PERRIS, Calif. — Kevin Thomas Jr. banked $25,000 for winning Saturday night’s 22nd annual Budweiser Oval Nationals presented by All Coast Construction at Perris Auto Speedway.
Thursday night winner Chase Stockon began the race from the outside of the front row and took the high side around Justin Grant en route to the lead on the opening lap of the 40-lap feature, where he would remain for the first 17 circuits.
Meanwhile, eyes were also affixed to the battle unfolding behind the leader in which Chris Windom entered the event just 12 points ahead of Grant in the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series standings. Inside the top-10, each spot is worth three points and Windom had to remain within at least four positions behind Grant to maintain his grip atop the leaderboard.
By lap seven, fourth-starting Thomas had cleared Grant with a turn four maneuver to slide into second. At the same time, Windom dropped back a spot to fifth after Friday night winner Brody Roa took away the fourth spot.
As most of the field ringed around the topside, Thomas found a bit lower line to his liking between turns one and two as he began to hunt down Stockon for the race lead.
It took just a couple laps for Thomas to be in position for another crack at Stockon, which he made stick on the 18th lap with a turn three slider to assume the race lead. Just two laps later, Grant followed suit into second past Stockon for the runner-up spot at the halfway mark.
Grant seemed to come alive in the second-half and, when Thomas began to get hung up in lapped traffic, Grant was nearly in position to take advantage. However, with traffic running high and low, the racing line was blocked for both and Thomas was able to maintain his advantage.
With 10 laps remaining, the table was cleared for a shootout between Thomas and Grant, with a clear track lying ahead of them following Max Adams’ misfortune into the back straightaway wall on lap 31. With Windom laying in wait in fourth, Grant found himself in the midst of two separate races, but with the single goal of winning on his mind to maximize points.
Grant stuck right on Thomas’ tail and was able to slide into the lead in turn three with eight laps remaining. One lap later, Thomas employed the same tactic, but Grant countered underneath Thomas off turn four to lead at the stripe by a half-car length. Grant slid up to the cushion in turn one with Thomas just inches behind. The two made slight bumper-to-bumper contact up top. The déjà vu scene repeated itself on lap 34 when Thomas dove to the bottom of the third turn, slid up and ripped the lead back away from Grant.
C.J. Leary was back in third, anticipating his next maneuver in this sprint car chess match, biding his time before sliding past Grant into second in turn one with five laps to go. Grant came right back at Leary into turn three with a slider. The two ran out of room up against the outside turn four wall with Leary kissing the concrete twice, resulting in damage on the right front.
With four to go on the ensuing restart, Thomas was merely a sitting duck fully aware what Grant’s next move was going to be. Yet, Thomas felt he had a way to retain control of his own destiny on the first and second turn end of the half-mile oval.
As Grant slid past Thomas into one, Thomas did exactly that and turned underneath off turn two to pull even with Grant on the back straightaway. In turn three, Thomas slid evenly with Grant up to the cushion. Grant snagged the curb just enough to hinder his progress and Thomas raced away to a ten car-length lead.
Seemingly, throughout the race, each time Grant was able to pick up a spot, Windom was a like a hawk, swooping in to take another spot and get those precious three points back instantly. When one dropped a spot, the other seemed to fall back. With Grant in second and Windom third on the final lap, Windom had some breathing room to spare as Chad Boespflug slipped by for third on the back straight and Windom slotted into fourth.
Up front, though, Thomas finished off the biggest payday of his career, winning by a second with Grant, hard charger Boespflug, Windom and Robert Ballou rounding out the top-five. It was the 20th victory of the season overall for Thomas.
“The only time I think that I had an advantage is I could kind of manipulate when Justin was going to slide me,” Thomas explained. “If he slid me in three and four, it was so slick down there, you couldn’t cross under. If I could manipulate where he slid me in one and two, I could get the cross under and get him going down the back straightaway. As much as I wanted to race in front of me, I was still racing behind me. They say that’s a big no-no, but these guys are aggressive.”
Windom’s fourth-place finish was enough for him to claim the championship by six points over Grant. The championship comes one season after Windom won the USAC Silver Crown Series title.
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