By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – Kevin Thomas Jr. has been at this game for awhile now, making his USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship debut 13 years ago in 2009.
But more precisely, in reality, he’s been at his current particular game for less than three months.
Since then, he’s been in the midst of the various stages of growth, from learning how to jell with a new team, how to adjust to the new equipment and how to adapt and thrive in the new surroundings, all of which have been part of the attributes he’s had to acquaint and reacquaint himself with in his return to USAC racing.
After Friday night’s 30-lapper at Indianapolis, Indiana’s Circle City Raceway, it’s no reach to say that the Cullman, Ala. native is back in his element and has officially hit his stride after picking up his second series victory in his last three feature starts.
The box score reads that Thomas led all 30 laps. Tis true. However, the last two laps were anything but a cake walk as, on each of the final two laps over in turns three and four, challenger Brady Bacon was able to edge ahead, forcing Thomas to crack the whip and race his way back around off the final corner and slip back past like a grease covered fishing worm.
Thomas made one final escape to victory on the 30th and final circuit around the outside to defeat Bacon and his brethren by a 0.465 second margin at the stripe in his BGE Dougherty Motorsports/Altoz – Schaeffer Oil – Hornbeck Concrete/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
The team’s second USAC victory with Thomas, after earlier scoring in August at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway, was the 38th career series victory for Thomas, which surpassed three-time champion Sheldon Kinser for sole possession of 10th on the all-time win list and now stands just two behind two-time titlist Gary Bettenhausen for ninth.
It’s a far cry from Thomas and team’s performances throughout their first eight USAC starts since debuting in early July, which saw just one top-ten result in that span. Now they stand at the top and they have no plans of making it stop.
“I feel like we’ve just got our program figured out,” Thomas stated. “We jumped right into (Indiana) Sprint Week, and everybody had their arms in the air saying, ‘what is he doing?’ It’s a new team. I’m just happy for these guys and being able to contend for wins and also to get wins. Here in the last few races, things have been going our way.”
Thomas’ first two USAC Sprint Car appearances at Circle City over the past two years included a pair of starting positions in the front two rows, both of which saw him ultimately slide out of contention – to 8th in 2021 and to 15th this past July. A little fine-tuning on the 15K has done some wonders and has Thomas back in a position where he feels like the 2021 edition of KTJ once more – the one that recorded a career-high nine series wins a year ago.
“We’ve struggled here in the past to where we just couldn’t get through the slick,” Thomas explained. “(The crew) has given me the opportunity to do whatever I need to do. I keep this car in my shop, and they throw some voodoo at it if it needs it. We just massaged it and got it back to where I felt like the 9K was. It’s a very similar racecar and I’m very comfortable in it now.”
Thomas jumped away to the early lead from his outside front row starting position as the field fanned out five-wide at one point in turn four in the fight for second. Emerging from the fracas was pole sitter Matt Westfall and emerging fifth-place starter Emerson Axsom who swapped the runner-up spot relentlessly with Westfall routinely crossing over to retain the upper hand on exit.
The first yellow of the evening fell on lap five when point leader and 10th running Justin Grant got corked up off turn four and performed a 180-degree loop before coming to a rest backwards on the front straight with a knocked-out front end. Grant’s machine went away to the Indy Metal Finishing Work Area on the hook, but ultimately restarted, albeit seven laps down when he finished the race in the 23rd and final position, ending his streak of 18 consecutive top-ten finishes with the series dating back to a 15th place result at New Jersey’s Bridgeport Motorsports Park in June.
Meanwhile, Robert Ballou (12th) attempted to evade the trouble ahead and wound up in the infield with the front wheels pointed to the sky but managed to remain on the throttle and keep it rolling without foul. He resumed without missing a beat and wound up as the biggest mover of the main event, starting 15th and finishing 6th.
The surge was on for Bacon just before the midway point as he discarded Westfall with an inside move on lap 13 to slot into second. Yet, he still had a plentiful amount of ground to make up for, a full second in fact, right at the halfway mark with 15 laps down and 15 to go.
As Thomas entered lapped traffic with 10 laps remaining, Bacon pulled his chair up to within a car length of the lead. However, a lap later, Bacon slid high in turn three and, moments later, Thomas cleared the lapper of J.J. Hughes to gain a full second of crucial separation between he and Bacon with just a handful of laps left.
But it was all for naught as, on lap 26, Geoff Ensign (16th) slowed to a stop on the back straight to bring out the final caution. Thomas’ 1.385 second gap was gone and the two lapped cars that separated he and Bacon were now vamoosed, meaning Bacon was now going to be right on the tail of Thomas with a four-lap trophy dash being all that remained.
Two initial strategies came into play over the final course with Thomas up top and Bacon down low. With the white flag in sight, Bacon pulled a car length ahead of Thomas in between turns three and four. Bacon only allowed himself to slide up to the middle and not all the way across to the top while Thomas kept his foot in it and retook Bacon as the two rounded the fourth turn.
As the pair crossed under the white flag, Thomas altered course and took a page from Bacon’s playbook by stealing the bottom of turn one. Bacon had no choice but to follow suit through turns one, two and the back straight. There, Thomas diverted back to the high side, leaving the bottom all to Bacon.
Nonetheless, the momentum proved to be the key as Bacon edged ahead once more but couldn’t stick the landing as Thomas sped around Bacon one final time to reach the finish line first ahead of Bacon, Thomas Meseraull, July Circle City winner C.J. Leary and Matt Westfall.
“I was struggling in one and two,” Thomas recalled. “There was a lip about three-quarters of the way up that I was able to use, but it just started going away. The harder you run it, the more apt you are to miss it, and there on that last restart, I kind of got in there a little hot and missed it. I felt good going into three and four, so I felt confident over there, but on the last lap, Brady always runs everybody clean, and I knew he wasn’t going to wipe both of us out. He’s going to play it smart but he’s also going to give it everything he’s got for the win.”
Bacon’s close second place finish did pay its dividends in the grand scheme. Coupled with Grant’s last place finish, Bacon sliced his deficit in the USAC National Sprint Car championship race from 112 to 63.
While he came just shy of checking off a USAC win for the first time in nearly three months, Bacon did earn his sixth runner-up finish of the season in his Dynamics, Inc./Fatheadz Eyewear – Cressman Sanitation – DriveWFX – Tel-Star/Triple X/Rider Chevy.
“I hadn’t really slid across the track yet, so I didn’t really know what it was going to do,” Bacon admitted. “The first one probably would’ve been clear had I gone ahead and went, but the second one was not as good I didn’t feel like. I probably should’ve gone a little harder on the first one, but knowing Justin was going to be 23rd was a little bit in the back of my head and I didn’t need to be 22nd. We probably gave up a shot at a win there – I’m not saying he wouldn’t have gotten around me, but he might’ve put me in bad spot and still won the race. I probably had him cleared enough to go ahead and stick it in there, but I wasn’t quite sure until it was already over. I was like, ‘ah, I probably had him.’”
Meseraull (San Jose, Calif.) made a late rally on the topside to go from fifth to third during the final two laps in his Epperson Racing/Epperson Painting – PPG Paints/DRC/Claxton Chevy. His third place result tied his best finish of the USAC National Sprint Car season after also rounding out the podium in February at Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park and in July at South Dakota’s Huset’s Speedway. To boot, he’s now finished on the podium with three different teams: Dyson Racing (Fla.), Yeley Racing (S.D.) and Epperson Racing (Circle City).
Chase Stockon (Fort Branch, Ind.) overcame getting buried early on in the night during qualifying and in his heat race all while debuting a brand new Flea RC Chassis featuring front coils. Stockon hustled from ninth to fourth in the semi-feature to transfer into the feature event, which earned him the GSP North America Quality Driving Performance of the Night.
After losing his track record earlier in the session, Mitchel Moles (Raisin City, Calif.) roared back to regain the record during Fatheadz Eyewear Qualifying with a time of 11.819 seconds. For Moles, it was his sixth fast time with the series in his last 10 tries.
Moles was one of three drivers to set new track records throughout the evening. Additionally, Jadon Rogers (Worthington, Ind.) set the new standard during his 10-lap heat race with a time of 2:04.23. Likewise, Jake Swanson (Anaheim, Calif.) established the new 12-lap mark during his semi-feature victory at 2:39.26.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: September 16, 2022 – Circle City Raceway – Indianapolis, Indiana – 1/4-Mile Dirt Track – Presented By Mastin & Cain
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING: 1. Mitchel Moles, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-11.819 (New Track Record); 2. Emerson Axsom, 47BC, Clauson Marshall Newman-11.876; 3. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-11.885; 4. C.J. Leary, 77m, Michael-11.919; 5. Kevin Thomas Jr., 15K, BGE Dougherty-11.977; 6. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-12.068; 7. Logan Seavey, 42, Cheney-12.090; 8. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-12.102; 9. Max Adams, 17GP, Dutcher-12.117; 10. Jake Swanson, 5T, Daming-12.137; 11. Jason McDougal, 5m, KO-12.153; 12. Daison Pursley, 67, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-12.172; 13. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-12.215; 14. Anton Hernandez, 2B, 2B Racing-12.260; 15. Thomas Meseraull, 2E, Epperson-12.341; 16. Jadon Rogers, 14, Engler-12.342; 17. Koby Barksdale, 16K, Knight-12.366; 18. Matt McDonald, 5mc, McDonald-12.371; 19. Kyle Shipley, 0G, Shipley-12.406; 20. Zack Pretorius, 9z, Pretorius-12.407; 21. J.J. Hughes, 76, Hughes-12.417; 22. Geoff Ensign, 17, On The Gass-12.454; 23. Gabriel Gilbert, 10G, Gilbert-12.469; 24. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-12.473; 25. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-12.565; 26. Ryan Thomas, 77, Wingo-12.669; 27. Derek Crane, 19WI, Crane-12.717; 28. Allen Howard Jr., 4u, AJR-13.324; 29. Colin Grissom, 00, Grissom-13.328; 30. Robert Brown Jr., 13, Brown-14.190.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (10 laps, top-5 transfer to the feature) 1. Jadon Rogers, 2. Robert Ballou, 3. Logan Seavey, 4. C.J. Leary, 5. Mitchel Moles, 6. Jake Swanson, 7. Geoff Ensign, 8. Kyle Shipley, 9. Brandon Mattox, 10. Allen Howard Jr. 2:04.23 (New Track Record)
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (10 laps, top-5 transfer to the feature) 1. Anton Hernandez, 2. Jason McDougal, 3. Justin Grant, 4. Kevin Thomas Jr., 5. Emerson Axsom, 6. Koby Barksdale, 7. Zack Pretorius, 8. Gabriel Gilbert, 9. Ryan Thomas, 10. Colin Grissom. 2:05.95
PIT STOP USA/ROD END SUPPLY THIRD HEAT: (10 laps, top-5 transfer to the feature) 1. Thomas Meseraull, 2. Brady Bacon, 3. Matt Westfall, 4. Matt McDonald, 5. Daison Pursley, 6. Max Adams, 7. J.J. Hughes, 8. Derek Crane, 9. Robert Brown Jr., 10. Chase Stockon. NT
ELLIOTT’S CUSTOM TRAILERS & CARTS SEMI: (12 laps, top-7 transfer to the feature) 1. Jake Swanson, 2. Max Adams, 3. Kyle Shipley, 4. Chase Stockon, 5. J.J. Hughes, 6. Koby Barksdale, 7. Geoff Ensign, 8. Zack Pretorius, 9. Ryan Thomas, 10. Brandon Mattox, 11. Gabriel Gilbert, 12. Derek Crane, 13. Colin Grissom, 14. Robert Brown Jr., 15. Allen Howard Jr. 2:39.26 (New Track Record)
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr. (2), 2. Brady Bacon (4), 3. Thomas Meseraull (8), 4. C.J. Leary (3), 5. Matt Westfall (1), 6. Robert Ballou (15), 7. Mitchel Moles (6), 8. Emerson Axsom (5), 9. Jadon Rogers (9), 10. Jason McDougal (14), 11. Jake Swanson (13), 12. Logan Seavey (10), 13. Daison Pursley (19), 14. Koby Barksdale (16), 15. Max Adams (12), 16. Chase Stockon (21), 17. Anton Hernandez (7), 18. Kyle Shipley (17), 19. Brandon Mattox (23-P), 20. Matt McDonald (22), 21. J.J. Hughes (18), 22. Geoff Ensign (20), 23. Justin Grant (11). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-30 Kevin Thomas Jr.