By: Richie Murray - USAC Media
Ocala, Florida (February 11, 2021)........."We're back and I ain't going nowhere."
Those words from Kevin Thomas Jr. signaled a resounding stamp regarding his return to USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory lane for the first time in 16 months on Thursday night in the series' season opener at Ocala, Florida's Bubba Raceway Park.
Thomas (Cullman, Ala.) corralled the lead from Kyle Cummins in traffic on the 14th circuit of the 30-lap feature and led the remaining 17 trips around the 3/8-mile dirt track to triumph for the 28th time with the USAC National Sprint Cars, tying himself with A.J. Foyt, Chris Windom, Don Branson, J.J. Yeley and Levi Jones for 16th on the all-time series win list.
Thursday's non-stop, green to checkered feature event clocked in as the fastest 30-lap USAC Sprint Car feature ever run at Bubba Raceway Park, taking 7 minutes and 45.762 seconds to complete. The time defeated the now former record of 8:27.00, set by Bryan Clauson in 2011.
It was an unforeseen winless drought for Thomas, one of the series' premier drivers, who has endured a tumultuous year-plus, to say the least. A period of time which resulted in a shockingly winless campaign in 2020, and a season that tested him like no other after last tallying a win in October of 2019 at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway.
But 2021 was going to be different, Thomas just knew it. The addition of several key new personnel and the return of 2019 USAC Chief Mechanic of the Year Davey Jones into the fold on the KT Motorsports/Dr. Pepper - McDonald's - KT Construction Services/DRC/Speedway Chevy gave Thomas a new air of confidence that he had long yearned for.
"It took longer than I expected to battle adversity, but we did it," Thomas said. "I like to win races, and I like to do it with the people that are behind us. Ever since Dr. Pepper and McDonald's came on board, I have not given them what they came on board for. I take full responsibility for that. I had to get things turned around because I've got a group of people that are behind me who are really good people and really fun to work with. I've got to have success for those people."
Although he had previously won twice with the POWRi Midgets at Ocala in 2018, Thursday marked Thomas' first in USAC National Sprint Car competition at the track. Despite that, the win was actually his second during Winter Dirt Games, having won a round with the series when it was held at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton, Fla. in 2015.
The long, arduous offseason in recent months gave Thomas pause and time to reflect on the past, which he used to find the right the path for the coming season. Racing is both a physically and mentally daunting arena, and Thomas knew that without having both aspects up to speed, he was never to power through the rut to return to the top of his game where he expects, and knows, he can be.
"I had to make some changes over the winter," Thomas acknowledges. "The boys did a really good job with the racecars, but I had to do some other things personally. I just had to get my mind right. Whenever I get my mind right, I feel like I can win races and a lot of them. If that thing is not right between the ears, it's going to be tough because there's a lot of other people out here that are really talented and have their stuff together. Whether it comes from the mental side of things or the car side, there's a lot of good car owners out here as well with a lot of good drivers in them, good crew chiefs. There's just a lot of variables that can make you run 8th every single night. You've just got to be on top of your game and you've got to get the right piece underneath you and the one holding the steering wheel has got to have his head straight."
"Whenever it comes to handling failure, you've got to do it a certain way," Thomas continued. "If you don't do it that way, you're never going to get back to where you want to be in a quick amount of time. I was handling things the wrong way, and I wasn't doing the things that I know how to do best. I really had to sit down and think about those. I literally made a checklist and I've been checking them all off. I feel very confident in my driving abilities, but I also feel confident in the way I think about things. Whenever you're battling with these people, you've got to be one step ahead of them, or you're going to get passed and you're not going to win races. That's where I was for two years. I had to change that, and I really went to work this past offseason."
Thomas translated that effort into going to work at the racetrack Thursday night. Starting third, he chased leader Kyle Cummins and second-running Justin Grant for the first third of the event before making his pounce, driving under Grant in turn three while in the throes of traffic, then steadfastly zeroed in on Cummins one lap later off the bottom of the fourth turn to secure the lead on the 14th lap.
Grant clamped down to slip past Cummins with five laps remaining for second, but Thomas had already staked his claim at the front by then, holding a 2.3 second lead, which would ultimately balloon to a 2.769 second advantage at the finish line with Grant, Cummins, hard charger Brady Bacon (from 12th) and Tyler Courtney following him to the checkered.
For Thomas, it was all about patience, and finding the path to victory first before anybody else discovered it.
"You just had to work patiently," Thomas explained. "You had to wait until they got impatient with traffic, try to move a little bit, then you could pounce on them. That was the biggest key, and there are a few little tracks to getting down the back stretch. If you don't figure those out early, somebody's going to snooker you and there's a couple guys around here that know where it is and we just happened to find it first. We were in a good position to do that. We got to third right off the bat and didn't have to battle too hard for that. We just got there, rode around, rode around, and I saw a few moves where a people were making mistakes and getting a little impatient trying to get the guy in front of them. You jump on them, and then you do it the next time once you get to lapped traffic. It was just a big patience game out there. The track was fast, but you still had to be patient, just jump on them whenever you can don't make any mistakes."
Grant (Ione, Calif.) finished 2nd in his TOPP Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink - MPV Express - TOPP Industries/Maxim/Kistler Chevy. Twice a winner at Ocala, Grant has now earned three career runner-up finishes at the track with the series.
Cummins (Princeton, Ind.) earned a 3rd place result in his Rock Steady Racing/Mid-America Safety Solutions - Project Oversight Services/Mach-1/Cummins Chevy. It was Cummins' fifth career podium finish with the series at Ocala. However, he has yet to taste victory for the first time at the track.
Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) collected the Hughes Racing / Indiana Mafia / Flamingo Sandy / KSE Racing Products Hard Charger honors for his feature performance in his Dynamics, Inc./Fatheadz Eyewear - Elliott's Custom Trailers & Carts - TelStar/Triple X/Rider Chevy. It was third consecutive time that Bacon earned the hard charger award at Ocala dating back to 2020.
Timmy Buckwalter (Douglassville, Pa.) earned his second career Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifying time on Thursday night in his first sprint car race since suffering a broken leg in a racing accident during the 2020 season. Interestingly enough, his only other fast time with the series also came at Ocala, in 2019, where he finished 10th in the feature. On Thursday night, Buckwalter finished, get this, 10th in his Lotier Motorsports/The Bagel Rack - JRG Heating & Cooling - East Penn Excavating/DRC/Godfrey Chevy.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: February 11, 2021 - Bubba Raceway Park - Ocala, Florida - Winter Dirt Games XII - 3/8-Mile Dirt Track
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING FIRST FLIGHT: 1. Timmy Buckwalter, 7, Lotier-13.853; 2. Tanner Thorson, 19AZ, Reinbold/Underwood-13.938; 3. Kevin Thomas Jr., 9K, KT-13.955; 4. Kyle Cummins, 3R, Rock Steady-14.091; 5. Dave Darland, 5, Baldwin/Fox/Curb-Agajanian-14.119; 6. Brady Bacon, 69, Dynamics-14.159; 7. Jadon Rogers, 61m, Edwards-14.306; 8. Cole Bodine, 57, DCT-14.361; 9. Briggs Danner, 5G, Gallagher-14.372; 10. Carson Garrett, 15, KO-14.404; 11. Sterling Cling, 34, Cling-14.434; 12. Max Adams, 17GP, Dutcher-14.462; 13. Brent Beauchamp, 2E, Epperson-14.527; 14. Paul Nienhiser, 5N, KO-14.528; 15. Davey Ray, 14AJ, FattFro/RayPro-14.578; 16. Chase Stockon, 5s, KO-14.587; 17. Riley Kreisel, 91, DKR-14.802; 18. Drew Rader, 74, Heitmeyer-14.808; 19. Shane Butler, 18, Butler-14.926; 20. Ryan Thomas, 77FR, Wingo-14.960; 21. Cam Schafer, 97, Roach-14.977; 22. Dickie Gaines, 44, Soudrette-15.108; 23. Jesse Vermillion, 5v, Vermillion-15.397.
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING SECOND FLIGHT: 1. Tyler Courtney, 7BC, Clauson/Marshall/Newman-14.034; 2. Buddy Kofoid, 20K, Dyson-14.109; 3. Justin Grant, 4, TOPP-14.226; 4. Jake Swanson, 21AZ, Team AZ-14.249; 5. C.J. Leary, 77m, Michael-14.321; 6. Chris Windom, 19, Hayward-14.338; 7. Robert Ballou, 12, Ballou-14.341; 8. Matt Westfall, 33m, Marshall-14.398; 9. Mario Clouser, 6, EZR-14.429; 10. Stevie Sussex, 77, Wingo-14.487; 11. Noah Gass, 20G, Gass-14.503; 12. Kory Schudy, 28K, Sawyer-14.570; 13. Chase Johnson, 22, Goodnight-14.651; 14. Brandon Mattox, 28, Mattox-14.682; 15. Chayse Hayhurst, 20, Hayhurst-14.901; 16. Matt Goodnight, 39, Goodnight-14.979; 17. Kade Morton, 8m, Morton-14.991; 18. Dustin Clark, 75, Clark-15.105; 19. Scott Evans, 118, Evans-15.190; 20. Craig Pellegrini, 27, Pellegrini-15.840; 21. Blake Vermillion, 73, Vermillion-16.218; 22. Robert Bell, 71, Bell-NT
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr., 2. Jadon Rogers, 3. Timmy Buckwalter, 4. Dave Darland, 5. Sterling Cling, 6. Briggs Danner, 7. Davey Ray, 8. Brent Beauchamp, 9. Riley Kreisel, 10. Shane Butler, 11. Cam Schafer, 12. Jesse Vermillion. 2:03.288
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Kyle Cummins, 2. Brady Bacon, 3. Tanner Thorson, 4. Chase Stockon, 5. Cole Bodine, 6. Max Adams, 7. Carson Garrett, 8. Paul Nienhiser, 9. Drew Rader, 10. Dickie Gaines, 11. Ryan Thomas. NT
INDY METAL FINISHING THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Justin Grant, 2. Tyler Courtney, 3. Noah Gass, 4. C.J. Leary, 5. Mario Clouser, 6. Robert Ballou, 7. Chase Johnson, 8. Chayse Hayhurst, 9. Blake Vermillion, 10. Kade Morton, 11. Scott Evans. 2:05.244
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (8 laps, top-4 transfer to the feature) 1. Stevie Sussex, 2. Chris Windom, 3. Kory Schudy, 4. Jake Swanson, 5. Matt Westfall, 6. Dustin Clark, 7. Brandon Mattox, 8. Matt Goodnight, 9. Craig Pellegrini, 10. Buddy Kofoid. 2:06.999
C-MAIN: (10 laps, top-4 transfer to the semi) 1. Chayse Hayhurst, 2. Riley Kreisel, 3. Dustin Clark, 4. Shane Butler, 5. Kade Morton, 6. Cam Schafer, 7. Drew Rader, 8. Dickie Gaines, 9. Ryan Thomas, 10. Matt Goodnight, 11. Blake Vermillion, 12. Scott Evans, 13. Jesse Vermillion, 14. Craig Pellegrini. NT
SEMI: (12 laps, top-6 transfer to the feature) 1. Robert Ballou, 2. Buddy Kofoid, 3. Briggs Danner, 4. Mario Clouser, 5. Carson Garrett, 6. Paul Nienhiser, 7. Matt Westfall, 8. Sterling Cling, 9. Chase Johnson, 10. Max Adams, 11. Brandon Mattox, 12. Brent Beauchamp, 13. Davey Ray, 14. Riley Kreisel, 15. Cole Bodine, 16. Dustin Clark, 17. Chayse Hayhurst, 18. Shane Butler. 3:19.651
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr. (3), 2. Justin Grant (2), 3. Kyle Cummins (1), 4. Brady Bacon (12), 5. Tyler Courtney (5), 6. Tanner Thorson (4), 7. C.J. Leary (11), 8. Buddy Kofoid (8), 9. Chris Windom (13), 10. Timmy Buckwalter (6), 11. Jake Swanson (9), 12. Robert Ballou (15), 13. Noah Gass (19), 14. Chase Stockon (22), 15. Mario Clouser (17), 16. Paul Nienhiser (21), 17. Dave Darland (10), 18. Stevie Sussex (7), 19. Jadon Rogers (14), 20. Brandon Mattox (23), 21. Briggs Danner (16), 22. Matt Westfall (24), 23. Carson Garrett (18), 24. Kory Schudy (20). 7:45.762 (New Track Record)