By JEFF FALK
Forget the annals of ARCA and auto racing just for a second. What Bobby Gerhat accomplished yesterday has to go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of Lebanon County sports.
In one of the most dramatic and wildest finishes of his 30-year racing career, Lebanon’s Bobby Gerhart captured his eighth ARCA victory at the fabled Daytona International Raceway on Saturday, winning the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200. Gerhart, who began the 200-mile stock-car race in the absolute last starting position, took the checkered flag with a daring outside pass halfway through the event’s final lap.
With all the leaders battling fuel woes on the 82nd lap, Gerhart was tucked into fifth place when he made his move to the outside. A caution on Lap 78, the fifth of the event, had added two laps to the race and allowed Gerhart to get to fifth.
After apparently capturing the pole position during Friday’s qualifying, Gerhart was relegated to the 43rd starting position in the 43-car field. Using pit strategy, fuel conservation techniques and good old experience, Gerhart steadily worked his way to the front.
“That last lap was like a dream,” said Gerhart. “I knew nothing was coming from behind me. The only shot I had was to go high. I learned a long time ago to take what’s in front of you. I nevever gave up on this hot rod. Never. Never. Never. Unbelievable. Wow.
“I had a nice run on the last lap,” Gerhart added. “I wanted to sit on the outside of the leader and see what happens. I had nothing to lose and there it was.”
“He was fifth and I was hoping he’d slingshot to the outside and finish third,” said Gerhart’s crew chief and brother Billy. “I looked up and saw the Lucas Oil hood going across the finish line. Obviously we’re a little stunned.”
In 25 career ARCA starts at Daytona, Gerhart now has eight wins and 14 top-ten finishes. He has captured the ARCA-season opening race for three straight years. Since 1999, there have only been six ARCA races at Daytona that Gerhart hasn’t won.
“After the first one, I said that’s enough,” said Billy Gerhart. “Well, I learned in April or May at Talladega, to never count Bobby out. The car was good. The car got better all night.”
Gerhart posted the fastest time in qualifying a day earlier. But later Gerhart was sent to the back of the pack when his engine failed an inspection.
“We didn’t like what happened,” said Bobby Gerhart. “Certainly it’s not what we planned for. But we put our heads together. But that was our strategy to come in (pit) early. The way it worked out, we needed a little fuel at the end, which we got later.”
“To come here and win after yesterday is special,” said Billy Gerhart. “We went back to the hotel, laughed about it and said, ‘Let’s go get ’em.’
“We really gambled (pitting early),” Billy Gerhart added. “We thought we could beat the pack out. But the pack caught us and just inched by us. But I told our guys, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll go with Plan B’. Plan B was to race back to the front.”
Pitting on the tenth lap would pay huge dividends for Gerhart later in the race. He gained seven track positions early and a caution on the 16th lap eventually allowed him to grab the 12th spot.
With Brandon McReynolds holding down the top spot, Gerhart languished anywhere from the tentth to 18th position from Laps 24 through 66. But Gerhart took advantage of a caution on 70th lap to slide up to seventh and put himself in position to re-write history, again.
“(The second engine) ran the (speed) we had, so I said we’ve just got to put ourselves in position,” Bobby Gerhart told www.arcaracing.com. “At the beginning of the races, there’s a strategy that Bill and I talked about a long time ago. We decided to do it, win, lose, or draw, and the worst thing that could happen in that position is that we get a lap down. But we get the Lucky Dog and we’re right back where we were. We looked at it and had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“We kept digging,” Bobby Gerhart continued. There were a lot of great cars again. The way it came, we kind of needed that last pit stop. That last lap, I had a great run down the backstretch and we were matched up with a real good car behind us. I said, ‘You know what? I’ve got absolutely nothing to lose here.’ Nobody’s going to remember me finishing fifth, so let’s see what happens. That’s what the fans come to see. It just happened at the right time, the leader took a little blip, and that was it.”
In light of the cautions, the race took an hour and 33 minutes to complete and was run at an average of 132.745 miles per hour.
In the past, Gerhart had attributed his success at Daytona to the focus of resources and intelligence at the Florida track. In his ARCA career, Gerhart has won at only one other place, Talladega in 2001. He has never won an ARCA series points championship.