2021 Castrol® Gateway Dirt Nationals

Dramatic Heat Race Positions Bob Gardner For Gateway Success

Dramatic Heat Race Positions Bob Gardner For Gateway Success

Bob Gardner used a thrilling last-lap move to win his Gateway Dirt Nationals heat race and finish second in Thursday's preliminary feature.

Dec 3, 2021 by FloRacing Staff

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Bob Gardner's runner-up finish in Thursday’s Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals preliminary night feature at The Dome at America’s Center was impressive. But his final-lap move to win his heat race in a dramatic photo finish earlier in the evening set it all up.

If you ask Gardner, the regional racer from East Peoria, Ill., who entered the weekend with four 2021 feature victories, the heat race was pivotal to his quest to finish among the top four of Thursday’s split-field preliminary feature and lock himself into Saturday’s $30,000-to-win Gateway Dirt Nationals finale.

“I personally feel like that was crucial to getting us locked in tonight,” said Gardner, who joins Thursday winner Tyler Carpenter along with third-finishing Tanner English and fourth-finishing Kyle Hammer in transferring directly into Saturday’s main event. “We had a good car, but if you start another three rows deep, who knows what kind of mess you get caught up in? I really think that was what got us locked in tonight. Obviously, we were pretty good in the feature, but that was huge.”

It was also exciting. Starting second in the eight-lap prelim, Gardner pressured polesitter Ryan Montgomery the entire distance with the two cars running mostly side-by-side from the start. Running lower on the tight fifth-mile racetrack, Gardner had multiple chances to attempt a slide job on the high-running Montgomery, but he knew he had to wait for the right time. That came on the final lap, when Gardner charged hard into turn three and slid in front of Montgomery in turn four.

Montgomery crossed Gardner over and pulled inside him down the homestretch, but Gardner edged him at the line by six-hundredths of a second.

“I was able to keep pace with him just kind of rolling the center,” Gardner said. “He never did block it, and I knew that it (the chance to attempt a slide job) was there. I didn’t want to do it too early because I didn’t want to get it put back on me. I just had to be patient and stay in position to do it, and with four to go, I knew that was the plan. I was going to do it coming to the checkers.”

Starting sixth in the feature, Gardner thought he had a shot at contending for the win in the 25-lap prelim feature, but with 10 laps remaining, he'd only made it up to fourth. Everything changed when the three cars ahead of him all tangled amid heavy traffic, knocking both Ricky Thornton Jr. and Brandon Sheppard out of the race. Gardner barely dodged the pileup.

“I didn’t get a very good view of it other than Sheppy was plum sideways right in front of me from whatever happened,” Gardner said. “I just reacted and steered right. Luckily I got out of it and it shook out that we were second when all the dust cleared.”

Sitting second with 10 laps remaining, and with Carpenter’s car showing cosmetic damage from his run-in, Gardner could’ve been eyeing an upset win. But he was more than content with securing a guaranteed top-eight starting spot in Saturday’s feature.

“Normally when you’re second like that, you’re like, ‘OK, it’s time to go for this.’ I’m not saying that I eased up and wasn’t trying by any means, but I was very satisfied with staying right there in second,” said Gardner, whose best Gateway finish of eighth came in 2017. “That’s a good payday for us and the most important part is we’re locked into the big one. The hardest part is getting yourself into the feature. Once you’re in, anything can happen.”

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Gardner's happy with his showing at the Dome. After a frustrating season that started out strong before taking a dive through the summer, Gardner and his team are already feeling the momentum from Thursday’s finish.

“I’m very, very happy with our run tonight,” Gardner said. “We didn’t have anything for Tyler, but I don’t think there’s very many people in this arena that do. This is excellent for our team. We had lofty goals to get locked in. To have a competitive enough car to put ourselves in position to capitalize, we’re tickled pink.

“We’ve had an up-and-down year. We got our biggest win of our career ($3,000 in Springfield, Mo.) at the beginning of the season and we thought we were going to be off to a heck of a season. But we just plummeted from there and struggled until late in the year. We (made an engine change) late in the year and I don’t think we’ve been outside the top two since then other than one night at Fairbury. This was another good one for us and just keeps us riding high.”

Gardner will be riding even higher if he can back up his prelim night performance with another strong run in Saturday’s main event. While he’d certainly be happy with another podium finish, he’s confident he has a shot at winning the race.

“I think we can be better,” Gardner said. “We’re going to tweak on one corner of this thing, and I think if we make that right adjustment, I think we’ll be really good. I think we can win it. I really do. I think we have a shot at it.”