Some of the best short-track drivers from throughout the country rolled into Kern County Raceway for the Fourth Annual Spears Winter Showdown, but it was a pair of local drivers who stole the show Friday.
Centennial High senior Buddy Shepherd qualified on the pole for Saturday’s 300-lap race with defending race champion Derek Thorn grabbing the second spot.
The difference was a mere seven-thousandths of a second. Shepherd circled the half-mile oval in 17.310 seconds with Thorn at 17.317.
Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric qualified third at 17.325, followed by NASCAR Cup star Kyle Busch (17.358) and Daniel Ursetta (17.365).
“That lap was probably the scariest one I’ve ever had,” said Shepherd. “I drove her in there way farther than I ever have and got on the gas way sooner than I ever have.”
Shepherd has won a Late Model championship at KCRP, two Late Model titles at Madera Speedway and raced to his first Super Late Model victory in a Spears Southwest Tour race last year.
He is driving for the Bakersfield-based Wilson Motorsports team, as is Hemric.
“I knew I had to make something happen,” Shepherd said. “These guys have been working their butts off and it was the least I could do for them. They have these great race cars here and I am the lucky guy that gets to drive these things.”
Thorn set fast time last year and led all 250 laps en route to victory. He wanted to start this year off with another pole, which was worth $2,500.
“I don’t like second but I’m actually pleasantly surprised we qualified as high as we did,” he said. “I think we’ve got a really, really good race car. We just were a little off on the new tires.”
Qualifying took place on a cool track, after the sun had set. Saturday's race will be in the heat of the day, starting at 2, and all of the qualified cars have been impounded, meaning no changes can be made.
“We had to qualify with what we want to race,” Thorn said. “Last year we had heat races so we could tinker with the cars a little. I went into qualifying just not knowing what to think. Put some rear brake into it and drove the living heck out of it.”
As for the race, which starts 36 cars, Thorn said the strategy was “to survive. And save the right rear (tire).”
Considering where he stood after practice on Thursday night and early on Friday, Busch said he was pleased with his qualifying spot.
“We were terrible last night and horrible the first practice today,” he said. “We finally started kind of hitting on something a little there in the second practice in happy hour and got our car a lot happier.
“I feel like we had to play some catch up and did a good job of that.”
Hemric also said his car kept getting faster practice by practice.
“We definitely came a long way,” he said. “It’s been fun working with these Wilson Motorsports guys. It was a solid qualifying effort and a step in the right direction for us.”
As for the race, Hemric said the same thing most drivers did.
“You gotta make it 300 laps, that’s the first game plan,” he said. “It’s a brand new race car, hopefully we have everything where it needs to be, play the strategy right. It’s a long race and we’ll see what happens.”
Rounding out the top 10 in qualifying were Tyler Ankum, Ty Majeski, Logan Bearden, Tyler Tanner and Preston Peltier.
David Mayhew of Bakersfield will start 12th and M.K.Kanke of Frazier Park 27th.
Shepherd expects an entertaining race.
“We’ve got the best racers from the country here and we’re going to put on one helluva a show for the crowd,” he said.