By RICHIE MURRAY & DILLON WELCH
OCALA, FL – There’s a fine line between conservation and aggressiveness behind the wheel of a racecar. How much a driver can push himself and his car in either strategic direction without sacrificing the other is an art that is truly a difficult art to master. If a driver doesn’t push hard enough, he will not put himself in a position to win. Conversely, if a driver doesn’t take care of his equipment, namely the four pieces of rubber on his car, throughout the race, odds are he will not likely be standing in victory lane at night’s end. On Saturday night, San Jose, California’s Thomas Meseraull was able to find just the right combination of speed, patience, and timeliness to take the victory on the last corner of the final lap in a wild, topsy-turvy USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship “Winter Dirt Games VII” finale at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Florida.
Meseraull, who was the night’s ProSource Fast Qualifier would start the 30-lap feature from outside the third row, but it was the previous two nights’ fast qualifier Max McGhee who started on the pole and led the first lap of the affair. Following a three-car tangle that brought out the race’s first caution, the ensuing restart saw outside front row starter Robert Ballou taking the point from McGhee on lap two with Bryan Clauson in tow.On the fifth lap, Clauson and Ballou banged wheels three separate times, swapping the lead back-and-forth in a battle of the two most recent series feature winners. As Clauson took command of the top spot, Ballou attempted to regain his rhythm as he dropped to fourth, overtaken by McGhee and Meseraull.
At the halfway point, the surface began to take rubber and tire wear became a primary concern as Meseraull got to the second spot on lap 17 with an outside maneuver on McGhee coming off of turn four. On the 18th lap, Meseraull threw a slide job on Clauson for the lead entering one, making slight contact with his right rear tire on Clauson’s left front.
Just two laps later, Clauson regained the lead as Meseraull slid high exiting the second turn. Clauson immediately began to pull away and appeared as if he had the race in the bag as he distanced himself from the rest of the field. However, on lap 23, Clauson became the first victim of tire wear, popping a right rear tire and handing over the lead to youngster Max McGhee, putting the 18-year-old in a position to win his first career series race with just eight laps to go.
Under caution, McGhee and others cooled their tires off on the cushion, looking for any possible way to subdue the heat on the tires for the run to the checkered flag. On lap 25, Brady Bacon, running seventh, and fifth-place Ballou saw right rears wear out on them in what was becoming a battle of survival of the fittest.
With two laps remaining, McGhee, Justin Grant, and Meseraull ran nose-to-tail into turn one when suddenly McGhee’s right rear tire went flat, sending him out of the groove, out of the lead, and out of luck. The green flag stayed out as Grant and Meseraull now ran one-two headed for the white flag. On the fourth turn of the final lap, with the checkered flag in sight, Grant’s right rear gave way, allowing Meseraull to get underneath him and take his first series win of the season aboard his Amati Racing/Marion Underground Construction – Zeller Construction/DRC/Claxton number 66, beating Chris Windom, Kyle Cummins, Chase Stockon and a heartbroken Grant to the finish line.
The Meseraull/Amati combo has become a force within the series since teaming up last summer, already peeling off three feature victories since late September of 2015. But on this night, Meseraull admits that it’s not only experience that enabled him to manage his tires enough to win on this night, but sometimes luck plays a role along with being in the right place at the right time.
“I think I’m already one of the guys that can keep the tires under it.” Meseraull said. “You can’t over-gas these things and tonight that was the key. I tried not to get wheel spin and we made some changes to get the car over on the left side more and I think that was the key. If we’d have been buried on the right rear, we would’ve been done. Once Clauson went out, I just started to not burn it at all and then it was just a waiting game. Then, Max McGhee lost his (tire) and Justin lost his in the last corner. We kind of got lucky, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Runner-up Chris Windom had a strong, steady, under-the-radar run in his Rick Pollock/Bates Commodities/Maxim/Advanced Engines number 21x, picking his way through the field from his 14th starting spot by altering his race strategy midway through the feature.
“The first ten to twelve laps we had a really good car and could pick some guys off,” Windom said. But the last half was all strategy. You had to save your tires as much as possible, and then the last five laps became even more strategic. I was watching the top-three and knew at least a couple of them were going to blow tires because they were going way too hard on the right rear, so I just laid off and hoped that mine would stay up; thankfully it did.”
Third place Kyle Cummins continued his impressive performances during “Winter Dirt Games VII” in the Hank Byram/Vincennes University – Tim Mason ReMax/Mach-1/Cummins number 3R, taking his third consecutive top-three finish in Ocala and extending his lead in the series point standings to 18 markers over Meseraull.
“It’s been a really good week,” Cummins exclaimed. “Every night we tried something different and we still have a good top-five car each night. The team is clicking and we’re having fun. For a while there it became like a job to me. But I just try to go out and race and have a good time. We certainly want to win, but with finishes like that, we’re going to start winning some. Once we do win, we’ll have even more confidence and, I think, have a really good season.”
CONTINGENCY AWARD WINNERS:
PROSOURCE FAST QUALIFIER: Thomas Meseraull
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT WINNER: Kyle Cummins
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT WINNER: Justin Grant
BENIC ENTERPRISES THIRD HEAT WINNER: Brady Bacon
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT WINNER: Chad Boespflug
KSE HARD CHARGER: Jon Stanbrough
SCHROEDER/PAC SPRINGS 3RD PLACE FINISHER: Kyle Cummins
SCHOENFELD HEADERS 5TH PLACE FINISHER: Justin Grant
SCHROEDER/PAC SPRINGS 8TH PLACE FINISHER: Jon Stanbrough
TOP MAXIM FINISHER: Chris Windom
WILWOOD BRAKE SYSTEMS PASSING MASTER: Bryan Clauson
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS:February 20, 2016 – Ocala, Florida – Bubba Raceway Park – “Winter Dirt Games VII”
PROSOURCE QUALIFYING: 1. Thomas Meseraull, 66, Amati-14.073; 2. Chase Stockon, 32, 32/TBI-14.149; 3. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-14.157; 4. Carson Short, 21, Short-14.174; 5. Bryan Clauson, 63, Dooling/Hayward-14.240; 6. Robert Ballou, 1, Ballou-14.269; 7. Kody Swanson, 71p, Phillips/Wolters-14.304; 8. Max McGhee, 17, McGhee-14.309; 9. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Byram-14.317; 10. Justin Grant, 5, Baldwin-14.322; 11. Dave Darland, 11, Walker/Curb-Agajanian-14.411; 12. Chad Boespflug, 98E, NineEight/EZR-14.442; 13. Mitch Wissmiller, 1w, Wissmiller-14.500; 14. Kent Schmidt, 5K, Schmidt-15.554; 15. Chris Windom, 21x, Pollock-14.557; 16. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-15.580; 17. Jarett Andretti, 18, Andretti-14.601; 18. Aric Gentry, 10, GBR-14.632; 19. Shane Cottle, 2E, Epperson-14.658; 20. Brady Short, 17GP, Dutcher-14.706; 21. Kyle Robbins, 17R, Robbins-14.708; 22. Brandon Spithaler, 57B, Burkey-14.730; 23. Landon Simon, 24, LSR-14.773; 24. Jon Stanbrough, 81, Stanbrough-14.798; 25. Casey Shuman, 4J, Ottinger-14.848; 26. Tom Harris, 5E, East-14.878; 27. Matt Westfall, 38, Baumgartner-14.908; 28. Aaron Farney, 15F, Farney-15.156; 29. Bret Mellenberndt, 97, Mellenberndt-15.302; 30. Frank Carlsson, 20, Carlsson-15.339; 31. Lee Dakus, 75, DOW-15.611; 32. Robert Bell, 71, Bell-16.626.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Cummins, 2. Clauson, 3. Meseraull, 4. Andretti, 5. Wissmiller, 6. Robbins, 7. Mellenberndt, 8. Shuman. 2:04.24
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Grant, 2. Stockon, 3. Spithaler, 4. Ballou, 5. Gentry, 6. Schmidt, 7. Harris, 8. Carlsson. 2:03.00
BENIC ENTERPRISES THIRD HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Bacon, 2. Cottle, 3. Windom, 4. Darland, 5. Swanson, 6. Simon, 7. Westfall, 8. Dakus. NT
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Boespflug, 2. B. Short, 3. Stanbrough, 4. McGhee, 5. C. Short, 6. Farney, 7. Leary, 8. Bell. 2:04.86
SEMI: (12 laps) 1. C. Short, 2. Wissmiller, 3. Farney, 4. Swanson, 5. Leary, 6. Simon, 7. Harris, 8. Robbins, 9. Shuman, 10. Westfall, 11. Dakus, 12. Bell, 13. Mellenberndt, 14. Carlsson, 15. Schmidt, 16. Gentry. NT
FEATURE: (30 laps) 1. Thomas Meseraull, 2. Chris Windom, 3. Kyle Cummins, 4. Chase Stockon, 5. Justin Grant, 6. Dave Darland, 7. Bryan Clauson, 8. Jon Stanbrough, 9. Carson Short, 10. C.J. Leary, 11. Robert Ballou, 12. Brady Bacon, 13. Jarett Andretti, 14. Chad Boespflug, 15. Aaron Farney, 16. Brandon Spithaler, 17. Max McGhee, 18. Shane Cottle, 19. Kody Swanson, 20. Landon Simon, 21. Mitch Wissmiller, 22. Brady Short. NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Lap 1 McGhee, Laps 2-4 Ballou, Laps 5-17 Clauson, Laps 18-19 Meseraull, Laps 20-22 Clauson, Laps 23-28 McGhee, Lap 29 Grant, Lap 30 Meseraull.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Jon Stanbrough
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS:1-Cummins-227, 2-Meseraull-209, 3-Clauson-209, 4-Stockon-184, 5-Grant-184, 6-Bacon-178, 7-Ballou-174, 8-McGhee-163, 9-Darland-163, 10-Windom-162.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE:April 2 – Lawrenceburg, Indiana – Lawrenceburg Speedway