By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
PERRIS, Calif. – On a night in which he had been awarded the hardware of a hard-earned USAC/CRA AMSOIL Sprint Car season title, Damion Gardner collected the biggest single-night reward of his championship season – a $25,000 check and the addition of his name to the list of the only three-time winners in the 21-year history of the Budweiser “Oval Nationals” presented by All Coast Construction at Perris Auto Speedway.
Gardner, of Concord, Calif., trailed for all of one half-straightaway Saturday night before retaking the lead from Richard Vander Weerd on the back straightaway with 13 laps remaining and cruising to a one-second victory in his Mark Alexander/Scott Sales Company – Weld Racing/Spike/J & D.
Gardner joined Bud Kaeding and Dave Darland as the only drivers to capture an “Oval Nationals” crown for a third-time in the richest dirt-track race in the state of California. Furthermore, Gardner kept the Eagle trophy in the hands of a USAC/CRA regular for the first time since Mike Spencer in 2012.
“We worked together really well tonight,” Gardner said. “We made some big decisions tonight and did some different things and, ultimately, that’s what won us the race. I looked at the track and knew it was going to be middle/bottom. I just didn’t know if the top would come late. I knew it would slow down enough on the bottom that the top would come late, but I just wasn’t sure when. It’s tough being out front for 40 laps because you just don’t know where to go. On the same hand, running second or third is tough when you have one of these guys running out front. Getting to them and getting around them is a tough task. I knew I was pretty fast and I knew it was slowing down, but I was getting really good runs off the corner. They gave me a good car and, everywhere it went, it worked. Mark and Steve (Alexander) always talk about having bad luck at the ‘Oval Nationals’ and I wanted to be the one to turn it around for them. That meant a lot to me.”
Bad luck plagued Gardner throughout the early portion of the USAC/CRA schedule. It wasn’t until late August when Gardner finally broke through for his first triumph of the season. Prior to this year’s campaign, the latest Gardner has gone through a season as a full-time USAC/CRA competitor before scoring his first win was mid-April of 2013, but despite the setback, Gardner and the Alexanders persevered to win five races in the final two and a half months of the season to take their fourth consecutive series title together as a team.
“Mark and Steve and everybody on the team have stuck together and kept digging,” a prideful Gardner said. “It’s been a tough season, not because we haven’t been fast, but because we’ve had to go to the back I don’t know how many times and it wasn’t because of our doings. Maybe a couple of them, but we always managed to fight back and have a decent finish. We missed the first race, but we battled back and those guys stuck with me. I knew we could do it, but to win the championship and the ‘Oval Nationals’ in one year is huge.”
In a battle of supremacy between USAC’s CRA and National Sprint Car divisions in the season finales for both series, two west coast regulars – Brody Roa and Gardner – occupied the front row for the highest-paying National event on the USAC calendar.
Gardner took the checkered flag for his first USAC National win since 2012 as well as his record-extending 70th career USAC/CRA victory by 1.040 seconds over Windom, Vander Weerd, Roa and 2016 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car champion Brady Bacon.
Chris Windom, of Canton, Ill., took the runner-up spot in his Baldwin Brothers Racing/Fox Paving – AMSOIL/DRC/Claxton Mopar, finishing off a historic run of results that never saw him finish outside the top-six in any USAC National points-paying race through the last four months of the season.
“I found that line late,” Windom admits. “I wish I would’ve found it a few laps sooner; I think we might’ve had a shot at it at the end. But Derek Claxton is the best crew chief in the country. He works his butt off every night and so does Billy (Grace). We’ve been rolling the last half of the year really well. It’s unfortunate the season’s over; I’d like to keep it going. We’ll start back up strong going into Florida next year.”
Visalia, California’s Richard Vander Weerd led briefly coming out of turn two on lap 28, but in the end, settled for a solid third-place run to follow up Friday night’s runner-up finish in his Ron Vander Weerd/Vander Weerd Construction – Stone Gate Development/Maxim/Shark.
“I knew we were in a tough position and I knew it was going to be a hard track to pass on,” Vander Weerd explained. “We were able to get to second right at the start. Brody (Roa) pushed a little bit on the first corner and we got around him and then Brady (Bacon) and that got us into second. We just followed Damion (Gardner) for most of the first 30 laps, then I got underneath him and he crossed me back over coming off the top of the corner. He had a little more speed down the back straightaway and he got back underneath me, but I knew lapped traffic would come into play and I knew that was the only way we were going to get back by him. We stayed right with him, but those yellows hurt us. We just got so tight toward the end and, on the last lap, I could hear somebody coming behind me. I thought Chris (Windom) was coming on the inside, but I guess he was running the top. He got me right there at the line. But a third-place finish in the ‘Oval Nationals’ is awesome!”
Contingency award winners Saturday night at Perris Auto Speedway included Bud Kaeding (ProSource/Woodland Auto Display Fast Qualifier), Chase Stockon (Simpson Race Products/Extreme Mufflers First Heat Winner), Chad Boespflug [Competition Suspension, Inc. (CSI)/DJ Safety Second Heat Winner], Joe Stornetta (Benic Enterprises/Circle Track Performance Third Heat Winner and Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Feature Finisher), Jon Stanbrough (Indy Race Parts/Stand 21 Racer Goes Safer Foundation Fourth Heat Winner), Brody Roa (Keizer Aluminum Wheels Super Six Dash Winner), Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Jake Swanson (Brown & Miler Racing Solutions Semi Winners) and Austin Williams (KSE Racing Products/BR Motorsports/King Racing Products Hard Charger).