Wyatt Gardner gets emotional first win in season-opener at Washingtons Evergreen Speedway

Wyatt Gardner has never really ran a full season for points at Monroe, Washington‘s Evergreen Speedway, but he may have to this season.

Following Gardner‘s season-opening win at Evergreen last weekend, he‘s found there‘s “a little bit of magic left in the racing world,” he said in a recent phone interview.

For the first race of the season in the NASCAR Home Track‘s Speedway Chevrolet Pro Late Model division, Gardner‘s car showed speed all day, leading the second practice and qualifying on the pole. He started the race fourth after an invert, and said “I knew we just had to be patient.”

He rode in third for 10 laps and then picked off the second place car. After riding safely there for a few more laps, he saw the opportunity to pass the race leader.

“We kind of took off, kind of checked out from the field, and built up myself quite a bit of a lead,” he added.

From there, the caution flags started waving with about 20 laps remaining and “things got real stressful, real quick” Gardner said.

“You know, you build up a huge lead like that and you figure you can kind of cruise the end,” he added. “And then people start spinning, yellows are coming out, and you start having to go four or five restarts later. It gets a little interesting.”

On the final restart with five to go, Gardner said he fired off strong and was able to pull away with the lead.

Leading the race following the white flag, he got emotional. Tears filled in his eyes under his helmet during his last lap.

It was his first win at Evergreen, and also his first win without his dad by his side. Gardner‘s father, Ben, died just more than a month before the season opener.

“We were able to bring it home and it was just one of those things where just something magical was in the air that night,” Gardner said.

The first thing Gardner did when he got out of his car was find his mom so he could share the moment with her.

“Obviously she’s had a rough go, and being able to share that with her, it doesn’t fill the void in your life, but it definitely shows you that he is still there and still looking out for us.”

Gardner‘s dad was the one who got him into racing at three years old. His siblings also raced, and Gardner said he jokes with people he didn‘t really have a choice but to also follow them.

“It was just kind of a family thing,” he said. “My dad got me into it at a really young age and I’ve been racing ever since.”

From micro sprints to road courses, go-karts, and mini-stocks, Gardner has raced just about every discipline of car. When he was in college in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he raced on both coasts before returning to Washington and racing full-time around his home state after graduation.

Ben was still helping Gardner through the offseason, though he had taken a bit of a step back in recent years, serving as more of an observer and supporter.

A general view of the Evergreen Speedway signage before the NAPA Auto Parts ARCA 150 for the ARCA Menards Series West at Evergreen Speedway on August 19, 2023 in Monroe, Washington. (Alika Jenner/ARCA Racing)
A general view of the Evergreen Speedway signage before the NAPA Auto Parts ARCA 150 for the ARCA Menards Series West at Evergreen Speedway on August 19, 2023 in Monroe, Washington. (Alika Jenner/ARCA Racing)

“It’s definitely hard every race going to the track without him,” Gardner said. “It’s definitely, it’s a test, but it’s one of those things where he’d want us to keep racing. There was definitely a question of, ‘Hey, should we do this? Or should we take a year off?‘ But, knowing him, he’d want us to keep racing and that’s what we’re going to do.”

For the last four years, Gardner has been just running big shows around Washington, never really settling on one track. Evergreen has always been considered his home track, though, which made last week‘s win even more special. He‘s qualified on the pole in the past and had good cars there, but said “We’ve had a lot of dumb luck over the years that has kept us from getting a win.”

“Our cars are really good, and we’ve always had speed, but we finally kind of hit on a few things that are really good for long run speed.

“We finally were able to get that monkey off our back and give us a little more confidence going the rest of the year.”

He called the victory, “definitely a good way to kick the season off,” but it still came with complications. He has sponsor obligations to compete in other big races throughout the summer, while he‘d also like to now try to go for an Evergreen track championship and possibly a Washington state title.

Ultimately, more racing is a good problem to have, even if it could make for some stressful weeks.

“We really haven’t ever chased the championship,” Gardner said. “It definitely put us in a weird position I really wasn’t anticipating. I mean, we wanted to run the full calendar, but there’s never any real expectations.

“You can’t ever set your sights on winning a championship. You just kind of have to take it race by race and whatever happens, happens.”

Racing returns to Evergreen Speedway this Saturday for the City of Monroe Industry Night Presented by Hill Street Cleaners. The night will feature Pro Late Models, Street Stocks, Hornets, Stinger 8s, and Youth Hornets.

“Not a lot of sleep in my near future, trying to get the car turned around and maintained in between races,” Gardner said. “We’re definitely going to try and race as much as we can… For right now it’s just one way, one race at a time and just keep chugging away.

“Hopefully we’ll be talking to you again when we can start talking about the championship a little bit later in the year.”