By RICHIE MURRAY
OCALA, FL – To roll off the trailer and find immediate success is the ideal goal for all USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car drivers and teams competing in this week’s “Winter Dirt Games X” season openers February 14-15-16 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla.
Tyler Courtney found it immediately in the USAC NOS Energy Drink openers there last weekend and used two victories in Ocala last season to springboard his way to a USAC National Sprint title.
Yet it was Chase Stockon who broke through in the 2018 opener to score his lone win of the year. While it was the only breakthrough for the series’ ironman throughout the year, he had another solid campaign, finishing fourth in points and extended his streak of wins in the series to seven-years-running.
For the majority of the series’ history, this has been more of a rule than an exception in terms of a season opener winner’s eventual success. For a three-year stretch from 2013-2015, it seemed as if Bubba Raceway Park and the “Winter Dirt Games” opener were the launching pad of success. Bryan Clauson (2013), Brady Bacon (2014) and Robert Ballou (2015) each won the opening feature of the year en route to the series’ title.
In fact, since the advent of the USAC National Sprint Car trail in 1961, 15 champs have come off the starting blocks with a season-opening victory to start their year. Don Branson was the first to do it in 1964 as were Larry Dickson (1970 & 75), Sam Sessions (1972), Rich Vogler (1980), Ken Schrader (1983), Rick Hood (1985), Robbie Stanley (1991 & 93), Tracy Hines (2002), Jay Drake (2004) and Levi Jones (2007).
Just to show you how much success can come with having a hot start right out of the box, 32 of the 58 all-time season-opening feature winners have finished in the top-five of the final standings. The majority of those who did not have a top-five results in the standings were those who suffered an injury, raced on a temporary licenses or was not a full-time driver with the series.
Since the beginning of “Winter Dirt Games” in 2010, all but one season-opening winner has gone on to finish in the top-five of the final standings (Damion Gardner, 6th in 2011). Gardner, the winningest driver in the history of Winter Dirt Games with five, was 2nd in 2010, 6th in 2011 and 5th in 2012 after winning the season-opener an unprecedented three-straight years. Clauson, Bacon and Ballou, as mentioned before, each won titles in 2013-14-2015.
Clauson was 16th in 2016 but was running a part-time schedule and was fatally injured during August of that season. Incredibly, he still led all drivers in the series with seven victories. Justin Grant finished second in the standings in 2017 but led the points nearly the entire year until late in the going, ultimately finishing second. The aforementioned Stockon was 4th in 2018.
For some like Stockon, it would be their only win of the year, same as Billy Vukovich (1968), Jerry “Scratch” Daniels (1969), Paul Pitzer (1979), Dave Peperak (1981), Jack Hewitt (1982), Jac Haudenschild (1984 & 88), Jeff Gordon (1989), Kevin Doty (1995), Chet Fillip (1998), Derek Davidson (2001), Aaron Pierce (2003), Shane Cottle (2008) and Darren Hagen (2009).
The past has proven it unlikely, but not out of the question for a repeat victory by Stockon come this Thursday with only four drivers being able to duplicate season-opening wins in consecutive years: Jud Larson (1965-66), Sam Sessions (1971-72), Rich Vogler (1986-87) and Damion Gardner (2010-11-12).
Damion Gardner leads all active drivers with three season-opening wins, all of which came in Florida, equaling Larry Dickson’s three opener wins in 1967-70-75 and Rich Vogler’s three in 1980-86-87. Perhaps, ironically, Dickson’s 1970 title run began with a win in Florida at Miami-Hollywood Speedway. Vogler’s 1987 lid-lifter triumph came at Florida’s Tampa Fairgrounds.
The USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car portion of “Winter Dirt Games X” begins this week. Pits open at 3pm Eastern each day at Ocala. Grandstands open at 5pm on Thursday/Friday and 4pm on Saturday. Cars hit the track for engine heat at 6:30pm Eastern on Thursday/Friday and at 5:30pm on Saturday. An open practice session will take place a day before the action starts from 7-10pm.
All nights of racing from Ocala will be live on https://www.FloRacing.com/.
“WINTER DIRT GAMES X” USAC SPRINT TENTATIVE ENTRY LIST
B1 Joey Biasi / Mary D, PA
3 Dakota Jackson / Elizabethtown, IN
3R Kyle Cummins / Princeton, IN
4 Justin Grant / Ione, CA
5 Dave Darland / Lincoln, IN
5G Chris Windom / Canton, IL
5K Kent Schmidt / Owensville, IN
5o Daron Clayton / Sikeston, MO
7 Timmy Buckwalter / Douglassville, PA
7BC Tyler Courtney / Indianapolis, IN
12 Robert Ballou / Rocklin, CA
19 Kevin Thomas, Jr. / Cullman, AL
19AZ C.J. Leary / Greenfield, IN
20 Damion Gardner / Concord, CA
20G Noah Gass / Mounds, OK
20x Frank Carlsson / Oxford, FL
21 Carson Short / Marion, IL
21H Travis Hery / Piqua, OH
27 Zane Hendricks / Stillwater, OK
28 Brandon Mattox / Terre Haute, IN
32 Chase Stockon / Ft. Branch, IN
33m Matt Westfall / Pleasant Hill, OH
39 Matt Goodnight / Winchester, IN
42 Ty Tilton / Lima, OH
52 Isaac Chapple / Willow Branch, IN
61m Stephen Schnapf / Newburgh, IN
69 Brady Bacon / Broken Arrow, OK
71 Robert Bell / Colfax, IA
71p Jason McDougal / Broken Arrow, OK
75 Dustin Christie / Washington, IN
77K Katlynn Leer / Moulton, IA
84 Tom Harris / Banbury, Oxfordshire, UK
87 Paul Dues / Minster, OH
98e Chad Boespflug / Hanford, CA