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BY JOE CONROY Special to the Californian
In just his second year of racing and barely old enough to drive on the streets, 16-year-old Matt Lewis took home the checkered flag in the American Stocks mains at Friday night's 27th Annual Budweiser Nationals at Bakersfield Speedway.
The Bakersfield native had to hold off the reigning champion -- and Lewis' cousin -- in the event, Rick Childress Jr., the entire race.
A caution late in the 20-car, 25-lap event helped keep Childress in striking distance.
And though Childress tried the outside ridge and kept the pressure on the leader, he could not catch this year's American Stocks track champion.
"I have no idea; I'm just amazed right now," the Bakersfield native said after the win. "I'm really happy I got to race with my cousin."
Tyler Johnson finished behind Lewis and Childress to take third place after moving out of fourth on the 24th lap.
More than 170 cars took to the Speedway as part of the opening night of the Budweiser Nationals.
The track raced fast all night, starting with a half-dozen drivers setting Speedway single-lap records during early qualifying rounds. Jesse Stovall, in his Super Late Model, ended up with the fastest time of 12.840 seconds, breaking Mike Kirby's mark of 12.995, set in April.
And once the racing started, speed continued to come with ease, with track conditions on the third-mile clay oval remaining optimal throughout the evening.
Leading for all but the first seven laps in the IMCA Modified mains, Larry Hood stretched out an enormous lead by the 20th, battling cautions and myriad racers who traded second and third throughout the 30-lap race.
Brad Pounds pushed Hood late, when Pounds threatened to take the lead away in lap 29, but Hood held him off with deft maneuvering on the high side of turns No. 3 and 4.
Robby Sawyer rounded out the top three for an all-Bakersfield trophy stand.
Though locals owned the early races, an out-of-stater took control of the Super Late Model main event and refused to give it back.
Stovall, from Republic, Mo., wrested the lead from Bobby Hogge of Salinas in the 18th lap and left his teeth marks on it until the 30th and final trip around the track.
Hogge, who raced in the IMCA Modified mains, used his previous experience on the track to his advantage in the Late Models event. But Stovall quickly saw Hogue's technique of riding the ridge on the outside of the track and adapted his game plan.
John Lowery finished third in the race after slipping out of second in the 10th lap.
Friday's action was just the start to a weekend of racing.
The second evening the 27th Annual Budweiser Nationals racing starts at 5:30 tonight, with gates opening at 4.