By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
PLYMOUTH, IN – A little tap never hurt anyone. A solid tap of a golf ball on a put can be the difference between winning and losing in a round of golf. A swift tap of the mic can reinforce that everything is A-Okay with the audio. A soft tap on the shoulder can gain another person’s attention.
However, a little tap on the rear bumper of Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s ride on the final lap nearly proved disastrous. But the Cullman, Ala. driver gathered himself and kept his composure to run down Robert Ballou in the third turn with a go-for-broke slider that paid off with his second-straight USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car win Saturday night at Plymouth Speedway.
Thomas executed a rare perfect night by setting fast time, winning his heat race and capturing the night’s feature, something that’s only been done once in each of the last four seasons.
Thomas started his methodical march to the front from the sixth position as a host of drivers in the first two rows battled for the lead. Recent Bloomington winner Dave Darland emerged as the initial leader on lap one by mere inches while one-lap track record holder Chase Stockon wheel-stood his way past Darland to the lead by the time the field reached turn one.
Meanwhile, third-starting Tyler Courtney had flipped the switch and motored around the outside of Stockon in turn four on the fourth circuit to snare the lead. Courtney had much less ground to make up compared to a year ago at Plymouth when he charged to second from his 18th starting position. This time, he appeared to have the field covered throughout the first half of the 30-lapper, constructing a three-fourths of a straightaway lead by the 14th lap when Kyle Cummins was found turned around at the exit of turn four.
The caution bunched up the field momentarily, but Courtney came off the starting block like an Olympic sprinter to post an eight-car length lead when racing resumed. As he appeared to check out on the rest of the field, Thomas and Ballou became the naysayers to that notion. On the 17th lap, Thomas muscled his way around Stockon on the high side of turn four for second and, moments later, Ballou scooted by Stockon on the inside of the back straightaway to occupy third.
In the blink of an eye, Courtney’s lead began to shrink as Thomas tightened the leash on Courtney’s collar three car-lengths back. But on lap 20, Daylan Chambers pancaked the back straightaway wall, scattering debris across the countryside as he slanted toward the infield to bring out the final caution period of the night.
Thomas was now in a position to go to school on Courtney, benefitting from shadowing the leader late in the going, just as he did exactly one week ago in his victory at Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway.
“Once again, it was kind of beneficial to be behind the leader,” Thomas acknowledged. “Once I started running the top there in (turns) three and four, I figured out it had some grip and some speed. Once we got to lapped traffic, I went to the bottom a few times and had a pretty good drive. So, on the restart, I started working the bottom in one and two and the top in three and four. I could stay with him a lot better in one and two and he’d make up ground in three and four.”
On the 23rd lap, Courtney continued to run the middle/low line while Thomas put his Dynamics, Inc. No. 69 up top. At the exit of four, Courtney swung wide toward the outside wall to keep Thomas at bay. Thomas replied by countering to the bottom entering turn one as Courtney remained high. Thomas slipped by and Ballou tagged along for the ride as well, executing a sweeping pass around the outside of Courtney for second between turns one and two a half-lap later.
“It’s one of those deals,” Thomas explained about the pass on Courtney. “He was just running where he got the lead at. It’s no fault of his. It’s the unfortunate part about leading. The track changed so much there at the end and, if you’re leading, you don’t want to search, but that’s just the beneficial part for us running in second, being able to search.”
On the final lap, Ballou was surging as Thomas and he worked around the lapped car of Johnny Petrozelle. Entering turn one, Ballou completely erased the interval and closed so rapidly on Thomas, the two made contact with Ballou’s front bumper lightly tapping Thomas’ rear bumper. It was enough to send Thomas squirrelly at the exit of turn two, allowing Ballou to overtake Thomas for the lead by a single car-length entering turn three. After gathering his marbles, Thomas reached into his back pocket and fired a slider across the nose of Ballou. Ballou pitched the car 90 degrees, nearly losing control, allowing Thomas to break away for his 20th career series win while Courtney slipped underneath Ballou for his second-straight runner-up finish at Plymouth. Ballou recovered to grab third ahead of Stockon and Brady Bacon.
“My initial thought was that I was going to spin out,” Thomas admitted. “I had just enough to get it back pointed straight. He (Ballou) was just not far enough ahead to get away and I thought I could do a slider that wasn’t going to crash both of us and do something stupid by ruining a good finish for both of us. It was just that little bit of moisture on the bottom of the racetrack that nobody really runs because this place is so sweeping.”
Regarding the tap from Ballou on the last lap, Thomas saw it as just racing, nothing more. In fact, he pointed the finger squarely at himself for the initiation of the contact.
“That’s just racing on the bottom,” Thomas acknowledged. “It’s no big deal. That’s just the way it is. Honestly, it’s my fault. I chalked it up a little too much. He was agressive and he could’ve spun me out if he really wanted to. He could’ve just completed the process, but he didn’t. He just made a little bit of contact. It is what it is. We’ll race hard again next week and the week after. It’s just no big deal.”
Ballou slipped to third at the end, but the race very well could’ve been his had Thomas not gathered it up so quickly after the contact on the final lap.
The whole race he was running it in there really hard. He had moved up a little bit, he moved down, he was doing the same thing I was, searching for the fastest lane possible.
“I don’t know what he was thinking,” Ballou pondered. “He just came to a stop. He slowed down more than he had done on any other lap. I had the thing stuck and I had no choice but to run into him. If I wanted to, I could’ve spun him completely around, but that isn’t the right thing do. I don’t want to win a race by spinning out a guy to win. I eased off as long as I could and let him get unhooked from my front bumper. I didn’t have a good run down the back straightaway and he was in the moisture. He was going to beat me to the outside lane in the middle of (turns) three and four. I’d have probably ended up out on 31 if I hadn’t lifted and tried to do something different. When I tried to turn the car and get a run across the racetrack, it just busted free and tried to spin out on me. I was just thankful to salvage a third-place by that point.”
Contingency award winners Saturday night at Plymouth Speedway included Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner & Saldana Racing Products Clean Sweep Winner), Shane Cottle (Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner), Chris Windom (Chalk Stix/Indy Race Parts Third Heat Winner), Robert Ballou (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger), Jarett Andretti (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher) and Clinton Boyles (Roger & Barb Tapy 13th Fastest Qualifier).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: May 5, 2018 – Plymouth, Indiana – Plymouth Speedway
QUALIFICATIONS: 1. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 69, Dynamics-13.089; 2. Carson Short, 21, RCM-13.154; 3. Chase Stockon, 32, 32 TBI-13.175; 4. Tyler Courtney, 7BC, Clauson Marshall Newman-13.185; 5. Dave Darland, 36D, Goodnight/Curb-Agajanian-13.
198; 6. Jarett Andretti, 18, Andretti-13.268; 7. Brady Bacon, 99, Bacon-13.301; 8. Chad Boespflug, 98, NineEight-13.314; 9. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-13.363; 10. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-13.383; 11. Tony DiMattia, 50, TDM-13.485; 12. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-13.459; 13. Clinton Boyles, 57, Hazen-13.503; 14. Isaac Chapple, 52, LNR/Chapple-13.546; 15. Chris Windom, 5, Baldwin-13.598; 16. Kyle Cummins, 3c, EZR/Cummins-13.678; 17. Shane Cottle, 71p, Daigh/Phillips-13.708; 18. Daylan Chambers, 4c, Chambers-13.768; 19. Johnny Petrozelle, 59, Petrozelle-14.100; 20. Robert Bell, 71, Bell-15.117; 21. Aric Gentry, 10, Gentry-NT; 22. Joe Stornetta, 44, Pace-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (10 laps, all transfer) 1. Thomas, 2. Courtney, 3. Cummins, 4. Bacon, 5. Leary, 6. Boyles, 7. Petrozelle. 2:12.03 (New Track Record)
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (10 laps, all transfer) 1. Cottle, 2. Ballou, 3. Chapple, 4. Short, 5. Darland, 6. Boespflug, 7. Bell. 2:16.02
CHALK STIX/INDY RACE PARTS THIRD HEAT: (10 laps, all transfer) 1. Windom, 2. Grant, 3. DiMattia, 4. Stockon, 5. Andretti, 6. Chambers. 2:15.96
FEATURE: (30 laps – starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (6), 2. Tyler Courtney (3), 3. Robert Ballou (11), 4. Chase Stockon (4), 5. Brady Bacon (7), 6. Dave Darland (2), 7. Carson Short (5), 8. Justin Grant (9), 9. Chad Boespflug (8), 10. C.J. Leary (10), 11. Chris Windom (15), 12. Shane Cottle (17), 13. Jarett Andretti (1), 14. Kyle Cummins (16), 15. Tony DiMattia (12), 16. Clinton Boyles (13), 17. Johnny Petrozelle (19), 18. Robert Bell (20), 19. Isaac Chapple (14), 20. Daylan Chambers (18), 21. Aric Gentry (21), 22. Joe Stornetta (22). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Lap 1 Darland, Laps 2-3 Stockon, Laps 4-22 Courtney, Laps 23-30 Thomas.
SALDANA RACING PRODUCTS CLEAN SWEEP: Kevin Thomas, Jr.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Robert Ballou (11th to 3rd)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Jarett Andretti
ROGER & BARB TAPY 13TH FASTEST QUALIFIER: Clinton Boyles
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Thomas-435, 2-Windom-405, 3-Courtney-383, 4-Leary-375, 5-Darland-366, 6-Stockon-348, 7-Ballou-337, 8-Grant-329, 9-Boespflug-310, 10-Bacon-306.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: May 11-12 – Rossburg, Ohio – Eldora Speedway