PHOTO: John Donahue (#26) and Phil Scott (#14) took a big hit in the Thunder Road point standings after tangling late Thursday night. (Leif Tillotson photo)
–Justin St. Louis and T.J. Ingerson
BARRE — Thursday’s 75-lap, double-points Times Argus Mid-Season Championship race at Thunder Road probably wasn’t drawn up on paper the way it turned out.
Graniteville’s John Donahue entered the event with a 30-point lead on Phil Scott, with Dave Pembroke almost 60 points behind. Leaving the race, Pembroke leads Donahue by 21 points. Scott fell all the way to sixth.
With double championship points on the line in Thursday’s feature race, Scott was in the lead with Donahue second with just eight laps remaining. Donahue tried a crossover move from the outside lane to the inside of Scott’s racing line, but misjudged and turned Scott around after contact.
Both drivers went to the rear of the field. Pembroke won.
“I misjudged and point blank drove right into the back of Phil,” said Donahue, whose Kendall Roberts-owned team often shares information with Scott’s Pete Duto-led group. “Anybody but Phil. He’s one of my better friends here at the race track. I just overdrove it, didn’t expect it, something, just misjudged it. Point blank, straight up.”
Scott, the Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, was understandably upset.
“Disbelief,” was Scott’s one-word reaction to what happened. “I just thought that John was a better racer than that. We’ve always raced each other clean, and I don’t know what happened, but obviously he had control of the throttle and he came in behind me. I was leading the race.”
“I just went to pull down behind him,” Donahue said of his crossover move, noting that he was fully into the throttle. “My foot was into it, buried into it. I tried to hit the brake but by that time it was too late. I was thinking I’d drive up on the inside of him and straighten him out but it happened so quick. It’s my fault. Anybody but Phil, geez. It’s hard to keep friends on the track. I’ll try to keep Phil as a friend. I’ll try.”
Donahue said he only wanted to keep pace with Scott, Pembroke, and Nick Sweet, the drivers who entered the night closest to Donahue’s lead.
“I tried to work my way up through pretty aggressively to get up near the front, and I figured once I got up to the top five I could more or less cruise because the pressure’s off,” Donahue said. “As long as I could keep them guys around me I was happy, I was content. It didn’t matter if it was in the top three, as long as I was within a couple cars of Dave, Sweet, and Phil, it could’ve turned around and been a good day. It didn’t matter if it was 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, as long as I kept them with me I figured it would be a good day. And where were we? We were all in the top five. And then I just screwed up. Ruined everything. Ruined my night, Phil’s night. The ones that benefitted were Pembroke and Sweet.”
Pembroke and Sweet indeed benefitted, moving to first and third place, respectively, with Sweet just 25 points out of the lead. Sweet, though, said the big winners were the fans. A large crowd was on hand at Thunder Road, and the grandstands erupted when Scott spun.
“I didn’t see much, [but] they were going for the win, they’re both hardnosed racers, and that’s what brings the excitement to this place,” Sweet said. “Tonight, I guarantee, this race will be talked about. Hopefully, this will bring crowds in. It took a while for the wick to heat up, it was kind of a blah race in the beginning. But at the end of the race, it got exciting. It got exciting for everyone in the house. I think everyone got their money’s worth. That’s what we need to do here. We need to start doing that more often. Not dumping each other, just putting on good shows for these fans. They work hard to come here and watch us and that’s the way it should be.”
Scott and Donahue were in position to win because Chip Grenier, who had dominated the race, tangled with the lapped cars of Brad Mattson and rookie Jim “Boomer” Morris on lap 67. Despite chief starter Mike Wilder’s direction to Mattson with the blue passing flag to stay on the inside lane and let Grenier pass, Mattson swung wide to pass Morris as Grenier reached both cars.
With Scott quickly reeling Grenier in, Grenier tried to fill a gap between Mattson and Morris’ cars with a three-wide, up-the-middle pass. Mattson came down the track and all three cars spun to the infield.
“Probably [maddest at] myself for knowing better, but I’m actually disappointed with Brad Mattson, being that I’d already lapped him once,” Grenier said. “He’s got to know that I’m the leader, I would hope his spotter says, ‘The leader’s coming again.’ And then he steps out and tries to pass Boomer for, nothing against the guys, but probably 26th and 27th spot.”
Grenier entered the night down in the point standings after a tough first season racing for Gary and Kyle Caron’s team, but saw his chance to make up some ground and possibly win his first race of the year. A combination of that and the charge from Scott led to Grenier’s risky move.
“If Phil wasn’t so close to me I would never have ever done that, but when I see the green machine coming, I know it’s time to go hammer down,” Grenier said. “I blew it. I could have finished second I guess.”
The resulting restart from Grenier’s incident set up the Donahue-Scott tangle. Scott said getting a potential win taken from him reminded him of losing a possible American-Canadian Tour victory at Twin State Speedway in 2009, when a spun lapped car pulled out onto the track and put Scott into the wall.
“I led the [Twin State] race for 88 laps and something stupid happened. This is different, but it’s the same disappointment,” Scott said. “I don’t understand. I don’t get it. I’m sure [Donahue] has his reasons. I’m sure we’ll talk at some point, but not tonight.”
“I’m gonna give him some time, give him some space, let him calm down,” Donahue said. “I hope he realizes I didn’t do it intentionally. That’d be foolish on my part. I’d be going to the rear, too, and I did. Just a mistake. I got in the back of Phil and screwed the whole night up. That’s part of racing. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. We’ll come back next week and see what we can do.”
“We’ll try to come back next week with a car as good as we had tonight and see if we can win next week, but it’s awful tough to win,” said Scott. “When you’re that close it’s really disappointing.”