WEST SALEM — Matt Henderson was battling a number of things while trying to keep his rocket-speed but losing-traction-fast stock car on the track and off the wall.
As the laps ticked off during the Late Model feature race Saturday night at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway, the likeable and popular driver from La Crosse was in the lead.
Barely, however, as there was a sleek black car driven by Brad Powell so close to his rear bumper he didn’t even create a shadow.
Powell could sense that Henderson’s car was losing grip, sliding up the track. With four laps, then three in the 25-lap feature race, Henderson’s car broke loose, then snapped sideways coming out of Turn 4.
Henderson, who had not won a feature race since 2009, was in for another heartbreak, right?
Not this time.
Henderson somehow white-knuckled his car enough to hold off Powell — who broke into a wry smile in a postrace interview when asked if he thought about a bump-and-run tactic — to snap an eight-year victory drought.
Finally, Lady Luck was a passenger in Henderson’s sweet-looking No. 33 race car.
“I kept on looking at the (leader)board to see what the top five was and kind of see where everyone was running. I saw the 23 car (Powell) up to third, and once I seen him behind me, I thought for sure he was going to get me,” said Henderson, who tried, but couldn’t hold back his excitement.
“Our car was not good through the center of the corner, so I had a lot of wheeling it just to keep my momentum rolling and then I would snap loose off the corner. All I could do was hold on and do my best. I drove my guts out.”
No one would have blamed Henderson if some self-doubt would have crept into his thought process, as he had been within a few feet of grabbing a checkered flag a dozen times over the past eight years. It just always seemed someone was a tad faster, a tad better in the corners.
This time, it appeared it was Powell.
“He was sideways. The top side got really slippery, otherwise I would have gone to the top side, but all the bite was on the bottom (of the track),” Powell said.
“After the caution, my car got really free and I couldn’t get on it the same I could (before the caution), so I had to tippy-toe it off. Otherwise I would have.
“Did I make it exciting for you?”
Powell made it exciting for a Fairgrounds Speedway crowd estimated at 3,000, as did Jerimy Wagner. Wagner, another driver who has been knocking on victory’s door but yet to get an answer, led the first 13 laps before the race’s lone caution came out.
When a caution comes out, drivers must choose a top or bottom lane as they come back around the front stretch. An orange cone is set up at the finish line, and as the drivers rumble around the track under caution, they must choose top or bottom.
Surprisingly, Henderson — who was running second to Wagner at the time — popped to the top lane.
“I didn’t really think I had anything for him (Wagner) unless he made a mistake. I could ride around following him, right on his bumper, and I was just waiting for him,” Henderson said of Wagner.
“He was loose, so I was just hoping, waiting to see if would break loose and I would get a run or something, but then the caution came out. I had debated, ‘Do I go inside cause I don’t know if I can make it on the outside?’”
The outside groove of the track didn’t seem to have the traction, or “bite” as drivers call it, for anyone on Saturday night. Still, Henderson took a chance. A chance that ultimately won him the race.
On the restart, he raced Wagner side-by-side down the frontstetch, then through turns 1 and 2. Then he made a risky, but calculated decision.
“I blew it into (turns) three and four probably harder than I ever have. I have been watching Steve Carlson do that for years,” Henderson said. “So I thought, ‘Well, what the hell, let’s give it a shot.’ So I just blew it in, it stuck, and here we are.”
Henderson knows if his car didn’t stick, instead of shaking hands with fans and getting congratulatory pats on the back after the race, he could have been chatting with the guys on the safety crew as they peeled his car off the wall.
“I didn’t really have much confidence (the car would stick on the outside), to be honest,” Henderson said. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t get this opportunity every day, so what do I got to lose, ya know? This is it, so I jumped out there.’ I got nothing to lose. That is what I did.”
So thanks to a mid-race caution, a gutsy move on the restart and a patient second-place runner in Powell, Henderson’s drought is over.
“I’d be lying if I said the last number of years have been just a blast because it is a lot of work, time away from the family,” Henderson said.
“And when you don’t get results, it is really hard. Then you start questioning, ‘Is it me? Is it the car? What are we doing wrong?’ It is the same crew we have had since the beginning and I am the same guy, obviously.
“We are just doing our best and hopefully we will be back up here (Victory Lane).”
It was indeed a special night for Henderson, in part because he was able to share it with his dad, John, who has been instrumental in his career, and because his most of his family was there to share the moment with him.
“It was pretty special, as I asked Colton, my son, ‘Did you cheer for me?’ He said, ‘No,’” Henderson said, laughing with his 4-year-old son. “Oh, OK, that is good to know. Our other son is at home with the babysitter. I am glad they (his wife, Brittany, and Colton) made it tonight. They put up with a lot, too. It is a struggle, to be honest, tonight, it makes it all worth it.”
“All I could do was hold on and do my best. I drove my guts out.” —Matt Henderson,
on his dought-ending victory