UNION, Ky. — It's never easy watching competitors race past and pull away. But that's exactly what Ricky Thornton Jr. faced Saturday evening at Florence Speedway, despite starting on the pole for the 45th annual Spring 50.
The Chandler, Ariz., native led the first three laps, but after fellow front-row starter Jimmy Owens went around him in turn four on the fourth circuit, Thornton dropped all the way back to fifth a lap later. Teammates signaled Thornton from the infield not to worry, encouraging him to take it easy while battling rough-and-tumble conditions at the half-mile oval.
"My crew guy was yelling at me early, like, 'Slow down, just let those guys go,' " Thornton said.
Thornton indeed avoided problems that knocked out contenders — second-running Josh Rice retired midrace and another local, Robby Hensley, dropped out running fifth a few laps later — and was solidly in third as the race entered the late stages.
He moved up to second and began stalking Owens when the leader's car hit a rough patch in turn two and violently bounced, forcing the leader to try and gather his car while Thornton dove into the lead in turn three.
Thornton nipped Owens at the line on the 44th lap, then led the rest of the way for a $10,000 victory in the unsanctioned Super Late Model event that opened the season at Florence.
Thornton took the checkers comfortably ahead of runner-up Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., while Owens, a three-time North-South 100 winner from Newport, Tenn., settled for third in the rugged conditions. Hometown driver Darrell Lanigan advanced seven positions to finish fourth while Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, who briefly held the second spot early, finished fifth.
"Our gameplan there was just to kind of ride around the bottom as long as we could, and kind of save our stuff," Thornton said in victory lane, adding that he did his best to find the smoothest way round the track.
"I think I was way worse if I was hitting the holes," he added, but "overall, it really wasn't that bad. You could still race. So that part was really nice."
Once Owens took command on the fourth lap, he pulled to commanding leads while Erb and then Rice gave chase. Verona, Ky.'s Rice advanced from eighth to second and looked strong before pulling to the infield near halfway, allowing Owens to open up his lead again.
Thornton inherited third upon Rice's departure and was up to second late in the race when Owens had his race-changing problems in turn two.
"I felt like I could start kind of closing in on him, but once you get so close, the air gets so bad," Thornton said. "I feel like once before he hit the holes, as close as I got to him was as close as I was going to get unless I moved my line. He hit that hole wrong once and that was about all it took. He started bucking around."
Thornton took advantage and led the rest of the way, surviving a pair of late restarts to complete the victory.
The race saw four cautions, all for single-car incidents or debris. Hudson O'Neal slowed with a flat left-rear on the 13th lap headed to the infield for new rubber. Hensley, who started 12th, was running fifth when he got into the fence in turns three and four and slowed for a lap-33 yellow flag.
The second-to-last caution appeared when fifth-running Brian Shirley ran into trouble in turn one with six laps remaining and a lap-47 caution flew for debris in turn four.
Notes: It wasn't the first time Thornton has dueled Owens for the lead at Florence. In last year's North-South 100, Thornton briefly edged ahead of Owens on lap 65 in the $50,000-to-win Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series event, but ended up fading from contention in the race won by Tim McCreadie. ... That marked Thornton's lone previous feature start at Florence. He failed to transfer in last August's preliminary events before the North-South. ... Thornton is the race's 23rd winning and ninth winner in the last nine runnings of the event. ... The Super Late Model field represented nine states. ... Stormy Scott picked up a $500 fast time award from Slicker Graphics in memory of Jeff Perry, a dedicated race fan who died in January. ... Scott went on to have multiple issues maneuvering turn four in the first heat, dropping back to finish fourth in the rough conditions. He finished seventh in the main event. ... Florence is scheduled to host a March 20 practice then goes back into action March 27 with a $5,000-to-win Super Late Model program.