. We still don’t know what happened. The clutch might have slipped.”
Gerhart started the race in the 29th position.
But it didn’t take him long to work his way up to 19th, and then 12th. As the race was entering its final stages, Gerhart found himself sixth.
“We were extremely disappointed after qualifying,” said Gerhart. “It was an error I made. I spaced myself too much to get a run. It’s not where I wanted to be. We came here to try to win. We had a shot, but it wasn’t a devastatingly bad day either. It felt like short-track racing on a super-speedway. That’s just the nature of what they’ve got now.
“You’ve got to bite your tongue a little bit,” added Gerhart. “We’re victims of a situation we created. From a success standpoint, any team who comes here has a different perspective on the race. At the end of the day, we had an opportunity to be first, second or third.”
Last year, Gerhart made his 30th career start at Daytona International Speedway. Gerhart sped to victory in the ARCA race at Daytona in 2012, 2011, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2002 and 1999.
No other driver on the ARCA circuit has come close to Gerhart’s eight career triumphs at Daytona.
“We went right to the end,” said Gerhart. “We had a shot, and that’s why we come here. We tried to give ourselves an opportunity to win. If that means at times that I’ve got to be conservative, then so be it. This was my 31st start at Daytona. The biggest change I’ve seen in the sport is that so many things are extremely similar. The ability for someone to be creative, and do it legally, is all gone. Now we’re running spec engines. Now we’re running spec bodies. For those of us who have been around a long time, it’s frustrating. But they got what they asked for.”
“Quite honestly, this has been one of the worst races I’ve seen because of that,” Gerhart added. “To me, that’s what racing was all about. Those who worked harder benefited the most. Now most of that is all gone. I don’t see it as a healthy thing. It’s an unfortunate result of what they tried to do here, from a rules standpoint. I think they’ve gone a little overboard. You don’t have a platform where the creme can rise to the top. It makes the effort harder.”
Bobby Gerhart’s Career Accomplishments on ARCA Circuit
Bobby Gerhart’s 8 wins at Daytona came in ’12, ’11, ’10, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’02 & ’99. Outside his career-best ARCA championship point finishes of 2nd, he also finished 3rd in ’99, 5th in ’00 & ’91, 8th in ’88 & 10th in ’90 & ’97. In well over 300 career starts since 1988, he has 55 top-5 finishes and 122 top-10s. His best superspeedway finishes other than wins at Daytona & Talladega are 2nd at Daytona ’00, 3rd at Talladega ’11 & ’08, 3rd at Talladega ’05, 3rd at Pocono ’04, 3rd at Talladega ’97, 4th at Daytona ’08, 4th at Pocono ’08, 4th at Kansas ’05, 4th at Pocono ’02, 4th at Michigan ’98, 4th at Texas ’98 & ‘91, 5th at Pocono ’06, 5th at Pocono ’04, 5th at Kentucky & Talladega ’00, 5th at Lowe’s & MIS ’99, 5th at Pocono ’02, ’97 & ‘96, 6th at Kansas ’06, 6th at Pocono ’06, 6th at Daytona ’04 & ‘14, 6th at Daytona & Pocono ’01, 7th at Nashville ’06, 7th at Talladega ’06 & ‘14, 7th at Pocono ’05, 7th at MIS ’02, 8th at Kentucky ’06, 8th at MIS ’04, 8th at Daytona ‘98, 9th twice at Pocono ’15, 9th at Pocono ’09 & ‘10, 9th at Chicagoland ’10, 9th at Kentucky ’05, 9th at Gateway ’04, 9th & 10th at Atlanta ’98, 10th at Pocono ‘05 and 10th at Kentucky ‘04. His best short-track finishes are 2nd at Anderson ’00, 2nd at Flemington ’99, 3rd at Salem ’06, 3rd at Hagerstown ’89 & Flat Rock ’91, 4th at Winchester ’07, 4th at Toledo ’04, 4th at South Boston ’02, 4th at Toledo & Winchester ’00, 5th at Toledo ’07, 5th at Winchester ’06, 5th at Lake Erie & Milwaukee ’05 and 5th at Kil-Kare ’00. Bobby also won General Tire Pole Awards at Daytona in 4 consecutive seasons ’03, ’04, ’05 & ‘06. Also Pole winner at Talladega ’06, ’02 & ’01, MIS ’98 & Winchester ‘00. He has led 839 in 35 races. His first race was in 1976.