By RICHIE MURRAY
TERRE HAUTE, IN – It was just a month ago when Kevin Thomas, Jr. saw hopes of a Terre Haute Action Track victory dashed in the final laps as he ran out of fuel while leading on a late race restart.
On the final restart of Saturday night’s “Tony Hulman/Don Smith Classic,” Thomas was fueled by determination and a sense of redemption as he slid his way past Dave Darland with five laps remaining, then ran down leader Chase Stockon with three to go to win his first USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature at the Action Track in four seasons.
With his third victory in the last five events, Thomas became the third member of the five-win club with the series in 2017 alongside Tyler Courtney and C.J. Leary. But, on Saturday night, the Cullman, Alabama driver added a victory in one of the premier events on the schedule, as well as the traditional rifle awarded in victory lane, in his KT Motorsports/Jeff’s Jam-It-In Storage – Abreu Vineyards/DRC/Speedway Chevy.
“Winning the ‘Hulman’ is such a great honor,” a proud Thomas exclaimed. “Not many people have one of those rifles. To be able to have one of those sitting up in your living room is pretty amazing. This is such a legendary track. It’s tough to get around and tough to tame.”
Thomas became just the third driver to win both the “Tony Hulman Classic” and “Don Smith Classic” in his career. Yet, it would take all he could muster to accomplish the feat as Stockon held the command up front for much of the 30-lap event. Stockon’s most recent series victory came at the Action Track 15 months earlier and the series’ current consecutive starts leader with 215 was playing the lead role to perfection.
With Thomas bearing down in second as the laps dwindled to less than ten remaining, Stockon had to be on the attack as he guided his way through lapped traffic with slider after slider to create separation between he and Thomas. However, Thomas answered every move of Stockon’s on Terre Haute’s half-mile chessboard with a slew of successful sliders of his own to stay within shouting distance of Stockon, but, to that point, had not yet erased any of the deficit.
“I was right behind him and couldn’t catch him,” Thomas admitted. “When I was sliding lapped cars, I realized I really wasn’t losing that much ground to Chase. I figured the only way I was going to be able to pass those guys is by just throwing dive bombs. At the end of the race, that’s what you got to do. I’m sitting third in points and don’t have much to lose. It’s either try to run those guys down or crash trying to do it. The only way you’re going to gain points is if you win.”
Meanwhile, ProSource Fast Qualifier and heat race winner Darland was hauling in third and closing rapidly on both Stockon and Thomas. It was now a three-car race with just seven laps remaining and Thomas felt the time was now to throw a haymaker at Stockon for the race lead with a slide job entering turn three. Thomas momentarily grabbed the lead until hitting the turn four cushion where he got bogged down and dropped to a distant third while Darland capitalized by moving to second with an inside pass on Thomas exiting the fourth corner.
“Once you get to the center of the corner, and you get two car lengths away from the cushion, you have to whoa yourself down quite a bit,” Thomas said. “The first time, I didn’t do that. I trusted the cushion a little too much, blasted off in there and got four wheels above it. It got kind of mushy up there and I couldn’t get back going. You had to be patient with it, but also very aggressive. It’s just a matter of timing, honestly. You get lucky a few times, then you figure it out and you just keep doing whatever you did that got you there. I just stuck to that game plan.”
While Thomas stuck to his plan, it appeared that Darland might be destined for his first series victory of the season as he clamped down on Stockon for the lead. Just as the stage was set for that duel to play out in front of the large throng of race fans with a mere five laps to go, Dylan Shaw, who was making his first career USAC start, climbed the wall between turns three and four before flipping over. He walked away uninjured.
During the red, thoughts run through each driver’s mind as they hatch their plan to get around the car in front of them. Thomas had two dominoes that needed to fall for him to reach his goal, but first, he had to devise a plan to take on the series’ all-time master, Dave Darland.
“Under the red, I’m just thinking to myself how to get by Dave because I know he has such a good awareness of where other cars are and he’s also pretty aggressive,” Thomas explained. “I didn’t know if he was going to slide the guy in front of me or not. I was just sitting there thinking on how to manipulate what he was going to do.”
“If they restart off the bottom and their car hangs just the slightest bit to the right, you can run down to the bottom on the straightaway and get a good run on the entry of the corner,” Thomas continued. “The sketchy part tonight was that there was a hole right on entry. If you didn’t have your angle right, you’d hit that hole and bounce. It’s so far around here, the shortest distance is to the middle of the corner. It’s just what I had to do and it ended up working out.”
On the lap 26 restart, Darland chose to ride the high line, opening up the bottom for Thomas who slid past Darland for second right away and then set his sights on Stockon for the race lead. It only took one lap for Thomas to fire his next shot at Stockon entering turn one, but he wasn’t close enough quite yet.
Lap 28 would be the charm, however, though not initially. Thomas’ first attempt in turn one worked momentarily, but Stockon was able to counter back underneath off turn two and recapture the point. Thomas reloaded the chamber and immediately went right back to work on Stockon entering turn three, making amends for his similar move on lap 24 by making this one stick. Thomas instantly stretched out the advantage while Windom also was able to get around Stockon as well to secure second on the 29th lap.
Thomas locked it up and threw away the key at the end, capturing the victory by eight-tenths of a second over Windom, Stockon, KSE Racing Products Hard Charger Brady Bacon (from 13th) and Darland.
With the win by Thomas, Windom’s three-race winning streak at Terre Haute came to a close. The Canton, Illinois driver had won all three USAC National events at the Action Track since October of 2016 and had the opportunity coming in to become the first driver ever to sweep every USAC National event held at Terre Haute in a single season, but had to take home a solid second in his Baldwin Brothers Racing/Fox Paving – AMSOIL/DRC/Claxton Mopar.
“The first half of the race, I was really trying to be consistent and trying to save my tires,” Windom detailed. “With the line we were running, I knew the top will wear down the right rear tire. We probably didn’t have four or five more laps in ours. Late race restarts here are key, though. If you know what to do, you can make stuff happen. Unfortunately, KT was in front of me there and was doing the same thing I was and that made it hard to get by him.”
The big picture scenario for Windom shows that he closed his 45-point deficit to just 29 points behind Justin Grant heading into the final five-race stretch at Arizona Speedway Nov. 3-4 and Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway Nov. 9-11. Windom has won at both venues before in his career, including a sweep of both nights last season at Arizona.
“We closed the gap on the points, but it’s definitely something I try not to think a lot about,” Windom admits. “But, definitely, this late in the year, it’s what’s on your mind every time you’re on the racetrack.”
Fort Branch, Indiana’s Chase Stockon owns two career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victories at Terre Haute and number three looked like a good bet for the first 27 laps of the feature as he paced the field throughout the duration, but, in the end, placed third in his 32 TBI Racing/Superior Tank & Trailer – Crescent Electric Supply/DRC/Fisher.
“I knew we were going to have to get out front and I committed to run the top the whole race because, anytime you win here, it’s going to be on the top,” Stockon explained. “We were able to pull away through the middle of the race, but I don’t if under that red flag, our tire pressure just went down too much or what the deal was. We couldn’t really get going after that restart. We won the ‘Don Smith Classic’ and the ‘Jim Hurtubise Classic,’ but it’s very, very disappointing after leading 27 of the 30 laps to not hang that (Hulman Classic) rifle on the wall.”
Contingency award winners Saturday night at the Terre Haute Action Track included Dave Darland (ProSource Fast Qualifier & Simpson Race Products 1st Heat Winner), Brady Bacon (Competition Suspension, Inc. 2nd Heat Winner & KSE Racing Products Hard Charger), Kyle Robbins (Chalk Stix 3rd Heat Winner), Tyler Courtney (Indy Race Parts 4th Heat Winner) and Stevie Sussex (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: October 14, 2017 – Terre Haute, Indiana – Terre Haute Action Track – 47th “Tony Hulman/Don Smith Classic’
PROSOURCE QUALIFYING: 1. Dave Darland, 39G, Goodnight-19.895 2. Kevin Thomas, 9k, KT-19.985; 3. Justin Grant, 11, McGhee-20.122; 4. Chris Windom, 5, Baldwin-20.187; 5. Chase Stockon, 32, 32 TBI-20.348; 6. Jarett Andretti, 18, Andretti-20.390; 7. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-20.405; 8. Tyler Hewitt, 97x, One More Time-20.464; 9. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-20.467; 10. Shane Cottle, 17GP, Dutcher-20.478; 11. Kyle Cummins, 3c, Cummins-20.489; 12. Tyler Courtney, 23c, TOPP-20.511; 13. Joe Bares, 19, Test-20.551; 14. Brady Bacon, 63, Dooling/Haywrd-20.595; 16. Jerry Coons Jr. 21K, Krockenberger-20.653; 16. Chad Boespflug, 69, Dynamics-20.660; 17. Scotty Weir, 17G, On the Gass-20.712; 18. Joss Moffatt, 5J, Moffatt-20.835; 19. Isaac Chapple, 52, LNR/Chapple-20.912; 20. Josh Hodges, 74x, Hodges-21.030; 21. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-21.055; 22. Kyle Robbins, 17R, KR-21.116; 23. Aric Gentry, 10, Gentry-21.121; 24. Chet Williams, 38, Williams-21.415; 25. Stevie Sussex, 21x, Pollock-21.439; 26. Nate McMillin, 24, McMillin-21.454; 27. Jadon Rogers, 14, Rogers-21.744; 28. Tony McVey, 7M, McVey-21.972; 29. Patrick Budde, 90, Budde-22.359; 30. Dylan Shaw, 12k, Meneely-NT; 31. Jon Stanbrough, 81, Stanbrough-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Darland, 2. Leary, 3. Stockon, 4. Weir, 5. Maddox, 6. Bares, 7. Sussex, 8. Budde. 2:44.66
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Bacon, 2. Thomas, 3. Andretti, 4. Cottle, 5. Gentry, 6. Moffatt, 7. McMillin. 2:44.29
CHALK STIX THIRD HEAT (8 laps) 1. Robbins, 2. Ballou, 3. Cummins, 4, Grant, 5. Chapple, 6. Coons, 7. Rogers. 2:48.01
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Courtney, 2. Windom, 3. Hodges, 4. Boespflug, 5. Hewitt, 6. Williams, 7. McVey. 2:48.72
SEMI: (12 laps) 1. Bares, 2. Moffatt, 3. Coons, 4. Sussex, 5. Mattox, 6. Shaw, 7. Chapple, 8. McMillin, 9. Hewitt, 10. Budde, 11. McVey, 12. Rogers, 13. Williams, 14. Gentry. NT
FEATURE: (30 laps) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr., 2. Chris Windom, 3. Chase Stockon, 4. Brady Bacon, 5. Dave Darland, 6. Tyler Courtney, 7. Justin Grant, 8. C.J. Leary, 9. Kyle Cummins, 10. Jerry Coons, Jr., 11. Jarett Andretti, 12. Chad Boespflug, 13. Stevie Sussex, 14. Josh Hodges, 15. Scotty Weir, 16. Kyle Robbins, 17. Joe Bares, 18. Brandon Mattox, 19. Joss Moffatt, 20. Dylan Shaw, 21. Shane Cottle, 22, Robert Ballou. NT
**Williams flipped during the semi. Shaw flipped on lap 26 of the feature.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Lap 1-27 Stockon, Laps 28-30 Thomas.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Brady Bacon (13th to 4th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Stevie Sussex
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Grant-2006, 2-Windom-1977, 3-Thomas-1891; 4-Courtney-1862, 5-Stockon-1741, 6-Boespflug-1735, 7-Leary-1673; 8-Bacon-1539, 9-Ballou-1501, 10-Darland-1372.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: November 3-4 – San Tan Valley, AZ – Arizona Speedway – 50th Annual “Western World Championships”