By RICHIE MURRAY
BLOOMINGTON, IN – Indiana Sprint Week at Bloomington Speedway is pretty much where it began for Kevin Thomas, Jr. five years ago.
Fourteen USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car wins and five Indiana Sprint Week victories later, the Cullman, Alabama native finally made a return visit to Bloomington victory lane, leading the final 28 laps of Friday night’s 29th Annual “Sheldon Kinser Memorial” to score his second series victory of the year and vaulting him into the ISW presented by Camping World point lead with two events remaining.
With a full decade under his belt as a mainstay on the USAC Sprint Car scene as well as Bloomington Speedway, the 25-year-old, who made his first Bloomington USAC appearance as a teenager back in 2007, has a fair share of experience on the red, Southern Indiana clay.
“I’ve run a lot of laps here,” Thomas admits. “It’s pretty special to come back here and do this again. We run here as much as we can, local shows and with other organizations and, over 10 years here now, it’s been a pretty good bit. It’s just the number of laps. I’m just really comfortable here.”
“Tonight was nice and slick to a big ol’ curb,” Thomas continued. “We made good decisions. We’ve been trying some things at local shows to help us out whenever it gets like that here. My crew made all the right calls in the pits and gave me a great racecar. It was pretty nice to drive tonight, especially up there against that treacherous curb. It’s hard to keep your concentration for that many laps in a row, but having a car like I had makes it easier. Once you’re out front, you have to keep your nose clean and run a smart race, pick off lapped cars whenever you can and try not to make any mistakes, which is hard to do up there. Everything with our package we have right now runs well. It’s just a joy to drive.”
Thomas would begin the 30-lap event from outside of the second row, and took quick action to get to the front. Coming off the second turn on the opening lap, pole sitter Chad Boespflug spurted away to the lead while Robert Ballou (bottom), Thomas (middle) and Thomas Meseraull (top) battled three-wide for second. Bloomington’s tight confines made it a tough proposition for all three to successfully make it to turn three unscathed, and that would prove to be the case.
Midway down the back straight, Thomas and Meseraull made contact. Meseraull’s left front wheel served as a launching pad for Thomas who hopped his right rear tire over Meseraull’s wheel, collapsing Meseraull’s front end and concluding a night that proved crushing to the San Jose, California’s Indiana Sprint Week title hopes, dropping him from second in the standings (13 back) to fifth and 28 out of the lead with just two events remaining.
It was an incident in which Kevin Thomas, Jr. put the full blame squarely on his own shoulders.
“I got a decent start,” Thomas recalls. “I rolled the middle and got up beside Thomas. Honestly, it’s just a lack of concentration on my part. I caught myself looking at the bottom at Boespflug and I let my right rear slide out a little bit too far and I ran Thomas out of room. That was 100% my fault. He didn’t do anything wrong and it’s just unfortunate what happened to him. They’ve been good all week. It’s not the way we want to race because he doesn’t race like that and I try not to race like that. It’s just an unfortunate circumstance for him. He’s been good all week and he was good tonight. I just lost concentration on my end.”
With the incident occurring on the opening lap, there were still 30 laps to try to retain that focus that is so sorely needed to compete at a winning level. With that situation weighing on his mind, Thomas had to regain his composure and get back to the task at hand.
“When you make contact, then yellow comes out immediately and you see his front end knocked out like that, it’s a disheartening because he and I have raced for a long, long time. We don’t usually make contact. He’s got a wife and kids. He’s here to make a living too. To take his night away from him like that is not cool on my part.”
When action resumed, many believed the race would be won on the bottom including leader Boespflug, but Kevin Thomas, Jr. had his car set up to run the top and he didn’t intend to stray from that notion. Thomas was able to inch a bit closer on the first three circuits as the two ran side-by-side, Boespflug around the infield tires and Thomas riding the ledge.
Boespflug clung to the lead by a car length at the line at the conclusion of lap three, but Thomas made some headway on the following lap and, coming off four, surged ahead of Boespflug as he hung his right-side tires off the front straightaway curb at the start/finish line to secure the point. Boespflug took one more run at Thomas on lap four, attempting a half-slider in turn three to no avail, allowing Thomas to step through the door and slam it shut as he left the rest of the field behind.
By the tenth lap, Thomas had built up a full-straightaway lead with Troy, Ohio’s Lee Underwood holding down the second spot in one of the most remarkable drives all week, one lap after he blew by Boespflug on the bottom for the runner-up position. By halfway, lappers were everywhere, suffocating the high and low-lines on each end of the quarter-mile, but Thomas had no intentions of leaving his comfort zone up top.
“I just don’t run the bottom,” Thomas said without hesitation. “It’s just one of those things. If I could run in the top-five on the top and not have to run the bottom, it’s probably what I’m going to try to do. I just don’t have enough patience to run the bottom. I’m not very good at it. We set up to run the top as much as we can. It’s just a comfort level up there for me. I thought about going to the bottom a few times in lapped traffic. I think I tried it one time and I completely missed the bottom. I knew I couldn’t do this any longer, so I just stuck it out, tried to get a little bit closer to the lappers, then I just slid them.”
Just after halfway, Boespflug found his second wind, discovering his groove on the high-side to sweep past Underwood for second on lap 18 with eyes affixed on catching Thomas in the gridlock of lapped traffic that lie ahead. Still trailing by nearly three seconds, Boespflug would need a caution or something drastic to occur in front of Thomas in the closing laps, and it nearly did.
With six to go, the cars of Max McGhee and C.J. Leary became hooked together rear bumper to front bumper, respectively, right in front of Thomas, which briefly caused a bit of consternation for the race leader. The two eventually were able untangle at the exit of turn four before continuing, but luckily for Thomas, he was able to take evasive action to avoid catastrophe.
“I did see that,” Thomas recalls. “It’s just one of those deals. You have to look far enough ahead, but you still have to concentrate as much as you can on the cushion you’re running. It can bite you just as much as those two beating and banging on each other. Something can happen and you might get into them. It’s a little bit of both. You have to concentrate really hard on what the cars are doing in front of you. You have to get your momentum up before you get there, then whenever they make a mistake, just squirt by and get yourself out of the problem. That’s really all you can do in that situation.”
With no caution coming out for the incident, it became a split-second decision that could’ve ultimately decided the race. As Boespflug charged at Thomas with a full-head of steam, it was the line Thomas had already established that he believes helped him navigate through the potential hazards as they occurred.
“If you try to wait and go to the bottom, say somebody knocks their front end out, then turns down the track and you get taken out of the lead, that’s just one thing you don’t want to happen. I feel like the top is the easiest way out of trouble. There’s normally so much banking on these tracks that when something happens, it usually ends up going to the bottom. I think you have a little bit more space if something does happen, so I just stick to the top. If something happens, you can drive off the top of the track, especially here since there’s no walls. If you can get slowed down and turn underneath it, you’ve got to stick to the top. You can’t open yourself up too much for the guy behind you. It’s just a fine line right there, but it’s a gamble you have to take.”
No such trouble stood in Thomas’ path on the final five revolutions around the oval, though he did have to contend with a three-way battle for 16th between Justin Grant, Carson Short and Shane Cottle that formed a Red Rover Wall of sorts with two to go that prevented him from breaking free. The pack would thin out and Thomas would win out, finishing off a dominating performance in his KT Motorsports/Abreu Vineyards – KT Construction Services/DRC/Speedway Chevy over Boespflug, a series-best performance for the unrelated Tyler Thomas, followed by the surprise of ISW – Lee Underwood – who came home a career-best fourth while Robert Ballou rounded out the top-five.
With the victory, Thomas now holds down a five-point advantage in the ISW standings. With two shows remaining, Thomas plans to block out any thoughts on so-called “points racing.”
“In the first part of the week, I was actually paying attention to the points,” Thomas recalls. “I’d been running (terrible). Tonight, it was another gameplan, a different mindset. We’re just here to win now. If you win the race, the points will take care of themselves. As far as that old points racing crap, I’m kind of over it. That’s not what I do. Whenever I do, I don’t make good decisions and I’m not aggressive. It’s just not the way I like to run races. We’re just going to go out there to win every race. If we do, we do. If we don’t, we don’t. If something happens and we get taken out like Meseraull did tonight, that is what it is. It’s just the way this week can go. It’s a tough week. You want to be in position to capitalize on the opportunities you do have and hope that nothing bad happens to you.”
After a tumultuous past month that hadn’t seen a top-five finish in the last 30 days, Hanford, California’s Chad Boespflug has seemingly gotten back on a track, following up a fourth-place run Monday night at Gas City with a runner-up finish Friday night at Bloomington in his Dynamics, Inc./Mean Green – PAC Springs/Maxim/Claxton. It’s been a turnaround a long-time coming after their confidence was shaken following a string of results that had not lived up to their expectations.
“When things don’t go the way you want them to go and the late nights at the shop and the early mornings come and go, things can seem like they’re falling apart,” Boespflug explains. “(Crewmen) Davey (Jones), Richard (Hoffman) and myself have had to pep talk each other at times to try and get things going. We all believe in each other and that’s the key. I think saying what we did to each other lit a fire under our butts and got us going again.”
Like many, Boespflug stayed on the bottom early before gravitating to the top where he seemed to pick up speed about halfway through and worked his way back to second.
“I just hung out on the bottom too long,” Boespflug laments. “Early on, I thought that was going to be the place. The top cleaned off pretty good for Kevin, so I jumped up there and ran one lap in one corner at the top, then went to the bottom and vice-versa. I kind of jumped around a bunch, but that didn’t seem to work, so I just stuck to the top. I was kind of tip-toeing, getting my speed up. Lee (Underwood) got underneath me and I really had to hustle to get back around him. I was getting closer to KT about halfway through, then the rubber came and we were all running the same speed around the top.”
Collinsville, Oklahoma’s Tyler Thomas’ last few weeks revolved around rebuilding a car that had been heavily-damaged in the non-sanctioned “No Way Out 40” at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway a few weeks back. That comes in addition to minor setbacks and missing a few shows that proved a setback to the 21-year-old who first stepped into a USAC Sprint Car at this point one year ago. On Friday night, all the pieces came together for T. Thomas and his Jerry Burton-owned/Jerry Burton Masonry – Johnson’s Taxidermy/DRC/Foxco to record a best-career USAC National Sprint Car finish of third.
“It’s really special to me, especially to do it in the Jerry Burton car,” Thomas beamed. “We’ve been battling so many small problems that’s kept us from qualifying well and getting through our heat race. Plus, we missed a couple nights and, prior to all of this, we had to rebuild the car a couple weeks ago after a crash. We got it together tonight. We qualified really well and got through the heat race and ran up front in the feature tonight. I just tried to be real patient there. I rolled around the bottom – felt like for maybe too long – but once we got up to the top and got around Ballou and Underwood, this car was on a roll.
“We’ve been battling a lot of different issues all year,” Thomas explains. “There’s nothing we could’ve done. It’s just been bad luck, really. We were finally able to get everything dialed in tonight. This is by far the best night we’ve had all year. I never would’ve dreamed we would’ve run top-three at Sprint Week this week, but it feels pretty damn cool.”
Brownsburg, Indiana driver A.J. Hopkins was released from the hospital early Saturday morning after a frightening semi-feature incident in which he ramped over the right rear wheel of another car, sending him flipping through a fence located between turns one and two where he eventually came to a rest in a parking area, making contact with a couple of pickup trucks along the way.
Contingency award winners Friday at Bloomington Speedway include Carson Short (ProSource Fast Qualifier), C.J. Leary (Simpson Race Products 1st Heat Winner), Robert Ballou (Competition Suspension, Inc. 2nd Heat Winner), Brody Roa (Chalk Stix 3rd Heat Winner), Chad Boespflug (Indy Race Parts 4th Heat Winner), Brady Short (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Josh Hodges (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: July 14, 2017 – Bloomington, Indiana – Bloomington Speedway – 29th “Sheldon Kinser Memorial” – “Indiana Sprint Week” Presented by Camping World
PROSOURCE/B & W AUTO MART QUALIFYING: 1. Carson Short, 21, RCM-10.842; 2. Ryan Bernal, 17G, On The Gass-11.032; 3. Max McGhee, 17, McGhee-11.037; 4. Tyler Thomas, 04, Burton-11.069; 5. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 9K, KT-11.078; 6. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-11,095; 7. Thomas Meseraull, 5B, Briscoe-11.127; 8. Chad Boespflug, 69, Dynamics-11.151; 9. Lee Underwood, 24L, Underwood-11.155; 10. Josh Hodges, 74x, Hodges-11.162; 11. Hunter Schuerenberg, 44, Pace-11.170; 12. Chase Stockon, 32, 32 TBI-11.181; 13. Jeff Bland, Jr., 66w, Waltz-11.194; 14. Chris Windom, 5, Baldwin-11.210; 15. Tyler Courtney, 23c, TOPP-11.262; 16. Dave Darland, 71p, Phillips/Curb-Agajanian-11.290; 17. Jarett Andretti, 18, Andretti-11.318; 18. Garrett Aitken, 32A, Aitken-11.326; 19. Dakota Jackson, 3, Jackson-11.326; 20. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Rock Steady-11.357; 21. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-11.367; 22. Kody Swanson, 2E, Epperson-11.372; 23. Brody Roa, 91T, BR-11.386; 24. Shane Cottle, 57, Hazen-11.482; 25. Justin Grant, 11, McGhee-11.483; 26. Matt McDonald, 5m, McDonald-11.500; 27. A.J. Hopkins, 4J, 4J Motorsports-11.530; 28. Jon Stanbrough, 77, Wingo-11.551; 29. Brady Short, 11p, Pottorff-11.553; 30. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-11.597; 31. Brent Beauchamp, 34, Olson-11.612; 32. Jerry Coons, Jr., 21K, Krockenberger-11.652; 33. Aaron Farney, 15F, DCT-11.711; 34. Shelby VanGilder, 22v, VanGilder-11.813; 35. Katlynn Leer, 77K, Leer-11.820; 36. Jamie Williams, 31, Williams-11.842; 37. Koby Barksdale, 22, Barksdale-11.916; 38. Alec Sipes, 99, Sipes-12.415; 39. Brady Ottinger, 4B, 4J Motorsports-12.630; 40. Tyler Clem, 14c, Clem/TSR-(Time of 11.864 disallowed).
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Leary, 2. K. Thomas, 3. Bland, 4. B. Short, 5. C. Short, 6. Grant, 7. Andretti, 8. Farney, 9. Barksdale, 10. Underwood. NT
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Ballou, 2. Swanson, 3. Bernal, 4. Hodges, 5. McDonald, 6. Sipes, 7. VanGilder, 8. Aitken, 9. Mattox, 10. Windom. NT
CHALK STIX THIRD HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Roa, 2. Jackson, 3. Courtney, 4. Meseraull, 5. Beauchamp, 6. Hopkins, 7. McGhee, 8. Leer, 9. Ottinger, 10. Schuerenberg. NT
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Boespflug, 2. Darland, 3. Cottle, 4. T. Thomas, 5. Stanbrough, 6. Coons, 7. Williams, 8. Clem, 9. Cummins, 10. Stockon. NT
C-MAIN: (10 laps) 1. Coons, 2. Beauchamp, 3. Farney, 4. Williams, 5. Barksdale, 6. Clem, 7. VanGilder, 8. Ottinger, 9. Sipes, 10. Leer. NT
SEMI: (12 laps) 1. McGhee, 2. Schuerenberg, 3. Grant, 4. Underwood, 5. Stockon, 6. Windom, 7. C. Short, 8. Coons, 9. Aitken, 10. Stanbrough, 11. Beauchamp, 12. Mattox, 13. Andretti, 14. Williams, 15. Barksdale, 16. Cummins, 17. Farney, 18. Hopkins. NT
FEATURE: (30 laps) 1. Kevin Thomas, Jr. 2. Chad Boespflug, 3. Tyler Thomas, 4. Lee Underwood, 5. Robert Ballou, 6. Jeff Bland, Jr., 7. Chris Windom, 8. Tyler Courtney, 9. Chase Stockon, 10. Brady Short, 11. Dave Darland, 12. Hunter Schuerenberg, 13. Josh Hodges, 14. Ryan Bernal, 15. Kody Swanson, 16. Justin Grant, 17. Carson Short, 18. Shane Cottle, 19. Dakota Jackson, 20. C.J. Leary, 21. Jarett Andretti, 22. Brody Roa, 23. Max McGhee, 24. Thomas Meseraull. NT
**Hopkins flipped through the fence outside turn two during the semi. He was transported to a local hospital for observation.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-2 Boespflug, Laps 3-30 K. Thomas.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Brady Short (22nd-10th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Josh Hodges
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Windom-1,236, 2-Grant-1,229, 3-Boespflug-1,102, 4-Stockon-1,071, 5-K. Thomas-1,053, 6-Courtney-1,025, 7-Leary-944, 8-Brady Bacon-913, 9-Darland-859, 10-Meseraull-816.
NEW INDIANA SPRINT WEEK Presented by Camping World POINTS: 1-K. Thomas-270, 2-Ballou-265, 3-Leary-258, 4-Windom-243, 5-Meseraull-242, 6-Darland-236, 7-Courtney-219, 8-Brady Bacon-203, 9-Boespflug-200, 10-Hodges-187.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: July 15 – Haubstadt, IN – Tri-State Speedway – “Indiana Sprint Week” – Presented by Camping World