By RICHIE MURRAY
OCALA, FL – The evolution of Tyler Courtney’s USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car career has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons. In 2016, he broke into the win column for the first time. In 2017, he had a career-high five series wins. For 2018, the next logical step would be to contend for a series title.
Although the season is admittedly early, Courtney took a big leap toward that goal after a dominating performance Friday on night two of “Winter Dirt Games 9” at Bubba Raceway Park as he drove his Clauson-Marshall-Newman Racing/Priority Aviation – Competition Suspension, Inc./Spike/Rider Chevy to the front on lap three and led the remaining 28 laps to score his first victory for the team in their new sprinter.
Ocala has been a battleground that has proven to be a thorn in Courtney’s side throughout his career. Four of his five starts at the 3/8-mile D-shaped track coming into Friday had resulted in finishes of 11th or worse. After a rough start a year ago and an equally tumultuous beginning on Thursday night, the Indianapolis, Indiana native licked his war wounds and arrived in a new frame of mind, a trait he said he didn’t possess at this point last season.
“If I was in this position a year ago, I probably would’ve struggled again tonight,” Courtney admits. “I took last year and learned how to handle myself from one night to the next, especially on a long trip like this. You just have to take last night and put it behind you and reset and give your team your best effort because you know they’re going to give you their best effort every night. This is a really good way to start off the trip and year, especially since last year I think I came out either 14th or 15th in points. That makes the road to hoe a long one. This is really cool to start this way with a new team. There’s always question marks, but I think we kind of threw those away tonight and, hopefully, made a statement that we’re here to be a contender all year.”
In 2017, Courtney’s performance was clicking at a steady beat with TOPP Motorsports as he posted the best numbers of his career across the board. During the offseason, however, Courtney made the bold jump to Clauson-Marshall-Newman Racing full-time, the same team he competes with on the USAC Midget National Championship trail. For most, it takes more than a moment to jell properly with the team and its operations, but Courtney has a familiarity with these particular surroundings as a driver that is second to none, making the adaptation to each other in just the snap of a finger.
“Tim (Clauson) has been a huge part of my career since I started in sprint cars and midgets,” Courtney said. “Tim and I have such a close relationship with our head guy, and my roommate, Rizzy (Tyler Ransbottom). We’re one big family here, so it’s really special, especially to bring out a throwback car that Rizzy and Tim and everyone got to be a part of. Having a family atmosphere like this makes a transition like switching from a team that you ran with for two years a lot easier. The trust and the confidence level is there because I ran with them in the midgets last year, and I think we proved that tonight.
Indeed, they proved that, and it didn’t take very long. As C.J. Leary and Kevin Thomas, Jr. tussled for position up front for the first two circuits, fourth-starting Courtney was precise, motoring to the outside of Thomas in turn two on lap three for second, then splitting between he and Leary to his outside as he dove to the bottom in turn three to snare the lead.
The sense of urgency was palpable in Courtney’s mind and he knew he needed to take advantage of the space on the track afforded to him before it was discovered by Leary and/or Thomas.
“I knew I needed to get there,” Courtney obliges. “I was running that next groove up from where they were and it stuck. I knew it was only a matter of time before they got there too. So, I knew I needed to get by them and get going. Luckily, I was able to get that done in one lap and didn’t have to mess around too long. Once you get out front, you can maintain your own pace and run your own race instead of having to chase them and push your stuff. This place is pretty abrasive on tires, so to be able to get out and feel comfortable and manage my stuff, it’s a huge advantage compared to those guys.”
Seemingly nothing could slow Courtney’s pace despite multiple cautions in the first half of the 30-lapper. Courtney simply walked away each time, spurting out to a half-straightaway lead by the eighth lap as he rode the lip up front.
An inadvertent yellow closed up things at the midway point when fifth-running Carson Short made a miraculous save to somehow avoid crunching the tail tank against the outside concrete. Short was repositioned to eighth in the order, the position he was in when the yellow flag was thrown.
That, in turn, erased Courtney’s substantial advantage. On the lap 16 restart, an under-the-weather Leary managed to hang with Courtney for the ensuing two laps, but, gradually, Courtney and his CMNR ride proved to be too much for anybody else to handle on this night.
The only flip during the feature event came on lap 19 when Chris Windom and pole sitter Jarett Andretti made wheel-to-wheel contact while battling for the fourth position. Andretti got the worst end of the deal after hopping Windom’s right rear and careening hard into the backstretch wall before flipping over. Andretti was uninjured. Windom continued.
On the ensuing restart, Courtney took the tried and true line on the cushion to distance himself from Leary. Nearing the final lap, Courtney’s biggest challenge was a bevy of lapped traffic that included Isaac Chapple, Kent Schmidt and Brandon Mattox who ran high, low and middle as they battled for their own positions. Fortunately, for Courtney, he was able to part the sea of machinery and cut through the gridlock without a hindrance to his interval between he and second-place Leary as he raced to a 1.791-second victory over Leary, Thomas, Windom and fast qualifier Kyle Cummins.
As opposed to last year, the start of Courtney’s 2018 season has been golden. A title is quite far off in the grand scheme of things, but getting out of the gate in such a positive manner not only provides points toward that goal, but boosts team morale and confidence to the point where running successfully comes second nature.
“Winning races is the reason we race, but there’s the big picture at the end and that’s a championship,” Courtney said without missing a beat. “Not having to play catchup makes life a little easier, but you can’t just take three nights like this and think you’re good for the rest of the year. You have to finish this trip out strong and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s 40-plus nights of grueling, intense racing and this is probably the deepest field we’ve had in many years. It’s going to be a fun season!”
Contingency award winners Friday night at Bubba Raceway Park include Kyle Cummins (Indiana Mafia Fast Qualifier), Nick Bilbee (Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner), Robert Ballou (Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner, KSE Racing Products/ProSource Hard Charger & Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher), Tyler Courtney (Chalk Stix Third Heat Winner), Kent Schmidt (Indy Race Parts Fourth Heat Winner), Mike Martin (Saldana Racing Products First Non-Transfer), Brandon Mattox (ProSource Hard Work Award) and Brady Bacon (Roger & Barb Tapy 13th Fastest Qualifier).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: February 16, 2018 – Ocala, Florida – Bubba Raceway Park – “Winter Dirt Games 9”
QUALIFYING: 1. Kyle Cummins, 3c, EZR/Cummins-14.297; 2. Carson Short, 21, RCM-14.358; 3. Tyler Courtney, 7BC, Clauson/Marshall/Newman-14.389; 4. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 69, Dynamics-14.410; 5. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-14.500; 6. Chase Stockon, 32, 32 TBI-14.538; 7. Logan Seavey, 5B, Briscoe-14.562; 8. Jarett Andretti, 18, Andretti-14.605; 9. Tyler Clem, 14c, Clem/TSR-14.620; 10. Chris Windom, 5, Baldwin-14.678; 11. Mike Martin, 16, Martin-14.679; 12. Dave Darland, 36D, Goodnight/Curb-Agajanian-14.683; 13. Brady Bacon, 63, Dooling-Hayward/RCR-14.688; 14. Chad Boespflug, 98, NineEight-14.717; 15. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-14.741; 16. Garrett Aitken, 32A, Aitken-14.752; 17. Timmy Buckwalter, 7, LNB-14.768; 18. Mario Clouser, 6, MCM-14.800; 19. Kody Swanson, 3R, Rock Steady-14.806; 20. Kent Schmidt, 5K, Schmidt-14.808; 21. Nick Bilbee, 2E, Epperson-14.840; 22. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-14.904; 23. Isaac Chapple, 52, LNR/Chapple-15.076; 24. Slater Helt, 22s, Helt-15.272; 25. Johnny Petrozelle, 59, Petrozelle-15.304; 26. Landon Simon, 24, LSR-15.403; 27. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-15.493; 28. Robert Bell, 71, Bell-15.586; 29. Frank Carlsson, 20, Carlsson-15.810.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Bilbee, 2. Bacon, 3. Cummins, 4. Leary, 5. Buckwalter, 6. Petrozelle, 7. Carlsson, 8. Clem. NT
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Ballou, 2. Boespflug, 3. Windom, 4. Short, 5. Stockon, 6. Clouser, 7. Simon. 1:59.36
CHALK STIX THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Courtney, 2. Chapple, 3. Swanson, 4. Grant, 5. Seavey, 6. Martin, 7. Mattox. NT
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer) 1. Schmidt, 2. Darland, 3. Thomas, 4. Andretti, 5. Aitken, 6. Bell, 7. Helt. 2:.05.16
SEMI: (12 laps, top-6 transfer) 1. Seavey, 2. Stockon, 3. Aitken, 4. Clouser, 5. Mattox, 6. Buckwalter, 7. Martin, 8. Bell, 9. Carlsson, 10. Simon, 11. Helt. 3:12.52
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting position in parentheses) 1. Tyler Courtney (4), 2. C.J. Leary (2), 3. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (3), 4. Chris Windom (9), 5. Kyle Cummins (6), 6. Dave Darland (10), 7. Carson Short (5), 8. Chad Boespflug (12), 9. Brady Bacon (11), 10. Chase Stockon (7), 11. Justin Grant (13), 12. Mario Clouser (15), 13. Robert Ballou (20), 14. Timmy Buckwalter (14), 15. Nick Bilbee (19), 16. Logan Seavey (8), 17. Kody Swanson (16), 18. Landon Simon (23), 19. Kent Schmidt (17), 20. Isaac Chapple (21), 21. Brandon Mattox (22), 22. Jarett Andretti (1), 23. Garrett Aitken (18). NT
**Clem flipped during the first heat. Andretti flipped on lap 19 of the feature.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-2 Leary, Laps 3-30 Courtney.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS/PROSOURCE HARD CHARGER: Robert Ballou (20th to 13th)
SALDANA RACING PRODUCTS FIRST NON-TRANSFER: Mike Martin
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Robert Ballou
PROSOURCE HARD WORK AWARD: Brandon Mattox
INDIANA MAFIA FAST QUALIFIER AWARD: Kyle Cummins
ROGER & BARB TAPY 13TH FASTEST QUALIFIER: Brady Bacon
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Thomas-153, 2-Windom-142, 3-Courtney-131, 4-Cummins-128, 5-Stockon-125, 6-Grant-117, 7-Leary-115, 8-Boespflug-113, 9-Ballou-110, 10-Short-108.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACES: Feb. 17 – Ocala, Florida – Bubba Raceway Park – “Winter Dirt Games 9”