Photo by Diane Cox
Gateway Motorsports owner Curtis Francois, left, and a member of the Driving for Lineman group congratulate race winner Darrell Wallace Jr., center, after he finished first in the 160-lap NASCAR truck series race at the track June 14.
MADISON – NASCAR competition returned in a roaring way to Gateway Motorsports Park the past weekend.
The trucks were rolling and rumbling during the two-day NASCAR Camping World Driving for Linemen 200 chase and that pleased track owner Curtis Francois. A revved-up audience of 20,000 last Saturday saw Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. win the first NASCAR race at the refurbished facility since 2010.
“The reaction has been fantastic,” said Francois, eyeing a bright future at Gateway. “It was neat to talk to a lot of the fans and they said they are thrilled to be back here.
“They told me in different ways how much they missed it. And you need to get that first-hand knowledge from them.”
The NASCAR drivers also missed making a stop in the St. Louis area. Many of them consider Gateway a necessary destination on the circuit.
“This track gets back to a kind of grass-roots racing,” said Timothy Peters, third in the race. “The re-starts are always exciting and I love this place. I have from the day I walked into it.
Peters added, “We make a statement tonight (Saturday).”
The declaration was that Gateway should be an annual part of the NASCAR circuit. The Nationwide Series previously set up shop in Madison and could come back one day.
For now, Francois is focusing on making the Truck Series a successful venture.
“It’ll be back in 2015 and we want to build on it,” he said. “I think we will lay the foundation for the track with this race, so it becomes a signature event.”
And what of the Nationwide Series, which last played out at Gateway in 2010? Brad Keselowski won that race after finishing second to Carl Edwards in 2009.
“We will look at the every opportunity that comes our way,” Francois said.
Wallace certainly made the most of his opportunity in his first-time run at Gateway. It was just his second career win, with the initial one coming in 2013 at Martinsville, Va.
“It was wild,” Wallace said. “I had the lead early in the race and then thought I was out of it. But we kept our cool and showed a lot of fight. We did what we had to do to win.”
Crew chief Jerry Baxter added, “We came out here with high hopes and Darrell just keeps getting better. He has a lot of skill.”
He also got a lot of love from proud dad, Darrell Sr., more than an interested onlooker. Dad posed for photos with his son late Saturday night after the hotly contested 160-lap race.
“This is awesome,” the winning Wallace said, treating his dad hours before Father’s Day. “I was trying to figure out what I was going to get him for Father’s Day and I guess nothing is better than a win.”
It didn’t come easy. Wallace, runner-up on the pole to 16-year-old Cole Custer, grabbed the advantage early in the race and held it for 62 laps. Then John Hunter Nemechek, points leader Matt Crafton, German Quiroga, Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick took turns snaring the lead. Quiroga finished second overall.
Crafton wound up 26th. Jones finished 23rd, even though he led late in the race. Quiroga caused his car to spin out with five laps to go, dropping Jones out of contention.
“It was a real close race and I knew I had a shot at it,” Quiroga said. “I was pretty happy about where I finished.”
So was Peters. “This race was huge for us,” he said. “We never had a lot of good speed, but our pit crew was what got us in the top three places.”
Wallace also pointed to perseverance as a reason for his success.
“It has been such a rough season for us,” he said. “It seems if not for bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all. But we came through. That shows what we can do down the road.”
Francois is following the same pattern in gradually rebuilding Gateway and its race card.
“It’s great to see the fans back and we are thrilled to be working with NASCAR and the sponsors,” he said. “Everybody is pulling the rope together in the same way.”