BECKLEY, W.Va. — It didn’t take Ross Bailes long to find victory lane in his new ride.
Making just his third feature start behind the wheel of a Norman Nichols-owned Barry Wright Race Car, the 33-year-old Clover, S.C., driver matched his career-high with a $20,000 Beckley USA 100 victory on the Southern All Star Dirt Racing Series at Beckley Motor Speedway.
Bailes led all the way, surviving an early slide-job attempt by Jimmy Owens, a midrace challenge from Jacob Hawkins and finally a late scrape with a slower car in maintaining control all the way.
"I can't thank Norman Nichols enough for letting me drive this car,” said Bailes, who split amicably with Billy Hicks Racing in June. “Man, this Barry Wright Race Car, it just suits me. I mean, this thing was awesome from the time we unloaded. I’ve gotta thanks Barry and Lance, all of Norman’s guys, they busted their butts on it last night and tonight.”
After the race’s sixth and final caution on lap 91, Bailes pulled away in the final laps to win by a 3.215-second margin over Hawkins, the Fairmont, W.Va., driver who started fourth and chased Bailes from the second spot the final 57 laps.
Zack Dohm of Cross Lanes, W.Va., driving his father Tim’s No. 6T, rallied from his 12th starting spot for third while Zack Mitchell of Enoree, S.C., and Newport, Tenn.’s Owens rounded out the top five. Polesitter Garrett Smith of Eatonton, Ga., was never a factor, dropping out of the top five after 14 laps and finishing 13th.
Steering his white No. 5 car into the lead at the outset, Bailes faced his first challenge from Owens shortly after a lap-20 restart. Owens dove under Bailes into turn three to briefly edge ahead, but Bailes crossed under Owens exiting turn four to maintain the point.
Hawkins wrestled the second spot from Owens and took up the chase, nearly pulling alongside the leader just past the halfway point before a caution blunted his charge.
“I thought there about lap 55, I really felt like we were going to get him and the caution fell and then we just never could get back beside him like we were,” Hawkins said.
From then on, Bailes was mostly unchallenged until the late stages when Hawkins was trying to close the gap again. This time contact between Bailes and series points leader Caleb Gay, the last driver on the lead lap, sent Gay around on the backstretch and Hawkins caught a piece of the action flashing by.
Later in the race, “I knew if I stayed in the bottom and just held my line, I should be OK,” Bailes said. “I got a little bit worried when we got in lapped traffic. I was worried somebody was gonna roll me up top. Once (the track surface) rubbered up, I tried to save my stuff.”
While blown tires weren’t the issue they’ve been in some long-distance events at Beckley, “obviously I was a little bit worried about it, because last time I was here, I had a flat,” Bailes said. “But that's part of it. I mean, the track was slick from top to bottom, so I think that helped out a lot.”
With passing at a premium late in the race, “we were gonna have to get in some lapped traffic, and we did, and I decided to go high there,” Hawkins said. “The one time I went high and Ross, which he needed to go, he kind of moved that lapped car and just kind of parked him in front of us. But we're very fortunate. I can't think Zack Dohm enough for running me clean, because I know I was holding the entire field up those last nine laps.”
Dohm, who spun after getting in a scrape with Keith Jackson while battling for fifth on the 20th lap, recovered to finish third and decided that “when you can pass nine cars, it's pretty fun.”
He called the incident with Jackson “just racing,” and it turned out OK when an official ruling just cost him two spots instead of sending him to the tail for the lap-20 restart.
“I accidentally doored him out of the way getting into (turn) three, and he dumped me getting into (turn) one,” Dohm said. “So we only lost two spots, thank God for the blend rule.”
The 100-lap feature was slowed by six cautions, including the Bailes-Gay yellow on lap 91. The other cautions: Jacob Wiblin's early spin in turns one and two; Dohm's spin (lap 20); a multicar skirmish in turns one and two on the lap-20 restart; a slowing Kenneth Howell (lap 54); and a flat tire for Keith Bills (lap 64).
Notes: Bailes is the first repeat winner on the SAS circuit in 10 races in 2023. ... He won the SAS opener Feb. 4 at Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania, Ga., when he was driving for Billy Hicks Racing. … The event drew drivers from 10 states. … Marshall Wiblin scratched from the feature. ... The Beckley USA 100 is not to be confused with the USA 100 previously held by the late Ernie Shelton, an event formerly held at Beckley and most recently run at Virginia Motor Speedway in Jamaica, Va.