By RICHIE MURRAY
OCALA, FL – Five past “Winter Dirt Games” feature winners have entered the 2018 USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship season openers Feb. 15-16-17 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Florida.
The ninth edition of the three-race series in the heart of Florida has had 11 different winning drivers in its 22-race history. The winner of the opener at the most recent trip by the series to Ocala was Ione, California’s Justin Grant. The 2018 series runner-up finds himself in new digs this year as the driver of the TOPP Motorsports No. 4.
In an offseason chock-full of ride swapping, Kevin Thomas, Jr., a 2015 “Winter Dirt Games” feature winner, has added the Hoffman Auto Racing/Dynamics, Inc. colors and the No. 69 to his arsenal for 2018. The Cullman, Alabama driver led the series with six points wins last season, including the season finale “Oval Nationals” at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway in November.
Dave Darland, the winningest driver in the history of the series, has gone back to the future for 2018 as he will pilot a car for Gene Goodnight with an oh-so-familiar number that was the Lincoln, Indiana driver’s calling card early in his racing career. Darland will take the wheel of the No. 36D for a full-season campaign beginning at Ocala where he was victorious in 2015.
Robert Ballou, the 2015 series champ, is the winningest active driver of “Winter Dirt Games” with three scores between 2015 and 2016. The Rocklin, California veteran driver returns for a full championship assault in his own No. 12 after missing the first portion of last season’s campaign while recovering from injuries.
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma’s Brady Bacon is twice a USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car champ and twice a “Winter Dirt Games” feature winner. He raced to a pair of top-fives and was the “hard charger” on both nights of last year’s event and returns in the Dooling/Hayward Motorsports No. 63 that now adds support from NASCAR champion car owner Richard Childress.
Chris Windom of Canton, Illinois and the Baldwin Brothers Racing No. 5 come into the season as the defending series champs, yet lady luck hasn’t been on Windom’s side all that much when it comes to racing in Florida. He’s the only driver to start all 22 “Winter Dirt Games” shows since 2010, but has only found the top-ten on 10 of those occasions. With that said, two of those top-tens have been runner-ups and, following a strong run last year at Ocala, the team will not lack for confidence.
Three-time USAC Silver Crown champion Kody Swanson has dominated the big cars over the past handful of seasons, but is still seeking to make his mark in USAC Sprint Car competition on the dirt. His machinery for Florida is potent as he has aligned with the Rock Steady Racing No. 3R team that Kyle Cummins has driven for in recent years when he posted three top-three finishes at Ocala in 2016.
Five additional winners on the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car trail in 2017 aim to make their debut visit to Bubba Raceway Park victory lane this time around.
Kyle Cummins of Princeton, Indiana has four top-five finishes in Ocala, including a runner-up finish at the 2016 opener. This year marks a new chapter for the three-time USAC National Sprint Car feature winner as he heads back to his own No. 3c along with Eberhardt/Zirzow Racing.
Tyler Courtney had a breakout 2017 season with five series wins, but the Indianapolis, Indiana driver had made the jump to Clauson/Marshall/Newman Racing’s new sprint car outfit for the full season this year. Courtney racked up a second-place finish at Ocala in his Rookie season back in 2013.
Chad Boespflug, a Bloomington winner in April of last year, has made the change back to his own No. 98, which he drove to a total of six USAC-sanctioned Sprint Car victories in his unforgettable 2016 season. The driver, who hails from Hanford, California, snagged a second and a fourth at Ocala a year ago.
Greenfield, Indiana’s C.J. Leary (Leary Racing No. 30) and Fort Branch, Indiana’s Chase Stockon (32 TBI Racing No. 32) have each been at this game for a while, but haven’t yet taken the checkered flag first at Ocala. Leary finished in the top-five in last year’s Ocala opener while Stockon has tallied up an incomparable 15-straight top-tens in “Winter Dirt Games” competition since 2013.
Carson Short has routinely been fast in his family-owned No. 21 in Florida. A third-place finish in last season’s Ocala opener was negated after missing the scales following the checkered flag. The Marion, Illinois driver followed it up a night later by setting fast time in qualifying. Short has shown the speed and is more than capable of conquering the competition once again as he did during his lone series victory in “Indiana Sprint Week” at Haubstadt, Indiana in 2016.
“Winter Dirt Games” entries across the board include past USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Rookies of the Year: Binghamton, New York’s Coleman Gulick (2011), Mooresville, North Carolina’s Jarett Andretti (2014) and Willow Branch, Indiana’s Isaac Chapple (2016).
A solid crop of 2018 USAC Sprint Car Rookies going to Ocala include Sutter, California’s Logan Seavey (Chase Briscoe Motorsports #5B), Owensville, Indiana’s Kent Schmidt (Kent Schmidt #5K), Auburn, Illinois’ Mario Clouser (Mario Clouser Motorsports #6), Pottstown, Pennsylvania’s Tim Buckwalter (LNB Motorsports #7), St. Petersburg, Florida’s Tyler Clem (Bubba Clem #14c), Paris, Illinois’ Garrett Aitken (Garrett Aitken #32A) and Denton, North Carolina’s Johnny Petrozelle (Petrozelle Autosport #59).
Veterans looking to break through in the series’ lone visit to Sunshine State include Indianapolis, Indiana’s Nick Bilbee (Epperson Racing #2E), Tipp City, Ohio’s Landon Simon (Landon Simon Racing #24), Terre Haute, Indiana’s Brandon Mattox (Mattox Racing #28), Winchester, Indiana’s Matt Goodnight (Gene Goodnight #39) and Robert Bell (Robert Bell Motorsports #71).
Watch “Winter Dirt Games IX” LIVE on http://www.SpeedShiftTV.com/. Watch each race a day later on-demand at http://www.Loudpedal.TV/.