O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass

Bryan Clauson celebrates after earning his second-straight Indiana Sprintweek championship at Tri-State Speedway. (Ginny Heithaus Photo)
Bryan Clauson celebrates after earning his second-straight Indiana Sprintweek championship at Tri-State Speedway. (Ginny Heithaus Photo)

STANFORD, Ind. – While Indiana Sprint Week is certainly big enough to stand on its own, does it benefit racers in the chase for USAC’s season championship?  Is extra gravy realized from Sprint Week success?

Two weeks ago, at Tri-State Speedway, Bryan Clauson became the fourth driver to capture back-to-back Indiana Sprint Week championships.  Previously, Hall of Fame racer Chuck Amati won the series in 1989 and was co-champion with Gary Trammell in 1990.  Kevin Thomas went back-to-back twice to score four titles, and Levi Jones was the most recent to win back-to-back, also securing four Sprint Week crowns.

When Clauson won his second USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car championship last year, his 57-point margin was built on seven race wins (tied with Dave Darland and Kevin Thomas Jr., no relation to the original Kevin Thomas although both hailed from Alabama, for the most) and a total of 21 top-5 finishes.  Looking back, I believe that Sprint Week proved instrumental to the title run.

Coming into Sprint Week in 2013, Clauson trailed Darland by 35 in the national championship points.  He had one win and seven top-5’s in the dozen races before the Gas City opener.  Then, over the first weekend, Bryan tallied a fourth, seventh and fifth before stumbling at the Terre Haute Action Track.  But it all came into focus for the Tony Stewart Racing team as they notched wins at Lincoln Park Speedway and Bloomington, in the next two events.

When the finale at Tri-State Speedway was rained out, Clauson stood in the rain next to his hauler for the celebration photos.  Not only had he claimed the Sprint Week title, but he also took the national point lead with the Bloomington victory.

It was as if a valve had been opened.  Bryan won four of the next 15 races, and if you exclude Oskaloosa, he averaged a 3.8 finish the rest of the season.  This exceptional performance gave him a margin of 57 points in the final standings.

There are similarities this year’s scenario and that of last year.  When the second weekend of 2014 Indiana Sprint Week started with four consecutive nights of racing ahead, Dave Darland held a scant two-point lead over Chris Windom in Sprint Week points.  Chris was two points ahead of Justin Grant and Bryan sat fourth in the Sprint Week points, twenty behind Grant.

In the USAC AMSOIL national points, Clauson was fourth, 94 behind leader Brady Bacon.

For Clauson, the Wednesday-night event at the Terre Haute Action Track became a significant turning point, in several respects.  At Gas City and Kokomo, he had had strong races, before Lawrenceburg was rained out.  He started fourth at the Action Track, but fell back as far as sixth in the early laps.  From outside the front row, Bacon was the early leader, with Robert Ballou and Jerry Coons Jr. fighting for second.

Following a restart on lap 10, Ballou pressed Bacon for the lead, and even though they exchanged the top spot several times, it wasn’t until four laps later that Ballou was able to charge past on the inside of turn four.  Behind them, Bryan became more aggressive and after overtaking Coons and then Darland, he followed Ballou into second.  Clauson went after Ballou, and after battling wheel-to-wheel, Bryan grabbed the lead exiting the second turn on lap seventeen.  Then, with Ballou trying to keep up, he cleanly negotiated packs of slower cars and built a straightaway length lead at the finish.

After years of trying, it was Clauson’s first win at the Action Track.  You could tell how much he wanted the win as his No. 20 Tony Stewart Racing/Chevrolet Performance Beast powered off the turns as the laps wound down.  It was a masterful performance as he optimized the track as it changed, running the right place at the right time.  Importantly, he was now only 9 behind leader Chris Windom in the Sprint Week point chase.