STANFORD, Ind. — The AMSOIL USAC National Sprint Car Series championship is taking on the appearance of the final minutes of a Super Bowl.
Clock management is critical and every point counts. And, outwardly at least, the opponents are taking different strategies going into the final races.
The next two weekends could produce one of the closest battles for USAC’s sprint car championship in recent years. With four races remaining over the next two weekends, Dave Darland and Bryan Clauson are separated by only 23 points.
Statistics tell part of the story, but the numbers primarily emphasize the outstanding records that Darland and Clauson have been racking up this year. It is remarkable that Clauson is even as high as second in the standings; he missed three point-paying races due to commitments with the Indy 500 and Indy Lights events. When Indiana Sprint Week started in July, he was 199 points behind, and ninth in the standings.
Coming into Sprint Week, Darland was 67 points astern of leader Jon Stanbrough. He scored two wins during Sprint Week, and two more in the races since then. He has had a dozen top fives in the 90 days since the start of Sprint Week and four finishes outside the top-10. During that period, he scored 1,176 points.
Clauson has also captured four feature wins over the same 19 races, including the Kokomo Smackdown. He tallied 14 top-five finishes, but only one outside the top-10. In fact, he hasn’t finished outside the top-10 since July 15 when USAC made him pit to change a flat tire while leading at Lawrenceburg with only a lap to go. With the better consistency, Bryan earned 1,285 points in the same amount of time.
In pit lane, the two teams seldom park near each other, which is probably more coincidental than anything else. What is not coincidence is the atmosphere around each hauler. Clauson’s pit is clearly more intense. It is an outstanding team working on the Corey Tucker/BCI/Curb-Agajanian Curb Records/R&B Trucker’s No. 7 Maxim. Veteran chief mechanic Mike Dutcher is one of the best, and long-time member Big Al heads a very capable group. Bryan’s father, Tim, watches everything, lets everyone do their job, but doesn’t miss a beat. Throughout the program, everyone is busy and everyone is focused.
In contrast, car owner Jeff Walker keeps his team loose. With more than 20 years experience with non-wing dirt sprint cars, he develops his own strategy and setups, and does most of his own work on the Jam-It-In Storage/ProSource No. 11 Maxim, with the capable assistance of Kyle Dautrich. With three USAC sprint car owner’s titles, he’s been down this road before.
The 1999 USAC sprint car champion, with 39 series victories in his career, Darland is going for his fifth USAC title. He is a Triple Crown winner, earning the Silver Crown title in 1997, and midget championships in 2001 and 2002. Dave puts a lot of faith in Walker and says that everyone just needs to do their job.
“If I can keep the car clean and out of trouble each night, we’re going to run good. We go out to win each race every night and we don’t really consider the points a whole lot,” said Darland. “But we might have to later in the season when it gets down to crunch time. We just have to keep doing what we’ve done all year.”
Clauson is also an accomplished USAC champion, with back-to-back midget titles, and more importantly, the USAC National Driving Championship the past two seasons.
And while he is chasing his first sprint car crown, he admits that he didn’t expect to be challenging after missing those races. Then he adds, “If Darland doesn’t run the way he’s capable, we want to be there and have a shot.”
Looking ahead, USAC’s sprint cars have wrapped up their Midwest racing, and the tour turns to Canyon Speedway Park, north of Phoenix, for two events comprising the Hall of Fame Classic. Then the season will conclude with the Oval Nationals, a two-night program at Perris Auto Speedway.
Clauson is already running a two-minute drill. In the last race, at the Terre Haute Action Track, acknowledging that Darland had an advantage with his experience at that oval, Clauson said he wanted to stay close to him. The two battled throughout the main event, and when Darland finished fifth, Clauson was right on his tail. By outqualifying Darland and running higher in his heat race, Bryan gained three points. He feels that this positions them well for the remaining schedule, given that Clauson won both races at Canyon last year.
But Darland and Walker aren’t implementing a prevent defense. They continue to go into each race focused on winning, knowing that Clauson still has to catch them. They also have history to fall back on, since the last time that they went to the Oval Nationals together, in 2006, Dave captured the finale. “Driving for Jeff and these guys, I have a good opportunity every night to gain some points and have a good night,” Darland says. “We’re in a good spot and we’re happy to be there.”
These two veterans have found themselves battling each other many times this season, finishing first and second three times since the end of June. For those who are able to follow the series through the final two weekends, it is sure to be a memorable fortnight of racing.