If you squinted just right, it almost looked like 3-time ARCA national champion Jack Bowsher leading the pack Saturday night under the lights at Salem Speedway. But of course it wasn't...it was Fort Kent, Maine's Austin Theriault who's become very good at leading the charge among the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards ranks.
Theriault, driving a special blue and white Bowsher Throwback scheme, hunted down Zane Smith in the closing laps, passed him with four laps to go, then drove away to win the 102nd running of the Eddie Gilstrap Motors Fall Classic. It was Theriault's sixth win of the season and third consecutive in the No. 52 Ken Schrader Racing Ford.
Theriault looked a lot like Bowsher in the lap-leader column too, leading 140 of 200 laps en route to Salem's coveted winner's circle. Some race fans of course remember when Bowsher won seven straight ARCA races at Salem from 1963 through 1965.
"What an honor to win here...this seems like everybody's favorite track," said Theriault. "This place will beat you up. I didn't know Jack (Bowsher) obviously but to be mentioned in the same sentence with him is an honor. A lot of his family was here tonight and with me in Victory Lane...pretty special to be a part of that. Maybe he was riding with us tonight."
Theriault, with the first pit cycle wedged in, led the first 136 laps before Tom Hessert beat Theriault off pit road on the second and final stop. Hessert led from lap 137 through 141 before Smith, who had already passed Theriault for second, wiggled Hessert out of the way to lead the 142nd lap. Then Smith pulled away by 10 lengths as Hessert fought hard to hold off Theriault. But once Theriault finally cleared Hessert, he tracked down the leader, got underneath him in turns one and two on lap 196 and set sail.
Smith, in the No. 28 KMC Wheels Toyota for MDM Motorsports, held on for second.
"This is the first time I've really been able to go for a win," said Smith. "I learned a lot out there. Everything was going great there at the end. I thought I was saving a lot for the end...I should have saved more. It was a great learning experience...I just need to save a little more for the end."
Smith had an eventful night, winning his career-first General Tire Pole after he smacked the turn three wall hard in practice. To get the car fixed in time, the crew had to forego their 'in line qualifying time', which means they had to start at the tail-end of the field. After nearly getting lapped on the first long green flag run, Smith pitted, made the necessary adjustments and drove to the front.
Dalton Sargeant finished third in the No. 77 Big Tine Ford with a Throwback scheme to the late Alan Kulwicki's 1992 NASCAR Cup championship season.
"That was definitely a fun race for sure," said Sargeant. "Those last 50 laps were crazy. Hope it was good for the fans...I sure enjoyed it. Thanks to my Cunningham Motorsports crew for all their hard work."
Josh Williams, making his first ARCA start since Kansas 2016, stormed through the field in the late going to finish fourth. Williams, running a Throwback scheme to family friend/racer Bob Fields who recently passed away, charged from outside the 10th position inside of 30 laps to go and was the fastest car on the track in the end. However, the car was way off in the beginning and it took him most of the race to get there.
"We changed a lot of stuff on the car throughout the run," said Williams. "Major swings...six rounds down on the track bar and four rounds of wedge in the left rear. We were so fast in the end...track position was all we needed and just a few more laps."
Gus Dean finished fifth in the No. 32 GREE Cooling Products Toyota, the last car on the lead lap.
Theriault credited the win to his hard-working crew, led by Cometic Crew Chief leader Donnie Richeson.
"This Ken Schrader Racing team has just been working so hard," Theriault said. "We were able to get ourselves in a position with the points where we had some cushion...give us some room to try some things. It took a few laps for our tires to fire off with the tire pressure we needed, but in the long runs, we were exceptional. The General Tires worked very well. But we haven't lucked into any of these wins...it's all just hard work.
"We need to focus on the mile-and-a-halves now...that's where we need the most work. These last three speedway races will be a real test for this team."
Just three cautions for 20 laps slowed the pace during the 200-lap race while the majority of the laps were under green flag conditions.
Theriault clinched the Sioux Chief Short Track Challenge championship and currently leads the General Tire Superspeedway Challenge title fight.
The ARCA Racing Series travels next to Chicagoland Speedway for the SCOTT 150 Thursday night, Sept. 14, live on FS1.