BRISTOL, Tenn. — “Double Reversal of Fortune” would make a good title for a Hollywood movie, and an appropriate title for the drama created by two local drivers at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday.
Abingdon racer Caleb Holman and Elizabethton driver Wade Day are well acquainted with Bristol Motor Speedway, and each other. They’re both contenders for the win every time they take the track in the Hooters Pro Cup series. Not exactly teammates, they still share information, crew members and shocks prepared by “high-in-demand” specialist and Holman crew chief Kenny Hunley.
Another thing they have in common is that Bristol has broken both of their hearts in the past. One year Holman failed to qualify for a NASCAR Nationwide Series race by 0.001 of a second, and the next year he was 14th fastest in practice and didn’t make the race because qualifying was snowed out.
Last year at Bristol, Day was the man to beat in the Hooters Pro Cup race. He led the most laps, dominated the field, and then blew a right front tire and creamed the turn two wall.
Holman had a top 10 run going last year as well before being wrecked out.
The Times-News shadowed both local drivers Wednesday to document their highs and lows — their struggles and triumphs on the World’s Fastest Half Mile. By the time the checkered flag fell, one local boy had tasted painful defeat again, while the other enjoyed the triumph of a lifetime.
Coming into Wednesday’s Aaron’s 150 one might have predicted based on past history that Day would again have a dominant car from the start, while Holman might be around the fringes of the top 10 in practice.
But it was Day who struggled in practice Wednesday morning, blowing his primary Bristol engine on only his fourth lap out. In the words of veteran crewman Larry Collins, the motor “spit out a rod.”
He had a backup motor in the car in time to log some laps in the second practice session but was only 18th fastest. What his competitors didn’t know then was that Day wasn’t showing all of his cards.
“(The motor change) puts us behind the eight-ball, that’s for sure,” Day said after practice. “We lost that first practice where you tweak everything on the car. We put a good motor in there, not as good as the other one but it’s good. We might be top 10 in qualifying, but the car is going to be good in the race.
“I’ve told everybody that if nothing happens we’re going to be there at the end. Hopefully, our bad luck for this race is already out of the way.”
Meanwhile Holman was fast from the moment his crew unloaded the car off the trailer. With 46 cars entered, Holman was quickest overall in practice.
“We pretty much did all of our work last Monday during the open practice,” said Kirby Gobble, team member and cousin of Holman. “We were fast right off the trailer. Just a little tweaking here and there. If we can get a little bit more out of the driver we might have a shot at the pole. The car’s got a little bit more.”
Holman told the Times-News prior to the race that despite his past misfortunes, he doesn’t feel like Bristol owes him anything. But he also feels like in his second year of Hooter Pro Cup racing he’s “turned the corner” and is ready for more success.
“We really, really need to win,” Holman said. “A good night for us is a top five. I’m not going to be real excited about ninth place. We get a top 10, that’s OK, but we need a top five, and we need to win. We’ve come a long way in two years, and we’ve been fast enough a lot. We need to be up front and lead laps, and we need to get us a win.”
Holman was 35th in line to qualify and knocked last year’s race winner Benny Gordon off the pole. The last car in line with a legitimate shot at knocking Holman off the pole was Day. As Day’s No. 96 was placed atop the leaderboard, a loud grunt could be heard from atop Holman’s hauler, where he watched the end of qualifying.
A moment of disgust and then Holman was down the ladder and on pit lane to congratulate his friend.
“I’m going to slap Wade Day,” Holman joked. “We share information, and sometimes that comes back to bite you. If it was going to be anybody, I’m glad it was Wade.”
Day admitted after qualifying that his practice times weren’t reflective of the car’s potential.
“We practiced on old tires,” Day said. “I knew the car was good. This is a track where a good handling car can give up a little bit in the horsepower department and still be good. We’re starting up front, and now we’ve got to stay there. That’s the trick.”
There were three major cautions within the first 30 laps, and the two local boys were involved in two of them. The first wreck happened on the second lap — a major wipe-out behind the leaders that brought out the red flag. Half of the field including Day and Holman made their one mandatory pit stop during the first caution. Both had decided to pit at the first opportunity because the tires weren’t losing much grip. It was a track position decision.
That put a bunch of slow cars in front of the leaders. Around lap 18 Holman found himself behind a slow car in the bottom groove, made contact coming out of turn four, and sent a couple of cars spinning. Day, who was right behind the calamity, made it through unscathed.
Day wasn’t so fortunate on lap 30, however. By then the pole sitter had worked his way back up to seventh place when Mark McFarland made contact with Day from behind, sending Day hard into the turn four wall. A broken suspension part ended Day’s night, and another shot at a win at his home track.
But Holman was the fastest car on the track the entire race. He dodged a bullet when a car blew a tire right in front of him and then passed Allen Purkhiser for the lead on lap 54 and never relinquished the top spot.
There was a long stretch of green in the second half of the race, during which Holman extended his lead to nearly a full straightaway over Gordon, who’d taken over second place.
When the caution flag came out with 18 laps to go, the team on pit lane grimaced. If something was going to blow their chance at a win, it would happen now.
“I was a little worried because Benny Gordon had bumped us on the previous restart,” said Darrell Holman, Caleb’s father, spotter and mentor. “I knew if we could get a clean start we had them. When Caleb pulled out of ahead of him by a few car lengths, I let out a sigh of relief. I knew we had it then.”
Not only was it Holman’s first Hooters Pro Cup win, it was his first win at Bristol Motor Speedway in a career that has included attempts in the Nationwide Series, Goody’s Dash Series and Late Models.
“Ever since I could walk, talk, think — this has been my dream,” Holman said afterward. “Growing up in the shadow of Bristol Motor Speedway, this has been my goal for as long as I can remember. I have never had a car this good before. To have a car this good at Bristol Motor Speedway and win the race — it’s a dream come true.”
But it’s not as good as it gets, according to his crew chief, Hunley.
“If the 96 car had finished second, it would have been better,” Hunley said from victory lane. “Somebody stuck him in the wall, and he broke a track bar.”
Hunley has been to victory lane about five times in his long racing career, but he said this one is his favorite.
“They keep getting better.”