KANSAS CITY - The scene for the 2012 ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season finale at Kansas Speedway resembled the setting one year ago at the track, when Alex Bowman won his second career start and Chris Buescher wrapped up the Hoosier Tire Superspeedway Challenge on his way to winning top rookie honors one week later.
Friday, though, the two impressed even further at a year older apiece, with Bowman defending his victory from the pole and Buescher clinching the ARCA Racing Series championship with a eighth-place finish that looked conservative and demanding all at once.
For Bowman (No. 22 St. Jude Children's Research Hospital Dodge), the win tied him with Buescher at a series-high four each in 2012, and was the sixth of his career. By beating Brennan Poole (No. 25 Colt Ford/Average Joes Entertainment Toyota) by three positions in the race, he held off Poole to win the Team Messina Rookie Challenge by four points, supplanting the now-experienced Buescher for top newcomer honors.
Buescher (No. 17 BeavEx/Reliance Tool Ford) is the 30th different champion in ARCA Racing Series history, and the second youngest at 19 years, 356 days. Before Buescher, only one driver had won ARCA Rookie of the Year honors in one year and the championship in the next - Bill Baird in 1998-99.
The championship is the first for Midlothian, Ill.-based Roulo Brothers Racing and co-owners Gary and Russell Roulo. Since 1986, the family-led organization has won 31 races but had never run a full season or contended for a title until 2011. Now, in two complete seasons, the team has finished second and first, with the top two ARCA milestones securely in the trophy case.
"This is definitely exciting," said Buescher, a Roush Fenway Racing development driver from Prosper, Texas. "It's definitely going to take a little while for this one to sink in. It's hard to race that way, trying to conserve tires. We had a couple issues, but I was just trying to do everything I could so nothing crazy happened there. Hats off to the Roulo Brothers and Roush Fenway. David Ragan's been a huge part of my career, and there are a lot of others that mean a lot to my career."
Bowman won his series-best sixth Menards Pole Award presented by Ansell with a qualifying lap of 29.259 seconds (184.559 mph), easily topping the 2008 track record set by Ken Butler III. The new pavement not only increased the practice and qualifying speeds, but also made drivers slightly cautious going into the race.
Bowman had the car to beat all night long, leading 67 of the race's 99 laps, including the final 15.
"I've had a perfect race car twice," Bowman said after the race. "This year at Salem, and tonight on that last run. I just can't thank everyone enough at Cunningham Motorsports. It's been great working with everyone, (crew chief) Paul Andrews, it's been an honor. It's been a good year. We've had our struggles, we've had our bad luck - more than our share of bad luck, probably. But we led the most laps for the year and sat on the most poles for the year so it's been really fun."
After a morning practice led by Will Kimmel (No. 68 Mallory Ignition Ford), ARCA teams waited over six hours to qualify, leaving little time between the end of qualifying and the start of the race. Bowman said after qualifying that he and Poole would have the cars to beat, and his prediction came true almost right away.
At the green flag, Bowman coasted to a first-lap lead of over one second on Venturini Motorsports teammates John Wes Townley and Poole, who had started fourth but passed teammate Kevin Swindell (No. 55 Curb Records Toyota). A Lap 2 crash involving Chad Boat, Chad Hackenbracht, and Matt Lofton halted Bowman's momentum, but the Tucson, Ariz. native had proven himself a fast entry already.
Bowman led the field to a Lap 9 green flag and led Townley by over two seconds within five laps. Townley had nearly erased the gap by Lap 20, and was within a quarter-second at Lap 25 while Swindell was over six seconds behind in third.
The leaders had a close moment driving around a lapped car on Lap 29, taking away just enough of Bowman's momentum to help Townley to a lead of inches the next time around. On Lap 31, the race's second caution flag flew, sending the leaders to pit road.
Townley exited first and led the field to green at Lap 37, but Bowman wasted no time. Townley led just one lap under green before Bowman passed him. Again, he built a two-second lead within five laps, and that lead became five seconds by Lap 56 when Townley and Poole - again in second and third - got tied up behind a lapped car.
Meanwhile, Frank Kimmel (No. 44 Ansell/Menards Toyota) was running fifth, but that was not enough to top Buescher, who was running just inside the top 10 on a night where he needed only a top-15 finish regardless of Kimmel's performance to seal the championship.
A Lap 58 crash and the ensuing caution period sent Bowman to pit road. Grant Enfinger (No. 09 Casite.com/Motor Honey Ford) had been running seventh before the incident, but took the lead after Bowman's drive to his pit.
Townley, Poole, Frank Kimmel, Brennan Newberry (No. 92 NTS Motorsports Chevrolet), Mason Mitchell (No. 6 J&S Ag Services Chevrolet), Swindell, and Buescher filled out the top eight, with Bowman ninth and Will Kimmel 10th. The green flag flew at Lap 65, with Enfinger maintaining his advantage and the Venturini duo of Townley and Poole charging behind him. Behind them, Bowman moved up to sixth. In the championship hunt, Frank Kimmel was fourth, but Buescher maintained ninth place despite battling heavy tire wear on the new Kansas Speedway surface.
Townley crashed on Lap 70 to bring out the caution flag again, and Buescher elected to pit on Lap 72. Enfinger led over a long caution period, but had to act quickly when the green flag flew at Lap 81.
That's because Poole, who restarted second, made a move to the inside to challenge Enfinger. Enfinger made a better run off of Turn 3 to keep the lead. Frank Kimmel had moved to third after the Townley crash and kept that spot. Bowman, though, was moving up. He passed Newberry for fourth on Lap 82.
Enfinger continued to lead, his sights set on a potential first victory in the ARCA Racing Series. Ever charging, though, Bowman made things interesting on Lap 84, creating with Poole and Enfinger a three-wide battle for the lead after passing Kimmel. Poole led the lap by a very slim margin, but Bowman took the top spot the next time around - for good.
A Lap 86 crash involving Brandon Davis and Chris Windom brought out the caution flag with Bowman in front, and he coasted out front until a Lap 94 restart. Poole started second, but Enfinger was challenging him for the position; neither would finish as the runner-up. Swindell passed both for the second position as the laps wound down, helping Bowman increase his lead on the field.
Bowman won by 2.017 seconds over Swindell, Enfinger, Poole, and Newberry. Frank Kimmel was sixth over Mitchell.
Buescher drove across the start/finish line eighth to finish with a 75-point lead over Frank Kimmel in the final standings. Following him were Will Kimmel and Ryan Reed (No. 15 JDRF Ford).
In addition to his award as the top rookie, Bowman also finished the season as the Aaron's Lap Leader of the Year, having led 554 laps in 12 races, both totals higher than any other driver in the series.
With his fourth-place finish, Poole won the Hoosier Tire Superspeedway Challenge Award by 105 points over Kimmel. Poole had only needed a top-20 finish entering the last of seven speedway races for the season.
Five cautions slowed the field for 38 laps. The race finished in one hour, 29 minutes, and 58 seconds, equaling an average pace of 99.037 miles per hour.