By RICHIE MURRAY
This time last year, the excitement was palpable. On the slate was a first ever trip to the racy I-80 Speedway and a return to the legendary Knoxville Raceway.
After witnessing two thrilling events in successive nights that weekend, it only served to whet the appetite even more. A year later, the hunger and the anticipation hasn’t wavered an inch as the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Cars are back in the middle of the U.S. for a doubleheader weekend, Friday, June 8, at I-80 in Greenwood, Nebraska and Saturday, June 9, at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway.
Tyler Courtney has been the winningest driver in USAC National Sprint Car competition this season with three victories piloting the Clauson Marshall Newman No. 7BC, two in Ocala, Florida, and one at the most recent event at the Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track and stands third in points. One of the most defining moments of last year’s season came at I-80 via Courtney and a late-race battle with Chris Windom.
Windom pounced on Courtney for the final two-lap shootout. On the 29th lap, Windom took the first swing at Courtney, pulling ahead between turns one and two. Courtney kept his foot on the throttle and escaped around the outside of Windom with mere inches to spare to retain the lead.
Windom came back twice more on the final lap with a turn one slider to no avail and one last final run at him going into turn three, but each time, Courtney successfully countered, turning down the hill off turn four to cut underneath Windom and emerged with the victory by 0.184 of a second.
At Knoxville, in one of the most highly-anticipated events on the USAC calendar, Justin Grant made it a night to remember as he led wire-to-wire to win the series’ first race at Knoxville after a six-year hiatus. The sailing was smooth for Grant from beginning to end as he led wire-to-wire, cruising to a 1.2 second victory, his fourth of the year at that point and remains his most recent series’ victory. He did, however, find victory lane with the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series this April in the “Sumar Classic” at the Terre Haute Action Track and occupies ninth in the National Sprint tally.
USAC Sprint Car history in Nebraska is surprisingly short with the first of its six visits to the Cornhusker state coming within the decade of the 2010s. This will be the second-ever trip for the series to the 4/10-mile dirt oval I-80 Speedway, located a half-hour southwest of Omaha.
Dave Darland is twice a winner at I-80 with the Sprint Bandits Tour ‘N Topless series in 2007 and 2008. The Lincoln, Indiana driver is also the only multi-time USAC Sprint winner in Nebraska, picking up both at Eagle Raceway. A year ago, Darland was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and is enjoying a solid season, currently holding down 7th in the standings, winning at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway in April for the 60th time in USAC National Sprint Car competition.
Chad Boespflug won in Nebraska two years ago, also at Eagle, after taking the lead on lap two and soaring to one of his six overall USAC victories in 2016. The Hanford, California native who holds down the 10th spot in points, aims to reach victory lane for the first time in 2018 aboard his own No. 98. Sixth in points is Rocklin, California’s Robert Ballou, an I-80 Sprint Bandits winner in 2006, who is looking to do likewise having last won in July of 2017.
One night later, the famed Knoxville half-mile welcomes the series for the tenth time. It’s been 50 years since Knoxville held its first USAC Sprint race back in 1968 when eventual two-time series champ Gary Bettenhausen took top honors while drivers Dick Tobias (1971), Sam Sessions (1972), Tom Bigelow (1973), Sheldon Kinser (1982), Sammy Swindell (1988) and Bud Kaeding (2010) followed up with victories of their own.
Brady Bacon took a Sprint Bandits feature victory at I-80 in 2009, and the two-time USAC National Sprint Car champ from Oklahoma bagged a victory in USAC’s foray to Knoxville in 2011. He stands eighth in points after a victory at Eldora in May and hasn’t finished outside the top-ten since moving to his own No. 99 in April.
Brody Roa, the 2016 USAC West Coast Sprint Car champ, will make the venture to I-80 and Knoxville for a rare appearance outside the Golden State. The Garden Grove, California driver finished 5th at I-80 last year and closed the season out with his first career USAC National Sprint Car victory at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway. This year, he’s already picked up a pair of West Coast victories at Las Vegas and Hanford, and also scored a win at Ventura with CRA.
Kevin Thomas, Jr. holds down the National Sprint Car point lead by 31 markers entering this weekend’s events. The Cullman, Alabama driver has won twice with the series this year and just recently rolled to his first USAC National Midget victory in three years last Sunday in the “Indiana Midget Week” finale at Kokomo Speedway. Thomas set a new one-lap track record in qualifying last year at Knoxville.
Reigning series champ Windom of Canton, Illinois runs second in the standings behind Thomas and recently closed the gap with a win at Eldora in May. He finished runner-up to Courtney at I-80 and charged from 18th to 6th at Knoxville. Greenfield, Indiana’s C.J. Leary is fourth in points and ran a solid 5th at Knoxville last year. Chase Stockon, fifth in points, set the standard for one-lap prowess in qualifying at I-80 last season and won this year’s season opener in Ocala, Florida.
Pit gates open for Friday’s “I-80 Dirt Classic” 3pm. Grandstands open at 5:30. Adult General Admission tickets are $25. Children Age 6-12 are $5. Kids Age 5 and Under are Free. Pit Passes are $40.
Action gets underway Saturday at Knoxville when cars hit the track at 6:45pm. Adult General Admission tickets are $20. Teens Age 13-19 are $15. Children Under Age 12 are Free. Pit Passes are $40.
You can listen to all the action LIVE on the USAC app. As always, you can view each and every USAC event one-day after the race is run, on-demand at http://www.Loudpedal.TV/.