By RICHI MURRAY
LAWRENCEBURG, IN – Kevin Thomas, Jr. made all the right moves in Saturday night’s Lawrenceburg Speedway “Fall Nationals,” becoming $10,000 richer with a flawless drive for his fourth USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car points win of the season.
It was certainly a reversal of roles and fortunes for Thomas from the night before at Montpelier (Ind.) Motor Speedway when he pulled no punches in his post-race interview lamenting how he cost himself the race on the final lap due to his decision making.
“Tonight, where there’s a fine line, you have to know the racetrack you’re racing on,” Thomas begins. “Last night I did a poor job of that. Tonight, we knew we were catching lapped cars and we knew we had to put some distance between us and whoever was back there. I knew it either had to be (Justin) Grant or (C.J.) Leary. They’re always good. It’s not about racing the person behind you. It’s about racing the people in front of you. Last night, I was racing people behind me and I made a mistake on the last lap that cost us the race. I had to be a little smarter tonight, a little bit more aggressive to know what I was dealing with.”
Thomas has been one of the most scorching-hot drivers in the series since late July, running in the top-five night-after-night over the past two months. Yet, the Cullman, Alabama native seemed to show an extra sense of determination and focus Saturday night, when he disposed of fellow second row starter Leary, then front row combatants Robert Ballou and Justin Grant in a rapid-fire succession of precision with an outside move off turn two that propelled him from fourth to first.
“There was quite a bit of moisture coming off four at the start,” Thomas detailed. “I peeked out a little bit and got a good run. I thought they were both going to slide each other, then I was going to try to slide them. Instead, they both went bottom/middle and left the top open for me and I took advantage of it.”
“Starting fourth, you got to go,” Thomas continued. “With Robert (Ballou) starting on the front row alongside Grant and Leary starting inside of you, there’s no time to waste. With the way the track was, track position was really everything, especially timing yourself when you get to lap cars and trying to put cars between you and second. You can’t just sit there and be patient. There’s certain races where you can, but this just wasn’t one of them.”
Thomas quickly opened up a six to seven car-length lead by lap two when the race saw its first caution of the night as Chad Boespflug came to a stop on the front straightaway with the right front corner absent from his ride following contact with another car. He would not restart.
On the ensuing restart, previous night’s winner Leary threw himself into contention by elbowing his way into second past Ballou between turns one and two for the third spot, dropping Ballou to sixth. Yet, one lap later, Dave Darland made a daring move into turn one, threading the eye of the needle between both Chris Windom and Leary to move into the top-three.
Meanwhile, Thomas had extended his lead to a commanding half-straightaway advantage that he constructed during the first ten laps as he moved his line from the bottom to the top.
“I was a little worried that we were too good too early,” Thomas explained. “This place can get really black and icy. I’m just glad it held together and everything was nice and balanced for me because, in the beginning, I was running middle to bottom in turns three and four. It finally slowed up enough and I had to jump up to the top. It was good down on the bottom and good up there on the big ol’ curb. That’s all you can really ask for in a racecar.”
Darland, though, seemed destined to throw a wrench into Thomas’ plans when he secured the second position with a lap nine, turn one slider on Justin Grant.
Up ahead, a logjam of lapped traffic gridlocked all lanes of the highway for Thomas as Darland deleted the space between first and second to close right on the tail of Thomas just before midway. As Darland seemed poised to make his bid for the lead, suddenly, he began to slow to a crawling pace off turn two with a broken U-joint, relegating him to the sidelines.
Thereafter, Leary reentered contention, first sliding across the nose of Grant for second in turn one for the second spot, yet remained a half-straightaway behind Thomas who was as precise as an X-ACTO Knife at the front.
Once again, lapped traffic was on the horizon and Leary managed to whittle Thomas’ lead down to just a two car-length separation entering turn three with a couple laps remaining. Thomas amended his previous night’s foible by going on the attack, diving to the bottom of three by the lapped car of Joss Moffatt to create separation between he and Leary which would not be overcome as Thomas raced to a half-second victory over Leary, Grant, Ballou and KSE Racing Products Hard Charger Tyler Courtney from 16th.
Thomas took the race into his own hands down the stretch in his KT Motorsports/Jeff’s Jam-It-In Storage – Abreu Vineyards/DRC/Speedway Chevy, making the right decisions at the right moments to win for the 16th time in his career to tie Damion Gardner for 31st all-time on USAC’s National Sprint Car win list.
“There’s always a little bit of urgency here,” Thomas noted. “When the track’s fast like that, those guys run the cushion just as good as I do or, like Dave (Darland), he’s the best at it. Whenever you’re running the cushion that hard, you know somebody’s going to be chasing you. Restarts bunch everybody up and put them right back on your tail. Whenever you see lap cars, you try your best to split ’em, slide ’em and do whatever you got to do. We just made the right moves at the right time. That’s the luxury of leading. Some places it’s good to be in the lead, some places it’s not. Tonight, it was good. Tonight, timing was everything.”
Greenfield, Indiana’s C.J. Leary came just short of repeating his September magic once again, coming one spot shy of becoming the first driver in the series this season to win three-in-a-row, ultimately finishing second in his Leary Racing/Leary Construction – Highsmith Guns/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
“I wish it was a 40-lapper tonight,” Leary lamented. “But, man, we just needed more time, or a yellow, there at the end to try and have something for him. I reeled him in from a straightaway back. I thought we had the better car at the end. It’s just unfortunate we didn’t have a chance to race him at the end. KT just timed that pass better than I did and made it to where I didn’t have a shot at him.”
“We weren’t really happy with our racecar most of the night,” Leary admitted. “We got through qualifying fourth quick and I felt like that was the hardest part of the night, which gave us an opportunity to start up front. In these races, it’s so hard to pass because everyone’s so fast. Tonight, Lawrenceburg was hammer down up on the fence, which made it really tough. We’ll just continue on to Terre Haute (Oct. 14) and, hopefully, we can continue this momentum.”
It wasn’t quite a win for Justin Grant, but considering the tumultuous night he endured Friday at Montpelier in which he got upside down, a third-place result was a sigh of relief for the Ione, California driver who wheeled the Sam McGhee Motorsports/ProGlide Bearings – Mike McGhee & Associates/Maxim/Foxco to a solid finish to bump up his series point lead to 45 with just six races remaining.
“In the past, when I was tight on the curb, if I turned over, I turned over trying to win,” Grant explained. “Setting out to chase the points deal, you have in your mind that you can’t do that anymore. If I’m a third-place guy, I’m a third-place guy. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to win or that I’m not trying my hardest to win, but I also know I can’t turn the car over when I shouldn’t. That definitely plays on your mind and that mindset has made me a better all-around racer. Maybe I could have used that mindset a couple years ago and I’d be a little ahead of where I am now! You think about it a little bit, but you’re still out to win races. The guys in the points behind you are trying to catch you just as hard as you’re trying to go forward. You can’t afford to ride around and let them catch you. Every car you pass means more points and it pays more money the closer to the top you are.”
Contingency award winners Saturday night at Lawrenceburg Speedway included Dave Darland (ProSource Fast Qualifier), Tyler Courtney (Simpson Race Products Heat 1 Winner), Chase Stockon (Competition Suspension, Inc. Heat 2 Winner), Isaac Chapple (Chalk Stix/Indy Race Parts Heat 3 Winner), Tyler Courtney (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Joss Moffatt (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: September 30, 2017 – Lawrenceburg Speedway – Lawrenceburg, Indiana – “Fall Nationals”
PROSOURCE QUALIFYING: 1. Dave Darland, 39G, Goodnight-14.016; 2. Chris Windom, 5, Baldwin-14.098; 3. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 9K, KT-14.160; 4. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-14.185; 5. Justin Grant, 11, McGhee-14.197; 6. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-14.210; 7. Josh Hodges, 74x, Hodges-14.211; 8. Kyle Robbins, 17R, KR-14.237; 9. Brady Bacon, 63, Dooling/Hayward-14.283; 10. Shawn Westerfeld, 17GP, Dutcher-14.314; 11. Nick Bilbee, 17N, Bilbee-14.318; 12. Chad Boespflug, 69, Dynamics-14.345; 13. Joss Moffatt, 5J, Moffatt-14.355; 14. Chase Stockon, 32, 32 TBI-14.366; 15. Isaac Chapple, 52, LNR/Chapple-14.387; 16. Tyler Courtney, 23c, TOPP-14.431; 17. J.J. Hughes, 76, Hughes-14.515; 18. Garrett Abrams, 32A, Abrams-14.531; 19. Jon Stanbrough, 81, Stanbrough-14.689; 20. Jerry Coons, Jr., 21K, Krockenberger-14.692; 21. Tony McVey, 7m, McVey-14.863; 22. Scotty Weir, 22s, Simon-14.976; 23. Aric Gentry, 10, Gentry-NT; 24. Jarett Andretti, 18, Andretti-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Courtney, 2. Moffatt, 3. Darland, 4. Hodges, 5. Leary, 6. Westerfeld, 7. Stanbrough, 8. Weir. 1:54.46
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Stockon, 2. Bilbee, 3. Grant, 4. Windom, 5. Hughes, 6. Gentry, 7. Coons, 8. Robbins. NT
CHALK STIX/INDY RACE PARTS THIRD HEAT: (8 laps) 1. Chapple, 2. Boespflug, 3. Ballou, 4. Bacon, 5. Thomas, 6. McVey. 1:57.96
FEATURE: (30 laps) 1. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 2. C.J. Leary, 3. Justin Grant, 4. Robert Ballou, 5. Tyler Courtney, 6. Brady Bacon, 7. Chris Windom, 8. Josh Hodges, 9. Jerry Coons, Jr., 10. Jon Stanbrough, 11. Nick Bilbee, 12. Scotty Weir, 13. Joss Moffatt, 14. Chase Stockon, 15. Kyle Robbins, 16. Isaac Chapple, 17. Garrett Abrams, 18. J.J. Hughes, 19. Tony McVey, 20. Dave Darland, 21. Aric Gentry, 22. Shawn Westerfeld, 23. Chad Boespflug. NT
**Gentry flipped during practice.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Lap 1-30 Thomas.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Tyler Courtney (16th to 5th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Joss Moffatt
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Grant-1945, 2-Windom-1900, 3-Thomas Jr.-1809; 4-Courtney-1799, 5-Boespflug-1691, 6-Stockon-1669, 7-Leary-1617, 8-Ballou-1471, 9-Bacon-1470, 10-Darland-1300.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: October 14 – Terre Haute Action Track – Terre Haute, Indiana – “Tony Hulman/Don Smith Classic”