By: USAC Racing
KOKOMO, Ind. – Kevin Thomas, Jr. closed his weekend the same way it all began back on Thursday night – with his car parked in Bryan Clauson’s victory lane at Kokomo Speedway.
Thomas, of Cullman, Ala., put in a masterful performance Saturday night, crafting 40 flawless laps around the ¼-mile dirt oval on his way to his 12th career USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory – his second at the track in the last three nights – in “Sprint Car Smackdown V.”
It was a sight to behold as Thomas ripped around Kokomo lap-after-lap with pristine perfection, taking the lead in the early going from Tyler Courtney, then leading the final 35 laps to earn his first “Smackdown” championship night trophy in his 4J Motorsports/Franklin Equipment – CEP Concrete/DRC/Chevy.
“It’s remarkable that I was perfect for 40 laps,” said a surprised Thomas. “It’s a struggle for me to get through a heat race some days. Yesterday, we were really struggling and wondered what we were going to do. We were hoping we were going to make the top eight and, luckily, we did. We got a good starting spot and got a clean track in front of us. I was just able to hit my marks. I actually need to thank Robert Ballou for showing me the way around the lapped cars. I think the bottom in turns three and four were going away and he started ripping the top up there.”
Thomas began the 40-lap affair from the fourth position in front of a packed house full of fans who looked on as Lauren Stewart – Bryan Clauson’s fiancée – waved the green flag.
Courtney, who started on the pole by virtue of defeating Thomas Meseraull in the two-car, three-lap B&W Auto Mart “King of the Hill” championship earlier in the night, took the early advantage after sliding up in front of outside front-row starter Mesearull entering turn one at the start.
After leading the first lap by a minuscule margin, Courtney dove into turn one on the second lap, hiking the left rear in the process, which allowed Meseraull to pull ahead briefly on the bottom. Courtney was able to gather his wits and blast around the outside of Meseraull out of turn two to regain the lead.
After another near-dead heat at the line at the conclusion of lap two, all signs pointed toward this being yet another classic Kokomo barn burner between Courtney and Meseraull.
However, that notion was short-lived as Meseraull shadowed Courtney at the exit of turn four on lap three. Without warning, Meseraull’s car suddenly veered right, plowing into the outside wall and putting a severe hurt on the front end of the Michael Dutcher Motorsports no. 17GP. Meseraull was uninjured, but was finished for the remainder of the night.
On the lap-three restart, Courtney shot out to the lead once again as Chad Boespflug, who, just last week bagged $60,000 in winnings at Badlands Motor Speedway in South Dakota, began to peek his nose underneath Thomas for the second spot. Together, the two began to close the gap between themselves and leader Courtney and, on lap six, Thomas was able to sneak by Courtney to take the point with an outside pass on the back straightaway. One lap later, Boespflug also slipped by Courtney to grab second.
On the ninth lap, Zach Daum walked away from an end-over-end turn-one flip that brought out the night’s first red.
Working on the cushion in turns one and two and the bottom in turns three and four, Thomas put a little bit of distance between himself and the rest of the field as second-running Boespflug followed in suit nearly four car-lengths back when racing resumed.
Kyle Robbins barrel-rolled his machine into turn one to bring out the night’s second red flag on the 15th lap. He was uninjured, but the stoppage erased the more than one-second lead Thomas had constructed in the early stages.
Thomas snaked the field around the turn four infield tires for the lap-15 restart. Yet, it was on the opposite portion of the racetrack where fourth-running Chris Windom began to make his charge. Windom put all four of his wheels above the cushion in turns one and two and on the entry to turn three before diamonding off to charge down the turn-four banking.
Windom was the only front-runner to put “four in the fluff,” propelling him into contention and, on lap 19, Windom cut to the inside of turn four to take the third spot from Courtney. But, by that point, Thomas and Boespflug had broken away by a near-straightaway over third-running Windom.
That did not deter Windom in any way whatsoever as he quickly ate away the interval and, with less than 10 laps remaining, was running right with Thomas and Boespflug as the trio encountered lapped traffic.
Thomashad to run the final circuits to perfection. Any false move could prove costly as he laid it all on the line in lapped traffic. The pressure mounted for Thomas with both Boespflug and Windom chomping at the bit like a bulldog who smelled a pork chop, ready to pounce in an instant.
Like a fighter pilot with laser focus, Thomas was precise, never wavering in traffic for a single iota while steadily increasing his lead during the final laps from roughly seven-tenths of a second with two to go to eight-tenths as he sped underneath the white flag.
Thomas rose to the occasion at the end to take his first career “Smackdown” championship night victory, ending Dave Darland’s stranglehold of the event over the last three years while also joining inaugural winner Bryan Clauson as a winner of the $10,000 prize over Boespflug, Windom, Darland and July’s Kokomo “Indiana Sprint Week” winner Kyle Cummins.
Hanford’s Boespflug came up just short of adding yet another big-money triumph to his résumé in 2016, but had to settle for a solid second-place run in his NineEight Motorsports-EZR/AMSOIL – Creative Finishing – Midwest Shades/Maxim/Claxton.
“This is the place where you run the hardest laps of any track you go to,” Boespflug explained. “Hats off to Kevin (Thomas, Jr.); he was flawless. I gave everything I had. My guys worked their butts off tonight. They found a problem after the “King of the Hill” and were able to get that fixed. I’m glad to be on the podium, but I would’ve liked to have been one spot further up. He (Thomas) was just too good. I thought I had a little something when he stumbled in turn two. Kevin’s been tough here, but, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to get a win here.”
Windom, of Canton, Ill., had a strong campaign throughout the weekend, grabbing second- and sixth-place finishes on Thursday and Friday, respectively, before scoring a third in Saturday night’s finale in his Baldwin Brothers Racing/Fox Paving – AMSOIL/Maxim/Claxton Mopar.
“They (Thomas and Boespflug) both ran almost perfect races,” acknowledged Windom. “They never really bobbled. I was running my butt off trying to catch them up top. I think us three were so fast that we couldn’t do much with each other. We caught lapped traffic and just had to follow each other. I want to thank everyone who helps us. They busted their butts all week. Thanks to the O’Connors and the fans for sticking it out in the rain. They did a hell of a job. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else four days in a row except here.”
Contingency award winners Saturday night at Kokomo Speedway included Robert Ballou (Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner), Dave Darland [Competition Suspension, Inc. (CSI) Second Heat Winner], Brady Bacon (Benic Enterprises Third Heat Winner), Tyler Thomas (Indy Race Parts Semi Winner & KSE Racing Products Hard Charger), Tyler Courtney (B&W Auto Mart “King of the Hill” Winner) and Logan Jarrett (Wilwood Brakes 13th-Place Feature Finisher).