By the URSS
La CROSSE -- For 24 laps, Josh Fairbank had control. For the majority of the final lap, Fairbank could taste the victory. And the driver of the No. 51 sprint car in the United Rebel Sprint Series would have notched his first win of the 2012 season if the race would have been a foot shorter. But Jason Martin snuck by Fairbank, winning by approximately a foot Saturday night during the Montana Mike's Bullring Shootout at Rush County Speedway in La Crosse.
"That was pretty close," Martin said. "I'd venture to say it wasn't more than a foot. In fact, coming off of (turn) four, he had me. I thought, 'This motor better get up and go.' " Martin's motor held out as the Liberal driver won this third straight race in La Crosse in one of the closest finishes in the history of the URSS.
Fairbank got a little help moving up the field at the start of the race. Michael Williams brought out an early caution at the drop of the green flag, forcing a restart. Then pole-sitter Craig Jecha got sideways in turn four before the end of the first lap, and Cody Caldwell hit him, ending both drivers' nights. That left Fairbank, who was scheduled to start third behind Jecha, on the pole for the restart alongside Jerry Caldwell. Fairbank took advantage, beating everyone else to the corner to take the lead. Zach Blurton, who restarted third behind Fairbank, would move into second in front of Caldwell. That's the way the top three would stay until lap six, when Martin made his way into third after originally starting eighth.
By the time Martin was in third, Fairbank had moved out to a big lead, with Blurton several car lengths behind.
"I didn't think we had a chance after the first 10 laps were rolling out," said Martin, who won for the second time this season. "We were running around there wide open around the bottom. They got out there a little ways, and I was catching them slowly but didn't think we'd get there. Lap cars weren't coming fast enough."
Blurton closed within a car length on lap 15 and was side-by-side crossing the line on lap 22 as the top cars edged closer to lap traffic. Two laps later, Blurton would have to get on the brakes hard trying to get around a lap car on the bottom of the track, and Fairbank inched ahead. But Martin was flying around the top of the quarter-mile oval. When Blurton's brakes locked up after trying to avoid the lap car, Martin cruised by on the top side on lap 24.
"I don't think they knew I was coming," Martin said. "They had no idea. I kept watching the top, and nobody was really trying it. It wasn't like it was cleaning off any, so I knew nobody behind me was running it. Those guys had no idea because they were fighting for the bottom. They weren't going to let the bottom go."
Fairbank stuck to his line on the bottom of the track during the final lap, while Martin rode the high side. Coming out of turn four, Fairbank had the advantage, but Martin found the horsepower on the high side to power his way just inches ahead of Fairbank at the finish line for the win.
"I had no idea anyone was up top," Fairbank said. "Getting sideways in the corners, I could see Zach out there. I knew he wasn't going to go around on the top side so I was just hovering on that bottom. I thought we had it made, but that's how it goes. Somebody always finds the lane. When you're the leader, you have no idea where anyone else is running. You're kind of a sitting duck as long as you're out there by yourself."
It was the second time in as many races Martin used late heroics to win at the Bullring. Last year, he snuck by Luke Cranston late to earn a victory. After the two initial cautions, the race went 25 laps without another. "That's what this race track has in store for people to watch -- side-by-side racing, good racing," Martin said.
Ray Seemann, last year's national champ, had a solid run to finish third after originally starting ninth. Blurton nursed his car to a fourth-place finish, and Kirby Hagans rounded out the top five.
Martin earned the Keizer Aluminum Racing Wheels Hard-Charger award, moving from eighth to first.
Heat race winners were Darren Bowman, Blurton and Martin.
1. Jason Martin, 2. Josh Fairbank, 3. Ray Seemann, 4. Zach Blurton, 5. Kirby Hagans, 6. Luke Cranston, 7. Jerry Caldwell, 8. Brian Herbert, 9. Jeff Radcliffe, 10. Lance Davis, 11. Darren Bowman, 12. Craig Jecha, 13. Cody Caldwell, 14. Michael Williams, 15. Jared Kern (DNS).