IRWINDALE, CALIF. – Before Thursday night’s Marhefka Motorsports 75 at Irwindale Speedway, NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series points leader John Peters might have been hard-pressed to pick a favorite from among his series-leading eight wins.
But Peters’ ninth victory of the year became an instant favorite for the honor.
Peters’ dominant performance at the California half-mile all but clinched his second NEP Grand National Series championship. But the title security was not what mattered most.
Rather, it was a touching tribute to Peters’ father Greg, orchestrated by his fellow Maine racers, capped off by a victory drive in a car bearing the elder Peters’ number and colors.
“This is right up there, for sure,” Peters said in victory lane. “It means more than just a sim race.”
Peters started fourth, but wasted no time in carving his way to second behind polesitter Wyatt Alexander. Alexander led the opening 14 laps, but an inside dive by Peters moved the points leader to the point and left Alexander to fend off Ryan Libby. Libby, who missed practice while picking up a win in the Tim’s Corner Motorsports Circuit Breaker feature at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway, pushed Alexander for the runner-up spot before scraping the wall and dropping through the field.
Following a caution for Zane Ferrell’s solo spin, Peters built a nearly one-second lead over Alexander, but that lead was erased when Ryan Libby made contact with Evan Beaulieu racing for seventh. A multi-car crash out of turn two brought the field back to yellow immediately after the restart, with several drivers opting to pit for tires at the race’s halfway point. The top six, save for third-place Devan Marhefka, were Peters and his fellow Maine racers, all adorned with Greg Peters’ signature #09 and a throwback paint scheme representing the Beech Ridge Motor Speedway and American-Canadian Tour veteran.
The tribute party out front was broken up by a hard-charging Libby, who successfully cleared Jason Ricker but turned Evan Beaulieu to bring out another caution with thirty laps remaining in regulation. Libby would get by Brent Roy before staging a door-to-door duel with Alexander for second, one that was broken up by a spin deep in the field.
Peters got away on the ensuing restart, with Alexander holding off Roy and Libby for second. Libby slipped past Alexander on the inside with ten laps remaining, but Alexander drove deep into turn one the next time around, tagging Libby and stuffing the points runner-up in the wall while bringing out another caution.
Peters and Jason Ricker brought the field to green with five laps to go, with Ricker left to hold off the Marhefka brothers. As the field dodged Charles Lewandoski’s stalled car in turn four, Kyle Casagrande got out of shape racing for sixth, spinning and collecting several cars in the aftermath as the race went into overtime.
For the final restart, Peters selected the outside, forcing the veteran crew chief to the inside line and getting a strong jump at the drop of the green. More contact just beyond the top five threatened to end the race under caution, but Peters was unthreatened en route to victory.
“It’s a tough place to pass,” Peters said. “Guys will typically try to do it on the outside, get a nose on the right rear quarter of you and then they can get a good run. Early in the race there, we were just trying to save tires and pace ourselves, so that gave an opportunity for me to use a little bit of the speed I’d been saving.”
Peters’ emotional victory was his first not at the wheel of a #51 Runtal Radiators-sponsored Mike Stefanik throwback. Instead, he borrowed from his father Greg’s legacy, running a scheme modeled after the elder Peters’ 1984 late model. Peters and his fellow Maine racers made a pace lap at the head of the field to honor Greg, who is in the midst of a battle with cancer.
“I really have to give credit to Jason Ricker,” John said. “He came up with the idea for us to do this, and put these schemes together. I certainly have to thank Wyatt and Brent and Evan for hopping right on to do this. I’m glad we could pay tribute to the different cars he’s had over the years. Some of them have just looked fantastic. He deserves all the credit he gets. He’s got a battle in front of him right now, but he’s tackling it full steam ahead.”
Brandan Marhefka, restarting in the outside groove, got the better of Ricker on the final restart, with he and brother Devan finishing second and third in a race sponsored by the family team out of western Pennsylvania. “Once I saw that I was doing a lot better on the top, I figured I’d try and stay up there,” Brandan said of his career-best run. “Once I saw them wrecking, I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t sure that I was gonna make it through, but I found a hole.”
Marhefka, a dirt and pavement racer, knew the outside line would be key to a good finish. “Once we got that last green-white-checkered, I’m like, if I time this restart perfect off Peters, I’ll be able to get around [Ricker] and get that upper groove that I like,” he said. “So I made sure I was able to stay on Peters’ tail, and get out front, and eventually made the pass in one and two.”
Older brother Devan, who won an NEP feature in the series’ first season, has yet to find victory lane since, but was encouraged by a solid podium result. “I ran well on the night Brandan and I sponsored [the event], so that’s probably the coolest part of the season,” he said. “It stinks not being in the championship battle, but this is a lot of fun.”
Supporting the California oval was an easy choice for the brothers. “I love this track,” Devan explained. “There’s only a couple tracks on the service where you’ve gotta run the top at a short track, and this track is so much fun.”
Ricker was fourth at the line, with Cory Casagrande avoiding misfortune to come home fifth. Zane Ferrell, involved in the first caution of the night, was sixth, with Libby seventh after an eventful race. Dylan Kopec recovered from a spin to finish eighth, while Matt Kentfield held on for a solid ninth-place finish. Evan Beaulieu was third-best of the Maine contingent, with the Watkins Glen winner battling back for tenth.
Peters now holds an insurmountable lead over Ryan Libby with only one race remaining to settle the championship. Evan Beaulieu slipped past Kenny Kibbey for third in the standings, with Kibbey skipping the Irwindale trip to focus on an invite to the eNASCAR Road to Pro program. While the title may be all but decided, there is room for movement within the top ten.
Even after winning half of the races on the NEP Grand National Series schedule, Peters has learned not to take that success for granted. “I certainly had some weeks in the middle stretch of the year where I was crashing, and messing up my tire strategy, and getting frustrated,” he admitted. “So it’s not always the good stuff, you’ve got to take the good stuff and celebrate it when it comes, because it doesn’t always happen.”
The season finale for the NEP SHIFT Marketing/Design Grand National Series is next Thursday, March 11, when the series will preview some of the upcoming season’s competition changes at Dover International Speedway in Delaware. Vidane TV will have live streaming coverage starting at 8:15pm EST.