ROSSBURG, Ohio — Champion mixed martial artist Donald Cerrone once famously said, “To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” and David Gravel did just that Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway.
Gravel became one of the few drivers this season to defeat Kyle Larson in a heads-up battle, stopping the 39-time winner in a sprint to the finish line to win the finale of the two-night Governors Reign.
Though Gravel led all 35 laps from the pole, it was the final tour around the historic half-mile dirt oval that had everyone talking, after Brock Zearfoss bottled up the outside lane in turn four as Gravel swung high toward the checkered flag.
That cut the momentum of the Jason Johnson Racing No. 41 and allowed Larson to nearly pull alongside with the Silva Motorsports No. 57 in the final few feet with a massive slide-job attempt.
However, Gravel was able to cut down just enough to stymie Larson’s furious advance, reaching the flagstand first by a scant .098 seconds for his fifth 410 sprint car victory of the season.
Wednesday night’s score was Gravel’s fourth career Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions victory and paid a whopping $52,000 — the third-highest winner’s payout for a sprint car race this season.
“That was super hard,” Gravel said in victory lane. “When you were in lap traffic tonight, it got dusty and was really hard to see the cushion, so I was trying not to slide the tires going into the corner so I didn’t hit the curb and get tight. I really needed to keep it as straight as I could, and it was really hard to do.
“I know when I would hit the bottom of (turns) three and four right it was really good, but man, that was hard to do,” he continued. “Those guys racing at the end on the last lap … I thought, ‘Oh, the top is open on entry so I’ve got to take it,’ and even if he (Larson) slid me on entry I thought I could turn back underneath him. I saw him with three or four to go poke his nose, and I figured it was him.
“I just had to make a couple good laps. Obviously he was closing, but when you’re running second sometimes it’s better in lap traffic, and luckily we were able to hold on to that one right at the end.”
The 35-lap feature was far cleaner than Tuesday night’s preliminary main, with the only multi-car incident coming on the initial start after sixth-starting Donny Schatz failed to get up to speed.
That caused an accordion-style stack up deeper in the pack, with Jacob Allen and James McFadden tangling at the back of the field and Schatz ending up with nose wing damage that he would later need to have repaired in the work area.
A complete restart followed that melee, with Gravel jumping to the lead over Brent Marks as Carson Macedo and Sheldon Haudenschild also gave chase. But Larson, who started 10th, advanced quickly.
He moved into sixth by lap nine and slid to fifth on the 12th rotation, all while Gravel built a lead of more than a second. But slower traffic was looming, and by halfway the leaders were mired in it.
Slower cars allowed Larson to begin picking off his competition one by one, and he was third by the time the second and final yellow flag of the race waved with 16 to go for a spinning Cory Eliason.
Though Eliason remained under power and kept rolling, his Rudeen Racing No. 26 did a complete 360 spin, forcing an automatic caution under All Star rules.
The restart lined up with Gravel ahead of Marks and Larson, but the driver nicknamed “Yung Money” cashed in a mammoth slider in turn one when the green returned to seize second from Marks.
From there, the chase was on, both in and out of traffic as Larson tried lap after lap to catch Gravel for a shot at the win. The gap was 1.4 seconds with 14 to go, but Larson began gaining ground two laps later.
Gravel’s lead shrunk as low as four tenths of a second with eight laps left, at the height of his battle through traffic with Larson, but the Watertown, Conn., native began inching away coming to five to go and it appeared the die was cast.
Not so, Larson said, as he pitched his car to the bottom in turn four after the white flag, hoping that Gravel was slowed up enough that he could steal the win by a nose. But Gravel was simply too strong.
Sheldon Haudenschild passed two cars on the final lap to take the final step on the podium, with Tuesday winner Marks crossing fourth and Macedo finishing fifth.
World of Outlaws point leader Brad Sweet rolled from 13th to sixth, with Gio Scelzi and Kerry Madsen in hot pursuit. Logan Schuchart was the hard charger for the second night running after his charge from 20th to ninth, while Schuchart’s Shark Racing teammate Allen rallied back to close the top 10.
Eliason and Paul McMahan used All Star provisionals to start the main event, finishing 17th and 22nd, respectively.
The Governors Reign marked the lone sprint car race to take place at Eldora Speedway this season, albeit without fans in attendance, and was meant to stand in for events like the Kings Royal or 4-Crown Nationals — both of which were canceled this season due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
While it may not have carried the nameplate of either of those “crown jewel” races, Gravel still viewed Wednesday night’s score as another gem in his career crown.
“This field was as stout as any we’ve had all year. Whenever it pays more than 50 grand, that’s a crown jewel to me,” he grinned. “We’re going to take it to the bank and it feels good to close it out like this.”
1. 41-David Gravel , 2. 57-Kyle Larson , 3. 17s-Sheldon Haudenschild , 4. 5-Brent Marks , 5. 2-Carson Macedo , 6. 49-Brad Sweet , 7. 18-Gio Scelzi , 8. 2m-Kerry Madsen , 9. 1s-Logan Schuchart , 10. 1a-Jacob Allen , 11. 72-Daryn Pittman , 12. 14-Tim Kaeding , 13. 87-Aaron Reutzel , 14. 7bc-Tyler Courtney , 15. 21-Brian Brown , 16. 9-James McFadden , 17. 26-Cory Eliason , 18. 3z-Brock Zearfoss , 19. 15-Donny Schatz , 20. 12n-Joey Saldana , 21. 39m-Anthony Macri , 22. 13-Paul McMahan , 23. 14p-Parker Price-Miller , 24. 71-Shane Stewart , 25. 3-Jac Haudenschild , 26. 28-Tim Shaffer .
Lap Leader(s): David Gravel 1-35.
KSE Hard Charger: 1s-Logan Schuchart [+11]