GAFFNEY, S.C. — They say you have to lose one before you can win one.
Chris Ferguson took care of the losing part last year in Cherokee Speedway's Ginger Owens Memorial March Madness when a flat tire with three laps remaining cost him his first victory in the track's longtime season opener.
This year, he grabbed the win.
The 33-year-old Mount Holly, N.C., driver's luck turned around in a big way on Sunday as four competitors ahead of him with 15 laps remaining all fell from contention during the race's crazy lap 36, moving the fifth-running Ferguson into first and then victory lane as he led the final 15 circuits in a 50-lap feature where tire wear, as usual at the 3/8-mile oval, played a major role in the outcome.
Ferguson's victory — coming in his debut of a new Longhorn Chassis — paid a race-record $20,000, gave him his third career Southern All Star Dirt Racing Series triumph and made him the night's hero at the legendary track where he cut his racing teeth as a teenager.
"It's amazing. This place has been awesome to me. It's taken a lot from me. I've had a lot of races here I should've won," Ferguson said in victory lane. "Man, I was just praying that we would make it, you know? I got back there in fifth and just rode.
"I've been leading this race and been on the other end of it. It's taken some wins from me, but I just can't thank the good Lord enough. He gave me this win and here we are."
Ferguson took the checkers 0.918 of a second ahead of his 11th-starting cousin Carson Ferguson of Lincolnton, N.C., while Super Late Model rookie Caleb Gay of Dublin, Ga., improved 22 positions to land on the podium. Home-tracker Dillon Brown was fourth and World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series regular Ryan Gustin of Marshalltown, Iowa, rounded out the top five in a race that saw Mike Marlar pace the first 35 laps before retiring with a flat tire.
The race was also spiced by a chest-bumping Chris Madden-Brandon Overton showdown just outside the turn-one exit when the drivers climbed from their cars shortly after being eliminated in a scramble on a lap-36 restart. Madden and Overton, who bumped chests four times before Overton shoved Madden with both hands, were separated by officials and track workers with supporters of both drivers joining a brouhaha that included security appearing to handcuff at least one scuffler.
The third- and fourth-running cars of Madden and Overton were in the center of a frontstretch scramble on one of the race's dozen restarts when Madden didn't come up to speed exiting turn four. Madden pushed up the track in turn four — apparently because of a flat right-front flat tire — and contact with Overton caused both drivers to stop their cars along the homestretch wall and then limp to the pit area where they had their confrontation.
After the departure of Madden and Overton, Marlar had a right-front flat tire while rolling around the track under caution and he elected to call it a night. That tentatively handed the lead to Michael Brown of Pageland, S.C., who had challenged Marlar several times midway through the race.
But Brown's flat as the field came back to green on lap 36 ended his hopes as Chris Ferguson, who had held the fourth and fifth spots throughout the race, suddenly found himself out front. He survived a few more cautions and kept his cousin in check to grab his richest Cherokee victory.
Ferguson's voice cracked in victory lane because the team is racing without former crew member and transporter driver Robert "Paw Paw" Bramlett, who died Friday at the age of 71, and another crew member's mother who died recently.
"I'm just so thankful because all these people ... there's nowhere else like this track," Ferguson said in victory lane while soaking up the victory. "To me, this is special. All these people in victory lane and all these people that pulled for me. I'm just so grateful and thankful for you guys."
Carson Ferguson rallied into contention from the sixth row, but he never made a serious bid for the lead after reaching the second spot.
"I just dug myself in a hole in qualifying. Just didn't drive it like I needed to and kind of put ourselves behind," the runner-up said. "But, you know, a lot of things got to go your way to even run second in these things. I was able to line up on the top (side) just about every restart there and I was able to make the middle work."
Carson Ferguson added that he "was wanting to beat Chris, but at the same time, with the (difficult) start of the year we've had, just getting getting a second is still a good payday. I know they had a long winter themselves."
Gay, who had more than 50 Crate Late Model victories over the last eight seasons, finished third in his second career Super Late Model start in his Viking Motorsports entry owned by Randy and Erica Reynolds. He was sixth a month earlier in his Southern All Star debut and hopes the third-place finish can help him continue with the series despite not having a backup powerplant or complete preparations to hit the road.
"We're gonna keep going as far as we can and maybe luck will fall our way and it will work out that we can," Gay said, punctuating his excitement with an expletive. "We're gonna keep plugging at it and I just appreciate everybody that comes and helps it. I mean, it took everybody that come with us to make this happen."
The feature was slowed by 12 cautions, the first for a called back restart and the second on lap 13 for John Price's flat tire. Benji Hicks slowed with a lap-14 flat and then Josh Henry slowed on lap 29 on the backstretch.
Six back-to-back cautions appeared on lap 34 (Jeff Smith blowout), lap 35 (a slowing Ethan Dotson) and lap 36 (Zack Mitchell flat) before sixth-running Trent Ivey pulled up lame on the lap-36 restart (he pitted and rejoined the event).
The next caution was for the Madden-Overton incident and then another for Michael Brown's flat tire as he was set to take command after Marlar's departure.
Cla Knight drew a lap-49 caution for a flat tire then Daulton Wilson hit the turn-one wall just after the lap-49 restart, collecting Logan Roberson. Wilson climbed out apparently unhurt but his car suffered significant damage.
Notes: Chris Ferguson notched his first victory since a Nov. 20 Crate Late Model win at Cherokee. His previous Super Late Model victory was June 9 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, a preliminary for the Eldora Million. ... Ferguson has piloted Team Zero Race Cars designed by Scott Bloomquist in recent seasons but announced late last week his plans to run a Longhorn Chassis. ... Kyle Strickler had a flat left-rear tire during a caution period with 15 laps remaining but rallied to finish sixth. ... Logan Roberson was running 11th when a flat tire forced him to pit during the lap-34 caution period. He was then caught up in Daulton Wilson's lap-49 wreck. ... The 28-car starting field was the biggest in race history (Dan Cox would've made 29 starters but he scratched); the previous high was 25 starters in 2013.