by Dana Rowe

            Dylan Estrella must have torn a page from Dave Darling’s strategy book before the Pro Stock opener.  The plucky transfer from Late Models, in his first Pro race at the Cement Palace, came into a restart with eight laps remaining in the 65-lap Phil’s Propane Triple Crown qualifier on the outside of the front row with Darling on the pole.  Dave nosed out and people nodded, knowing his prediliction for winning long races and season’s openers.  Estrella didn’t nod.  Instead he batted and then used a tactic on Darling that the latter has used to win a host of races:  he dropped under the multi-champion in turn two and powered up, came dead alongside then swept into the lead, startling the entire crowd.  Darling dropped onto Estrella’s bumper with authority and the crowd held its breath.  Darling pressed the rookie looking for an opening while behind him, Radical Rick Martin, Kevin Casper and Jake-the-Jet Johnson came in hot pursuit.

            With three to go, Estrella had secured a carlength between them.  The surprise continued as Estrella eked out another carlength as the white silk waved. One more circuit and he hit the record books, scoring a win in his first-ever Pro Stock race, put himself into the Triple Crown finals and earned a spot in the Pro Stock Nationals. Now:  how to outdo all that before the season’s ender, still some three months away.

            Instead of streaming for the exit as soon as the checkers flew, the Seekonk crowd uncharacteristicaly stood firm, waiting through the podium finish to hear the words that Estrella might give to announcer Kevin Boucher before trooping to their cars.

            It was a prosperous night for the top division as Radical Rick showed his mettle by powering his way from an eighth-place start into third on Darling’s tail on lap 23.  He followed into second when Darling moved up and remained there until Estrella passed him to duel the leader.  Martin was on the podium with a third place finish to start the 2018 season.

            At the outset, it was The Rocket, Ryan Vanasse and Mike Mitchell in the front row with Darling and Estrella backing them up. Casper and Mighty Mike Brightman followed.  Vanasse won the challenge as the green fell and Estrella followed him into second.  A three-wide blossomed as Estrella and Darling split around Mitchell and Estrella springboarded in behind Vanasse.  Ryan lit the afterburners and was gone. Darling moved in on Estrella and Brightman stepped into third ahead of Mitchell.  Martin was coming forward and put Mitchell back another spot.  Fred Astle, Jr. and Casper followed.

            Five laps in, Vanasse had built a two-car lead, but now Estrella was closing and two more laps saw it down to just a half-carlength. Dylan snugged up to the leader’s bumper and Darling made it a runaway train by closing in as well.  Three cars back, Brightman, Martin and Astle were running nose-to-tail as well.  Casper, Tom Scully, Jr. and Mitchell followed.  Mitchell looked under Scully as Todd Annarummo ran up to his bumper.

            With ten laps down, Estella dug in under Vanasse and came out with a nose ahead on lap 13.  He had the front to himself coming out of turn two and Darling followed him through into second.  Martin got past Brightman to give chase to Vanasse and he spent the next ten laps overhauling Vanasse’s eight-car lead with Astle following close, watching for an opportunity.

            Seventeen laps in and Estrella’s lead over Darling was three cars but two laps more and Darling was starting to close on the leader and one lap later, Martin had caught Vanasse.  He got underneath and the went door-to-door.  Darling pulled up to Estrella as Martin began to nose ahead of Vanasse.  Astle set to work on Vanasse, now and got underneath on lap 25.  He was unable to complete the pass and fell to fifth.

            Three laps later, Darling set to work on Estrella and went underneath, took another circuit and owned the lead.  They roared along, a full straight ahead of Martin and Vanasse.  Thirty laps in, the field stood at:  Darling in the lead, followed by Estrella, then Martin, Vanasse, Casper, Brightman, Mitchell, Annarummo, Astle, Angelo Besito and Kevin Folan.  Astle’s car was giving him problems and he had slid backwards since challenging Vanasse.  He made for the pits as soon as a caution flew on lap 32.

            On the restart, Darling went directly to the front and Martin ducked under Estrella.  Casper was under Vanasse behind them and completed the pass. Darling powered out to a ten-car lead and Martin got past Estrella.  Casper followed suit two laps later setting Estrella back to fifth.  Mitchell, Vanasse and Jake Johnson followed.

            With the field single file on lap 40, Darling had increased his advantage to the length of a straightaway.  But Kyle Casper spun on the backstretch, bringing caution and collapsing Darling lead.  Vanasse, who had been fighting the car much of the way, was becalmed on the backstretch and was pushed to the pits.

            Darling pulled away from Martin on the restart and began to rebuild his lead.  Casper was working under Estrella, followed by Mitchell.  The field quickly went single-file and Darling had another eight-car lead on lap 43.  Next time around, however, Astle was ideways in turn three.  The field took to evasive action and wreckage was avoided.  Astle again pitted for adjustments.

            With 21 laps remaining, Darling was away again, taking the lead in turn two.  Four more laps gave Darling a 20-car lead over Martin.  Kevin was running third while Mitchell battled under Estrella behind him.  But Daryl Stampfl spun out of turn one; Kyle and Belsito headed pitside.

            Darling and Martin lined up again;  Estrella was low in the second row and Casper was on the high side.  Mitchell and Johnson followed, just ahead of Bobby Pelland and Scully, Jr.  Estrella got under Martin and took second as Darling ran back to the front.  Casper ran fourth, pursued by Mitchell while Pelland got underneath Johnson.

            Yet another caution put Mitchell into the pits for the evening and they lined up with a dozen laps remaining.  Darling pulled ahead across the stripe, but Estrella stayed on the outside to fight it out, came alongside in turn four but Darling pulled ahead in turn two.  Martin was running third while Pelland and Casper were in a dogfight over fourth.

            Annarummo came in to join the scrap and Casper got loose then collected it, but the pause caused an accordion effect which claimed Tom Scully, who went around in turn two.

            Eight circuits remained as Darling and Estrella lined up for the faceoff.  Casper and Annarummo were row two with Jake the Jet and Freddy in three.  Belsito and Brightman followed.  A door-to-door dash ensued.  They whipsawed the lead and then Estrella made his drop-under move to the lead, transfixing the crowd on hand.

            The top five reads:  Estrella, Darling, Martin, Kevin Casper and Johnson.  Sixth went to Pelland followed by Astle, Annarummo, Belsito, Stampfl, Scully, Brightman, Vanasse, and Mitchell.