OCALA, Fla. – If Tanner Thorson’s preliminary-night victory at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals wasn’t enough proof that he’s back to full song, Friday night’s race at Bubba Raceway Park was a dead giveaway.
Thorson, who has risen valiantly from injuries sustained in a highway accident last March, put that storyline to bed for good with an emphatic win during the season opener for the NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series.
The Minden, Nev., native stormed past leader Buddy Kofoid on a lap-15 restart and never looked back en route to his 14th career USAC national midget triumph and first-career win at the Florida half-mile.
It was a runaway performance in the second half and a shot across the bow to the rest of the field, a message that Thorson is back – perhaps as good as he’s ever been.
“Man, this is good,” said Thorson in victory lane. “We’ve had a lot of speed here with this (No.) 19 car. I’ve got Lee Lindgren out here from California crew chiefing; he’s my dude man. He’s my best friend and I enjoy racing with him. He’s done so much for me. This whole car, with OilFire Whiskey coming on board for Chili Bowl and then this season, it’s been pretty special and allows us to get what we need for this thing to make it fast.
“This track’s pretty difficult to race on; it’s really technical, but in a good way,” Thorson added. “I can’t thank Bubba (Clem) and this whole track crew enough, because this track was really badass. I just knew I had to capitalize on that restart to get to the lead, and luckily we were able to do that. Now I’m looking forward to tomorrow night and seeing what we can do then.
“I want to give a big shout out to my dad, too. It’s his birthday today, so to win is pretty dang cool.”
Thorson had to come from fifth on the grid to reign victorious Friday night, with defending series champion Tyler Courtney leading the field to green from the pole alongside Jerry Coons Jr.
That outside lane prevailed on the initial start, with Coons jetting out to the early lead and playing masterful defense to keep Courtney behind him, but behind both of them was a charging Buddy Kofoid who was taking no prisoners in the opening laps.
Kofoid found speed on the cushion quickly, using it to blast past Courtney off turn four for second on the seventh lap, then quickly close in on Coons for the point position after that.
A similar high-side maneuver gave Kofoid the momentum he needed to work clear for the race lead off turn two, pouncing on the 11th circuit to assume command.
However, Thorson was closing behind him, and by the time the yellow flag waved for the first time with 14 laps scored, the 2016 USAC National Midget Series champion was the runner-up and smelled blood in the water.
After a spin-and-stall by Jesse Colwell at the base of turn two, racing resumed with Thorson lobbing a bomb on the restart to take control in turns one and two, leaving Kofoid to deal with a quickly-closing Chris Windom for the second half while the Hayward Motorsports No. 19 raced off into the night.
As Thorson extended his lead to more than a second, Windom eventually wrested runner-up honors from Kofoid, but could do little to close on the race lead and take a shot. Not even a final restart, set up by the slowing car of Robert Dalby at the exit of turn two, could keep Thorson from victory in the end.
He raced away by 1.969 seconds over the last seven laps, while Windom held off Kofoid for second.
“Obviously you want to come out and win the first race of the year, but we’ve been good all week so far. Tanner was just a little better than us there at the end,” Windom said. “I couldn’t get to him. It was like we were the same speed after that restart, and I just couldn’t quite do anything to gain on him so I could make a move on him. And then when we got to lap cars, it hurt him one car and I’d get hurt the next car. So we kind of just stayed in the same spot.
“Hats off to those guys, though, because they were good.”
Courtney faded to fourth at the checkered flag, followed by Cannon McIntosh, Zeb Wise, fast qualifier Kevin Thomas Jr., Jerry Coons Jr., Daison Pursley and Andrew Layser.
To view complete race results, advance to the next page.