Kevin Thomas Jr. (Cullman, Ala.) celebrates becoming the first three-time winner of the Fall Nationals this past weekend at Indiana’s Lawrenceburg Speedway. (Jack Reitz Photo)
By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
Lawrenceburg, Indiana (October 2, 2021)………Kevin Thomas Jr. knew it was coming.
On the fly, he had to conjure up a plan on whether to fight the inevitable slide job on the final lap or just let it happen and prepare himself with a counter measure in response.
After missing his mark in turn one on the 30th and final lap of Saturday night’s $10,000-to-win Fall Nationals at Indiana’s Lawrenceburg Speedway, those exact thoughts raced through his mind with Chris Windom and Tanner Thorson already in hot pursuit and dead-set on denying his plan to become the first ever three-time winner in the event’s history.
“I went down the front stretch to get the white flag and just told myself, ‘do not miss this ridge’ getting into turn one and, sure enough, I missed the whole thing,” Thomas recalled. “I knew as soon as I was coming off two that somebody was going to have a run, and I knew one of the 19s was going to rip the top through one and two and slide me. My best option was to let him go, then hit the ridge in the middle of three and four and cross him over.”
As it turned out, it was the straight #19 of Windom who was tailing Thomas on the last go around. Although the pressure hadn’t been totally and forcefully applied up to that point during the final four lap stretch, Thomas sensed something was about to go down as he sought the best course of action for his defense.
“I knew he was coming,” Thomas admitted. “I could hear him back there and I saw the top cleaning off. Where I’d been running was a little bit off the top, more through the middle. There was a ridge, but it was starting to go away there in three and four and especially in one and two. I was like, ‘man, do I move? What do I do? I hadn’t felt any pressure up to that point.”
As the leader, it’s practically impossible to tell what exactly is going on behind your back, and it became readily apparent coming to the white flag that Windom was setting up for one last hurrah to slide past Thomas in heroic fashion to score his first victory in the event after 14 consecutive years of trying.
The only question remained whether Windom would be able to retain his lead once he slid past, and how? After blazing a path around turns one and two, Windom shadowed Thomas’ rear bumper for the entire length of the back straightaway before making a break toward the bottom of turn three.
Thomas watched Windom sail past his front bumper up to the cushion as he flicked the wheel to the left and traced the middle portion of the high banks. Windom took one more glance underneath, but Thomas had control in the palms of his hands as he motored off the final corner to defeat Windom by a 0.268 second margin, a mere one-and-a-half car length ahead, in his KT Motorsports/Dr. Pepper Presents the Ronald McDonald House Charities/DRC/Speedway Chevy.
For Thomas, it was his third career Fall Nationals victory after previous triumphs arrived for him in the odd-numbered years of 2017, 2019 and now 2021. Furthermore, the 35th win of his USAC AMSOIL Sprintcar National Championship career sent him to 11th on the all-time list alongside Jon Stanbrough and Rich Vogler.
Thomas also became the first driver to reach the eight-win mark with the series this season, but for the longest time, it appeared outside front row starter Emerson Axsom had the upper hand as he led the first 12 laps and was already knee deep into traffic when disaster nearly befell, at the time, fourth-running Windom.
As Windom attempted to navigate his way around the tail end of the field, he encountered the car driven by 20th running J.J. Hughes. Windom ramped over the right rear tyre of Hughes just before the entry to turn one but somehow, someway, did not get upside down and was able to untangle himself from the potential carnage and continue onward while Hughes slowed a stop in turn one with a completely flattened right rear.
Unluckiest in the deal was eighth running Robert Ballou who encountered the situation at full speed on the high side, at first, successfully avoiding Hughes, but was unable to avoid smacking the outside wall which ended his night prematurely as it also did for Hughes.
Under the yellow, fifth-running C.J. Leary suffered a flat right rear tire, which sent him to the work area for fresh rubber before returning to blitz his way back up through the pack to a 10th place result at the checkered.
With 14 to go, Thomas was able to pull himself completely alongside Axsom, but the 17-year-old driver who was making just his seventh career USAC Sprint start displayed the poise of a veteran in fending off his Petry Motorsports teammate on the USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget trail.
Axsom, wheeling the same car that was raced to victory lane one week earlier by Tyler Courtney at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway during the 4-Crown Nationals, kept Thomas at bay lap-after-lap until, exiting the fourth turn on lap 26. That is until Axsom’s right rear tyre suddenly gave away, forcing him to a complete stop in a heartbreaking moment that denied the Franklin, Ind. driver his first career series victory.
Thomas felt his eventual victory very well may not have occurred if not for Axsom’s misfortune, giving praise to the young driver to seemingly had it all in hand before things went awry.
“I want to give a shout out to Emerson,” Thomas acknowledged. “I don’t think we would have won that race. That kid has a heck of a lot of talent and is really impressive in pretty much anything that he’s gotten into. I love him to death. He’s my teammate on the midget side of things and I’ve got a good relationship with him and his family. It was an unfortunate circumstance; they had that one.
“He makes very swift moves in lapped traffic, so he doesn’t really mess up that much, I showed him a nose one time and he never moved. I don’t know if he was going to make a mistake,” Thomas added.
The one and only driver to start all 16 Fall Nationals feature events in his career, Windom (Canton, Ill.), came up just one spot short of his first win in the event in his Hayward Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Byrd – B & H Contractors – AMSOIL/DRC/Claxton Mopar. Instead, it wound up as Windom’s fifth second place finish in the annual late-season race, which he previously accomplished in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2016.
“I feel like we were a little better than him at the end there,” Windom said. “I couldn’t quite get him squared up. It was really starting to get hard to throw a slider in one and two because he was running the middle, so I knew I had to time it right to make it work in three and four. I needed just one chance to attempt that and get a second chance at it to know where to stick it a little better because he was able to cross me back over there and get back by us.”
Tanner Thorson (Minden, Nev.) swiftly set back-to-back fastest qualifying times this weekend with the series on Friday at Terre Haute and Saturday at Lawrenceburg in his Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports/AME Electrical – Mesilla Valley Transportation/Spike/Stanton Chevy. He followed up a third-place finish during the summer at Lawrenceburg with another third in his debut Fall Nationals run on Saturday night.
In what has become an all too familiar storyline for Brady Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) this season, Bacon flipped hard between turns one and two during the second heat race as a result of contact with CJ Leary. The backup Dynamics, Inc. #69 was then rolled from the trailer where Bacon promptly utilized it to charge from 15th to 3rd in the semi-feature, then from 11th to 4th in the feature to earn the GSP Quality Driving Performance Award for the evening.
In almost a nearly identical situation, if you recall, Bacon sailed over the turn one and two wall at Terre Haute in May after contact from another car. The team brought the backup car out, which Bacon similarly drove from the tail to third in the semi, then to a third-place result in the feature event.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: October 2, 2021 – Lawrenceburg Speedway – Lawrenceburg, Indiana – 3/8-Mile Dirt Oval – Fall Nationals
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr. (3), 2. Chris Windom (8), 3. Tanner Thorson (6), 4. Brady Bacon (11), 5. Jake Swanson (10), 6. Justin Grant (14), 7. Logan Seavey (4), 8. Max Adams (9), 9. Chase Stockon (7), 10. C.J. Leary (5), 11. Thomas Meseraull (16), 12. Brandon Mattox (19), 13. Dallas Hewitt (20), 14. Saban Bibent (1), 15. Jadon Rogers (15), 16. Ryan Thomas (12), 17. Emerson Axsom (2), 18. Justin Owen (18), 19. Shane Cottle (22), 20. Robert Ballou (13), 21. J.J. Hughes (17), 22. Jason McDougal (21). NT
**Brady Bacon flipped during the second heat.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-26 Emerson Axsom, Laps 27-30 Kevin Thomas Jr.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINTCAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Brady Bacon-2590, 2-Kevin Thomas Jr.-2526, 3-Justin Grant-2449, 4-Tanner Thorson-2311, 5-C.J. Leary-2295, 6-Chris Windom-2262, 7-Jake Swanson-2129, 8-Robert Ballou-1987, 9-Chase Stockon-1709, 10-Logan Seavey-1377.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINTCAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACES: November 4-5-6, 2021 – Perris Auto Speedway – Perris, California – 1/2-Mile Dirt Oval – 25th Oval Nationals