DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Willie Mullins and Mullins Racing came into the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards season opener at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday as underdogs and almost left with the trophy.
Mullins avoided multiple crashes and piloted the No. 3 Crow Wing Recycling/Bugsy’s Auto Ford to a career-best second-place finish in the Lucas Oil 200 driven by General Tire after starting from the ninth position.
“It’s unbelievable,” Mullins said. “We’re still trying to wrap our heads around it. We finished second at Daytona. That’s not too bad for a little team based out of Virginia that only runs a few ARCA races a year. We couldn’t be happier.”
Mullins and his team decided to start from the rear of the 39-car field after qualifying ninth, preferring to take the cautious route until the first caution flag of the race waved for a multi-car incident on lap 22. Mullins’ crew chief Andy Belmont called him down pit road for fuel during the caution period.
“We decided to start in the back. We were just going to wait out all the wrecks and that’s basically what we did,” Mullins said.
From there Mullins slowly worked his way up through the field, picking off cars when he could as he avoided a multitude of incidents that took out contenders in front of him. Mullins was running just outside the top-10 on what was originally going to be the last lap when a massive multi-car crash on the backstretch happened in front of him. Mullins managed to dodge the mayhem, emerging from the smoke and debris in the 11th position.
“With one lap to go we were running about 14th and we thought we’d waited a little too long to make our run to the front,” Mullins said. “Then that wreck happened down the backstretch. I saw that car flipping through the air on my right, then I saw (Dave) Mader hit the 41 car in the side. I kind of just shot for the hole between the two big piles. I was down there digging, running through the grass and I put a little bit of right wheel in it right there by the chicane and the car hit the asphalt and we were good.”
When another car in front of him came down pit road, that put Mullins inside the top-10. With ARCA Racing Series rules requiring the race finish under green flag conditions, Mullins still had a shot at improving his finishing position.
The driver from Fredericksburg, Va., managed to gain a few positions on the restart as the leaders battled ahead of him. The battle for the lead soon turned disastrous as all four of the lead cars crashed in turns three and four, allowing Michael Self to emerge with the race lead while Mullins avoided the crashing cars to take over the second position.
“The seas kind of parted during that second wreck and we looked like heroes,” Mullins said. “Believe it or not I was calm. I was able to stay clear minded and I was able to get through all those big wrecks without tearing the car up at all.”
With at least one more restart coming, Mullins lined up second alongside Self, with veteran Tom Hessert and polesitter Natalie Decker directly behind the front duo.
When the green and white flags waved, Mullins attempted to get a good restart but he wasn’t able to get up to speed as fast as Self. That allowed Self to pull out to a comfortable lead as Mullins battled to hold on to the second position with Hessert, Decker and a fast closing Sheldon Creed.
Mullins stayed side-by-side with Hessert throughout the final lap and a push from Creed coming out of turn four allowed him to clear Hessert heading into the tri-oval. Self would win the race, with Mullins scoring an unlikely runner-up finish in his third career start at Daytona International Speedway.
“We had a longer third gear in the car, so that made it hard to get going on the restarts,” Mullins explained. “The car just wouldn’t get going. We had a Venturini car behind us and we needed someone to help push, but they obviously were going to protect since Self was also driving a Venturini car. Thankfully we got a big push from Sheldon Creed down the backstretch, which allowed us to get by Hessert and hold on to second.”
The No. 3 Mullins Racing Ford carried sponsorship from Crow Wing Recycling, CW Metals, Bugsy’s Auto, Snap On by Timmy Brann, Morgan Lumber, County Waste, Sherwin Williams, Belmont’s Garage and Dinah Marie Photography at Daytona International Speedway.