By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
PUTNAMVILLE, IN – On the two prior occasions this season in which Kevin Thomas Jr. began his feature race from the back half of the field, the final result was about as satisfying as a room temperature soda on a hot summer day.
However, after starting 14th in Saturday night’s 22-car feature lineup, the Cullman, Ala. native rapidly ascended through the field, securing the lead just six laps from the finish of the 40-lap event to quench his thirst with a Bill Gardner Sprintacular victory worth $7,000 in his KT Motorsports/Dr. Pepper – McDonald’s – KT Construction Services/DRC/Speedway Chevy.
Thomas’ newly-minted fourth USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory of the season now leads all drivers in that particular category and was also the 31st of his career, elevating him past Tyler Courtney and into a tie with Robert Ballou for 14th on the all-time list.
But the charge from outside row seven to 1st is one which will be bandied about for some time and marked the single biggest advancement for a feature winner since Shane Cottle won from the 18th position at Gas City (Ind.) I-69 Speedway in 2019.
Saturday night’s 13 spot advancement to the top of the leaderboard is one which Thomas estimates as a personal-best in his storied career with many chapters still yet to be written.
“I’ve never won from that far back, I don’t think,” Thomas pondered. “That was a lot of fun there, just battling through the field and doing whatever we had to do to win.”
During the previous two nights, Thomas recorded consecutive Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifying times, which resulted in smaller, yet successful surges, from 6th to 3rd at Plymouth (Ind.) Speedway on Thursday and 8th to 4th at Lincoln Park on Friday.
Funny enough, as it turned out, Thomas’ winning night was initiated by a poor qualifying, run by his standards. Much to his chagrin, a runner-up finish behind Jake Swanson in heat race one prevented him from a surefire top-ten starting spot if he had won said heat.
“We ran fourth last night and we weren’t real pleased with it,” Thomas remembered. “Then, I did an awful job of qualifying. The crew worked on it and worked on it after not winning the heat race set us back a little bit, but they got the tune on it tonight. I’m just real fortunate to drive this racecar with these guys working on it and the people we have behind us.”
While Thomas’s journey from the center of the starting lineup commenced, the early occupant of the race lead early on was outside front row starter Justin Grant, who had reached a milestone 300th career series start just 24 hours earlier at the 5/16-mile dirt oval. Grant split between pole sitter Riley Kreisel and third-starting Brady Bacon on the path to the lead at the exit of turn two.
Bacon surpassed the feature winner on each of the previous two nights with the series, C.J. Leary, for 3rd on the fifth lap, and then raced by Kreisel for second on lap six. Bacon quickly cut to the quick and tracked down Bacon by the 15th lap, sliding past Grant in turn three to take his turn up front and in the lead.
Grant remained in stride with Bacon despite losing his stranglehold on the first position, and as the two raced off turn four, the pair touched wheels – Bacon’s left rear and Grant’s right front met face-to-face, pitching Grant sideways before he recovered without an instance of hesitation before tracking down Bacon on lap 20 in turn three, slithering past to reassume his position at the head of the class.
However, a new contender had entered the fray on the bottom with Thomas breezing around the infield tires and into second by Bacon on the 22nd lap and coming within a single car length of Grant at the stripe. For the next several laps, Thomas hounded Grant like a bulldog pursues a porkchop.
With seven laps remaining and amid the negotiating of the tail end of the field, Thomas got the run he so desperately needed on the bottom of turns one and two, edging ahead by a half car length into turn three. As Grant put the nose straight into the cushion at the entry of turn three, Thomas was smooth as silk on the low line, beating Grant to the line by the same half car length margin.
Grant managed to get right back to Thomas’ rear bumper coming to the white flag as he took a gander for himself at the bottom in turns three and four. Thomas ventured through the middle of one and two on the final lap as Grant repositioned himself at the top.
“It’s easy to not screw up in the middle,” Thomas explained. “You don’t have to worry about anything except maybe a guy’s right rear. One end (of the track) is way different than the other. We were really good down here through the middle and really, everywhere we went, I had the car to maneuver around, but down there, I’m a sissy when it comes to running the top like that. I just wasn’t going to do it. I just stuck to the bottom.”
Midway down the back straight on the 40th and final go-around, Grant trailed by five car lengths, but made up substantial ground in turns three and four. Thomas followed the final car on the lead lap, Robert Ballou, on the bottom, then drifted wide at the exit onto the front straightaway crossing the line just a car length ahead of Grant, with a full head of steam on the outside, with a difference of 0.080 sec. between the two, the closest finish of the 2021 season thus far through 19 events.
Following Thomas and Grant were series point leader Bacon, C.J. Leary and Shane Cottle, who won the accompanying USAC Midwest Regional Midget feature earlier in the evening.
Thomas’ hard-earned victory came over Grant, with whom he now edges ahead of in terms of most USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature wins this season (4). Thomas was tenacious in his pursuit of Grant throughout the second half, and Thomas knew he had to pay his dues if order to not sing blues, and he know it wasn’t going to come easy.
“We’re good friends, but he’s going to race the crap out of you as long as he can,” Thomas said of Grant. “I had to stay patient and not give up on the bottom, and that’s how I got there. It was getting a little bit clean, but people were running a little bit lower and throwing some dust up on it. I was a little worried about that but it’s just the way it worked out. Sometimes you run from the back, sometimes you win, sometimes you start up front, and sometimes you just run right where you started. It’s just the ups and downs and, sometimes, it’s all in one night.”
Justin Grant (Ione, Calif.) led early and often, more so than any other driver in the field, on his way a runner-up finish aboard his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – MPV Express – TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy.
“I would’ve liked to have come out on top of that one; we were close but not quite,” Grant lamented. “My guys gave me a great racecar. This car is fast what seems like night-in and night-out. We’re up here (on the podium) a lot, but you hate to let ones get away. I was pretty committed to the top there, and I was going to just keep beating it to death and see if we could make it work. I’m not very good at running the bottom, so I just try to pound the curb until it doesn’t work. KT and I were both racing hard and wanted to win. It’s what puts on good races and that’s why we like doing this; it’s a lot of fun.”
Brady Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) was the lone driver to lead laps during the feature on both nights of the seventh running of the Bill Gardner Sprintacular, possessing the lead for 20 laps on Friday and five more just prior to midway on Saturday before ultimately finishing 3rd in his Dynamics, Inc./Fatheadz Eyewear – Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts – TelStar/Triple X/Rider Chevy.
“We’ve had cars good enough to compete for wins,” Bacon said. “We just kind of have to wait for the circumstances to come our way. We had a shot, but KT was just better than us tonight. We’ll just try to get a little bit better. We’re not really good when the cushion gets that big. That kind of challenged us a little bit, but actually, KT was better than us down where our bread and butter is on the bottom. So, I was kind of searching around and I was actually a little better on the top in three and four. I’m just not quite as good at doing that than some people. I think we were kind of equal at the end, but KT just got himself into position to win.”
Earlier in the night, Shane Cottle recorded his first Fatheadz Fast Qualifying time with the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Cars since Pennsylvania’s Port Royal Speedway six years earlier in 2015. It was the seventh total of his career with the series.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: July 3, 2021 – Lincoln Park Speedway – Putnamville, Indiana – 5/16-Mile Dirt Track – Bill Gardner Sprintacular – Co-Sanctioned by the Midwest Sprint Car Series
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING FLIGHT ONE: 1. Shane Cottle, 74x, Hodges-12.721; 2. C.J. Leary, 77m, Michael-12.889; 3. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-12.970; 4. Riley Kreisel, 91, DKR-13.005; 5. Carson Garrett, 15KO, KO-13.093; 6. Cannon McIntosh, 71p, Daigh/Phillips-13.111; 7. Kevin Thomas Jr., 9K, KT-13.186; 8. Ryan Thomas, 77FR, Wingo-13.301; 9. Jake Swanson, 21AZ, Team AZ-13.654; 10. Harley Burns, 16, Burns-13.885; 11. Alec Sipes, 99, Sipes-13.889; 12. Nate McMillin, 57R, Robinson-13.968; 13. Braxton Cummings, 71B, Cummings-13.980; 14. Stephen Schnapf, 11, Martin-14.029; 15. Collin Ambrose, 36, Ambrose-14.034; 16. Dan Clodfelter, 19c, Clodfelter-14.037; 17. Gabriel Gilbert, 10G, Gilbert-14.185; 18. Ryan Bond, 7R, Bond-14.382.
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING FLIGHT TWO: 1. Tanner Thorson, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-12.923; 2. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-13.190; 3. Cole Bodine, 39BC, Clauson Marshall Newman-13.219; 4. Mario Clouser, 6, EZR-13.255; 5. Brayden Fox, 53, Fox-13.394; 6. Paul Nienhiser, 5N, KO-13.447; 7. Chris Windom, 19, Hayward-13.486; 8. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-13.514; 9. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-13.549; 10. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Rock Steady-13.565; 11. Carson Short, 2E, Epperson-13.647; 12. Brady Short, 11p, Pottorff-13.724; 13. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-13.760; 14. Zach Daum, 5D, Daum-13.936; 15. Tim Creech, 2c, Creech-14.002; 16. Jake Scott, 33, Miller-14.275; 17. Shey Owens, 17s, SNO-14.393; 18. Cindy Chambers, 18c, DC-14.558; 19. Brian Carber, 2, Yeley-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Jake Swanson, 2. Kevin Thomas Jr., 3. Justin Grant, 4. Shane Cottle, 5. Carson Garrett, 6. Alec Sipes, 7. Gabriel Gilbert, 8. Collin Ambrose. 2:17.13
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. C.J. Leary, 2. Cannon McIntosh, 3. Riley Kreisel, 4. Harley Burns, 5. Ryan Thomas, 6. Nate McMillin, 7. Stephen Schnapf, 8. Ryan Bond, 9. Dan Clodfelter. NT
INDY METAL FINISHING THIRD HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Tanner Thorson, 2. Carson Short, 3. Chris Windom, 4. Chase Stockon, 5. Cole Bodine, 6. Robert Ballou, 7. Brayden Fox, 8. Tim Creech, 9. Shey Owens. 2:17.58
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Brady Bacon, 2. Kyle Cummins, 3. Mario Clouser, 4. Paul Nienhiser, 5. Brady Short, 6. Brandon Mattox, 7. Zach Daum, 8. Jake Scott, 9. Cindy Chambers. 2:15.57
ELLIOTT’S CUSTOM TRAILERS & CARTS SEMI: (12 laps, top-6 transfer to the feature) 1. Cole Bodine, 2. Carson Garrett, 3. Brayden Fox, 4. Robert Ballou, 5. Stephen Schnapf, 6. Collin Ambrose, 7. Brady Short, 8. Nate McMillin, 9. Jake Scott, 10. Tim Creech, 11. Zach Daum, 12. Alec Sipes, 13. Ryan Thomas, 14. Shey Owens, 15. Gabriel Gilbert, 16. Cindy Chambers, 17. Ryan Bond, 18. Brandon Mattox. NT
FEATURE: (40 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr. (14), 2. Justin Grant (2), 3. Brady Bacon (3), 4. C.J. Leary (4), 5. Shane Cottle (6), 6. Jake Swanson (7), 7. Tanner Thorson (5), 8. Kyle Cummins (18), 9. Riley Kreisel (1), 10. Cannon McIntosh (12), 11. Chase Stockon (16), 12. Cole Bodine (8), 13. Carson Short (19), 14. Carson Garrett (10), 15. Paul Nienhiser (13), 16. Brayden Fox (11), 17. Robert Ballou (20), 18. Chris Windom (15), 19. Mario Clouser (9), 20. Stephen Schnapf (21), 21. Collin Ambrose (22), 22. Harley Burns (17). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-14 Justin Grant, Laps 15-19 Brady Bacon, Laps 20-34 Justin Grant, Laps 35-40 Kevin Thomas Jr.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Brady Bacon-1307, 2-Justin Grant-1253, 3-Kevin Thomas Jr.-1234, 4-Robert Ballou-1128, 5-C.J. Leary-1118, 6-Tanner Thorson-1069, 7-Chris Windom-1060, 8-Jake Swanson-1034, 9-Chase Stockon-796, 10-Paul Nienhiser-755.
OVERALL PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Robert Ballou-87, 2-Tanner Thorson-86, 3-Kevin Thomas Jr.-83, 4-Thomas Meseraull-81, 5-Brady Bacon-72, 6-Chris Windom-67, 7-C.J. Leary-51, 8-Justin Grant-50, 9-Logan Seavey-45, 10-Buddy Kofoid-41.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: July 10, 2021 – Knoxville Raceway – Knoxville, Iowa – 1/2-Mile Dirt Track – Corn Belt Clash – Co-Sanctioned by the USAC Midwest Wingless Racing Association & Lucas Oil POWRi WAR Sprints