Lone Star State superstars
- By Randy Hoeft @YumaSunSports
Don’t mess with Texas.
Not at Cocopah Speedway, anyway.
Aaron Reutzel, from Clute, Texas, drove off with the win in the season finale of the 2016 Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series National Tour at Cocopah Speedway, while Sam Hafertepe Jr., from Sunnyvale, Texas, gave Reutzel all he could handle on the way to winning his first career series championship.
“We wanted to win this race really bad, and you could see that in how hard we were racing, but Aaron is damn good,” Hafertepe said after the thrilling, 30-lap feature event Saturday night, in which he finished second.
“To get the championship, we’re very happy. We knew we had it locked up coming in, but we still wanted to post two strong runs to end the year. End out with a pair of bad runs, it kills your confidence at the start of the next season so we definitely wanted to end it strong like we did.”
Ironically, Hafertepe is yet to win a feature event at the Somerton oval. The closest he has ever come was Saturday, when he rocketed into the lead at the start of the race before Reutzel, riding as high and as close to the wall as anyone can get, reeled him in and took the lead away.
The two then went back and forth, trading the lead position before Reutzel started to pull away. Then a yellow flag on the 21st lap gave Hafertepe the break he was looking for to get back in the game, and using the bottom line he retook the lead. But Reutzel, riding so high he clipped the fence at least once in Turn 4, refused to give in, got past Hafertepe on the 24th lap and following another nip and tuck battle pulled away at the finish.
“I kind of had a feeling the bottom was going to come in, but I didn’t want to abort what I’d been doing so well,” Reutzel said. “All that was left was the fence. You can go look at it, it’s just pure wall so it was tough.
“I wanted to go to the bottom on the that restart, but I just decided to go back to the top and see if Sam showed us something and figured I could get back in, but I just wasn’t as good on the bottom, and I figured, last race of the season with the National Tour I would rather flip out of the park, than run second.”
Asked about the track conditions, Reutzel, who won the finale of the 2016 Winter Heat Showdown at the Somerton oval back in January, said, “I love this place, absolutely love this place! I would race here for $500.”
“Everyone was struggling on the cushion, but Aaron was able to manipulate it better than anyone else, and that’s why he won this race,” Hafertepe said. “That’s the kind of track he’s really good at, where it’s not really my forte. I’m more of a finesse guy and we get our car pretty tight, so it’s hard to really lean a curb like that but to get back by him there late, I thought we had him dead to rights but he kept digging and deserves the win.”
Hafertepe actually locked up the series championship on Friday night, when he drove to a fourth place finish in the feature and mathematically put his nearest competitor, Albuquerque’s Johnny Herrera, out of contention. Herrera finished sixth.
Hafertepe is the 12th different driver to win an ASCS National Tour championship since 1992. He was the winningest driver of the 2016 season with eight feature event wins.
In contrast, Seth Bergman, from Snohomish, Wash., won one feature event all season long, and that was on Friday night. It was also Bergman’s first win at Cocopah Speedway.