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Robert Holman recaps the XR Super Series season-opening Spring Thaw Saturday from Volunteer Speedway, where Mike Marlar claimed a $30,000 victory.

By Robert Holman

BULLS GAP, Tenn. (April 6) — Dale McDowell’s misfortune was the break — literally — that Mike Marlar needed. Leading the final 46 laps after early leader McDowell broke a driveshaft in his Shane McDowell Racing entry, Marlar, of Winfield, Tenn., picked up a $30,000 payday in the 18th Spring Thaw 60 at Volunteer Speedway on Saturday.

The race — serving as the season-opener for the XR Super Series following a February rainout at Ultimate Motorsports Park in Elkin, N.C., and a shuffling of the schedule at Bulls Gap, which moved the scheduled $12,000-to-win weekend opener to Sunday afternoon — delivered the fourth-starting Marlar his first career win on the Barry Braun-founded tour and his fourth victory with Skyline Motorsports since joining the Iowa-based team last October.

Marlar grabbed the lead from McDowell on lap 15 and led the rest of the way, staying comfortably ahead of Jonathan Davenport before turning back a late charge from sixth-starting Devin Moran of Dresden, Ohio, who settled for second place, 0.216 of a second behind the winner.

Davenport, of Blairsville, Ga., finished third, while Chris Ferguson of Mount Holly, N.C., charged from 14th to fourth. Daulton Wilson of Fayetteville, N.C., completed the top five after starting 10th. Moran took over the runner-up spot from Davenport for good on lap 31 and methodically chipped away at Marlar’s 1.830-second advantage. With two laps remaining he managed to pull alongside Marlar, but wasn’t quite fast enough to make a pass.

“I knew (Moran) had to be close,” said Marlar. “I was boxed in there and couldn’t go anywhere. I knew Devin was breathing down my neck there waiting on me to mess up. I took a peek out there wide and he got under me. I said, ‘Oh, no more of that.’ I got back down there and, yes, it was definitely antsy. I didn’t want to be up under them (slower cars) as much as I was the last couple of laps, because it gets you really loose.”

Chickamauga, Ga.’s McDowell, the 2023 Spring Thaw winner, jumped ahead of polesitter Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., on the opening lap and led the first 14 circuits. But just after a restart for the feature’s first of three cautions, McDowell slowed exiting turn four, handing the lead to Marlar. McDowell, who was 0.603 seconds ahead of Marlar, coasted through turns one and two and drew the second caution as he made a left turn into the spacious infield of the high-banked East Tennessee oval.

The third caution waved on a lap-14 restart when Overton, who restarted third, and Jimmy Owens of nearby Newport, Tenn., who restarted fifth, got together exiting turn two. Overton slipped up the track, while Owens darted into the middle as Davenport barely slipped through on the low side. The incident also collected Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., who suffered a right rear flat tire. All three drivers involved continued on, with Thornton rallying back to ninth.

Marlar then pulled ahead of Davenport and Moran on the next restart and built a lead as large as 2.323 seconds over Davenport before Moran made his charge.

“Thanks to Jimmy (Owens) for giving me some room there to let me slide in there late in that race,” added Marlar. “I didn’t see what happened with him on the back straight. I seen he got in that accident. To win here, in my home state at Bulls Gap, it’s a legendary track and to race with Scott (Bloomquist) and all these great drivers, all the way through the field … there’s probably 20 guys that could win here today.”

Moran was one of them. It simply took him too long to cut into Marlar’s sizable lead.

“We went to Smoky Mountain, did some testing (Friday), and obviously that paid off,” said Moran. “I want to thank (team owner and Smoky Mountain Speedway owner) Roger (Sellars) for letting us do that. (The track) just started laning up a little bit right there. I was really maneuverable, but it was just really hard to pass. I thought I had Mikey there one shot. I probably should have given him the quarter panel, but I just try not to race like that. I know he’d treat me the same way. All in all, a really good night and way better than what we were here last year. (It was) unfortunate for Dale (McDowell). Obviously he was the car to beat and just broke a driveshaft or whatever.”

Despite holding down the runner-up position for 15 laps, Davenport conceded he didn’t have quite enough speed to win.

“We just wasn’t that good,” Davenport said. “I don’t know. For whatever reason, historically here, I can’t ever get into turn three like I need to. I’m just always too free. Then if I ever get tight enough there, then I’ll push across the center. It’s just something I’m doing with my feet, I guess. I just got to work on that. My guys gave me the best hot rod that they could with the ability of me trying to tell them what to do. We just missed it a little bit. We probably would have had a fourth or fifth place car there if Brandon (Overton) and them other guys hadn’t got taken out. We messed up a little bit qualifying, rebounded in the heat, got a good start. Just another top three for this awesome team of mine.”

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