Ernie Francis, Jr. survives late-race fireworks to win SRX Round 4 at Lucas Oil Raceway

SRX Lucas Oil Francis
Dylan Buell / Getty Images
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The cleanest race in the Camping World SRX Series’ short history devolved into a slugfest in the final 10 laps and Ernie Francis, Jr. had the biggest fists in route to his first series win at Lucas Oil Raceway.

Each of the first three SRX races was affected by caution flags typical of short track racing. In fact, the drivers didn’t make it out of the heats in those events before drawing a caution for cause. The predominately high-groove Lucas Oil Raceway forced the drivers into a more cautious approach – for a while – and with the exception of competition cautions to bunch up the field, the yellow did not fly until 66 laps into the 76-Lap Main Event honoring Independence Day, 1776.

Once the field was bunched, the gloves came off as drivers sensed the urgency and began to beat and bang. In the end, Francis showed the greatest skill and control. He held off Bobby Labonte in a two-lap shootout.

“I’m totally speechless,” Francis told pit reporter Matt Yocum after the race. “This is incredible. Man those last 10 – 15 laps, they felt like an eternity out there. All the cautions. I was just focusing on getting a good restart. Me and Scott Speed went after it for a few laps there, side-by-side. I didn’t know how that was going to end up. Got a few donuts on the car, but I couldn’t be happier with it.”

It doesn’t take long to complete 10 laps on a short track. Restarts are the best time to pounce and that is precisely what Scott Speed did. He won Heat 1 and knew he had a fast car, so when he lined up to the inside of Francis, he drove hard into Turn 1. After getting loose and almost crashing both cars, Speed was momentarily ahead before having his lead erased.

With tires hot and worn from his first attempt to pass Francis, Speed drifted back as far as fourth before an incident with Helio Castroneves gave him the final podium spot.

“Man, we had such a good battle, me and Francis,” Speed said in a release. “We were definitely the best two cars and we were playing cat-and-mouse with our tires, saving them. And then, with 10 to go, it was ‘game on.’ We were both going to charge and we had such an awesome side-by-side race. I just got a little bit too loose underneath him with a couple laps to go and fell back, lost a couple of spots. But it was a great race. I had so much fun.”

SRX Lucas Oil Francis
In the closing laps, a heated battle between eventual winner Ernie Francis, Jr. and Scott Speed provided some Fourth of July fireworks. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The incident with Castroneves had an unfortunate consequence for the driver who entered the race second in the points. Speed tagged Castroneves in the left rear just as a caution waved for an incident between Local Hero Bobby Santos, III and Paul Tracy. The contact caused the reigning Indy 500 champ to slap the wall. Castroneves retaliated. Too aggressively, as it turned out, and did more damage to his car than Speed’s.

Castroneves was on pace to continue a perfect streak of top-fives in the series. This was not the race Castroneves had in mind to to continue “improving his driving skills” after two incredible runs on dirt.

“We came out of Turn 4 and I got into Helio a little bit,” Speed said. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I’m having a good time here regardless of where I finish. But I’m happy for a guy like Ernie because for a kid like that, we’ve all had our careers in motor racing, but stuff like this can help him establish himself and that’s the big picture here.”

Battling for third at the time of the incident, Castroneves was poised to make up a lot of championship points on Tony Stewart, who struggled with his handling throughout the Main and fell back as far as 10th. When the checkers waved, Stewart clawed his way to seventh while Castroneves had settled for ninth – allowing Stewart to head into the final two races with a 30-point advantage over Francis. Castroneves fell to third in the standings, 40 points in arrears.

In addition to holding the distinction of waiting the longest for a caution for cause, this was the first time in the short history of the series that a heat winner did not win the race. Francis finished seventh in Heat 1 and fourth in Heat 2.

After winning the last two races in the series, Stewart’s seventh-place finish was surprising.

“I was happy after the heat races and we just tried something in the Main,” Stewart said. “I was tight in the center (of the corner) and was a little loose off and I didn’t figure we could fix the center, so we tried to fix the exit and tried something air pressure-wise and it did not work. It was a bad call on my part on what I thought the change needed to be and dialed myself right out.

“We’ve just got to stay focused from here. No matter how good the point lead seems right now, you can throw it away in two weeks and lose the thing. We’ve just got to throw this night out and go back and get ready for Slinger next week – a place I’ve never been to. I don’t think any of us have, actually. So we’ll just have to focus and try and do a better job than we did here.”

Round 5 of the six-race short-track series will be July 10 at Slinger (Wis.) Speedway.

For the penultimate race, the Local Hero will be Tuesday night’s winner of the Slinger Nationals, one of the nation’s premiere short track events. Past winners of that race include some of NASCAR’s greats including Matt Kenseth, who’s eight wins include the 2019 edition of the race, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki.

Hailie Deegan will return for her second series race. She finished a strong second on the dirt at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway and was wedged between the two points’ contenders, Stewart and Francis.


RESULTS

Heat Race No. 1 (23 laps, starting lineup determined by random draw): 1. Scott Speed (Started 1; led laps 1-23), 2. Tony Kanaan (3), 3. Michael Waltrip (2), 4. Tony Stewart (5), 5. Bobby Santos III (4), 6. Bobby Labonte (6), 7. Ernie Francis, Jr. (10), 8. Marco Andretti (12), 9. Helio Castroneves (11th), 10. Bill Elliott (8), 11. Paul Tracy (7), 12. Willy T. Ribbs (9)

Heat Race No. 2 (21 laps, starting order was invert of Heat 1 finish): 1. Helio Castroneves (4; led laps 5-21), 2. Bobby Labonte (7), 3. Tony Stewart (9), 4. Ernie Francis, Jr. (6), 5. Marco Andretti (5), 6. Paul Tracy (2; led laps 1-4), 7. Scott Speed (12), 8. Michael Waltrip (10th), 9. Bobby Santos III (8), 10. Tony Kanaan (11), 11. Willy T. Ribbs (1), 12. Bill Elliott (3)

Feature (76 laps; starting lineup was based on finishing position in Heat Race No. 2): 1. Ernie Francis Jr. (6; led laps 12-76), 2. Bobby Labonte (3rd), 3. Scott Speed (2; led laps 1-12), 4. Marco Andretti (8), 5. Bobby Santos III (9), 6. Michael Waltrip (5), 7. Tony Stewart (1), 8. Paul Tracy (10th), 9. Helio Castroneves (4), 10. Tony Kanaan (7), 11. Willy T. Ribbs (12), 12. Bill Elliott (11)

Points Standings: 1. Tony Stewart (160), 2. Ernie Francis Jr. (130), 3. Helio Castroneves (120), 4. Bobby Labonte (115), 5. Marco Andretti (111), 6. Michael Waltrip (86), 7. Paul Tracy (83), 8. Tony Kanaan (65) *, 9. Bill Elliott (52), 10. Willy T. Ribbs (45)

* Hailie Deegan earned points for Kanaan at Knoxville