TALLADEGA — The most popular guy at Talladega, and the poor rascal couldn’t find a friend.
Bret Holmes, the Munford native and driver of the dominant car in the General Tire 200 ARCA Menards Series race, was in the worst place to be with one lap to go: comfortably ahead of the pack, but with nary a soul willing to provide the necessary drafting help to maintain the lead.
Instead, it was Corey Heim who — his words — “found ourselves in a perfect spot.” Meaning just ahead of the front bumper of teammate Drew Dollar, whose aerodynamic assist pushed him past the vulnerable Holmes and a victory that bookends his win at Daytona earlier this season.
Holmes was left to settle for fifth place, the worst position he held all day, while 65-year-old Dave Mader took second (“This is for all the old people,” he said), Nick Sanchez third and Dollar fourth.
Mader, from the small Shelby County community of Maylene, ran his first ARCA race in 1983. His from-out-of-nowhere appearance in second place led to one of 2021’s incongruous moments, a 65-year-old man beseeched to do a Zoom interview with racing journalists.
Holmes, the reigning ARCA Menards champion, was greeted this week by the sight of a billboard alongside Interstate 20, congratulating him on last year’s championship. The Auburn student — set to graduate next weekend — was in his best starting position ever at Talladega, going from the front row, and his Golden Eagles/Southern States Bank Chevy seemed to be his best car in his six starts here.
“They gave me a helluva car today,” Holmes said during a mid-race interview with Fox TV. “It’s a dream come true.”
Then dreams ended.
A reckless move by Sanchez with 15 laps remaining may have been what actually cost Holmes the victory.
For much of the afternoon, Holmes and Ty Gibbs were a formidable drafting duo, going two-on-two against the Venturini Racing combo of Heim and Dollar, the defending winner.
But as the field reached the start-finish line near turn 1, Sanchez plowed into the back of Greg Van Alst, a 40-year-old Indianan making his return to ARCA after a 19-year hiatus. Van Alst’s car was knocked akimbo, slamming into Gibbs, whose Toyota was left with irreparable damage.
And Holmes was left with no dependable or willing drafting partner.
The most frightening incident came with five to go when Brett Lancaster was nudged aside by a Heim-Dollar draft and slammed the wall coming out of turn 2. The car became a fireball streaming down the back stretch until he came to a rest inside turn 3, with safety crews speeding to his aid.
The race was red-flagged to permit crews to tidy things up, and Holmes was left alongside Sanchez on the front row of the restart, with Heim and Dollar right behind. Holmes rocketed to the lead, but by turn 2, he was, as driver moonlighting as TV analyst Ryan Blaney said, “he was a sitting duck.”
“To win, you’ve got to have some help,” Heim said in the afterglow of his win. “And we (Heim and Dollar) were the best helpers out there.”
An argument could be made to the contrary. But with his helper gone and no drafting friends in his mirror, a trophy from his home track once again eluded Holmes.