BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — It all comes down to Bakersfield Speedway for Chris Windom, Tyler Courtney and Tanner Thorson.
The battle to become the champion of the NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series will come to an end following Tuesday’s November Classic at the third-mile dirt track, with the top-three drivers in the points race separated by 32 markers in one of the more competitive years in series history.
While there are two-more races on the schedule, Nov. 20-21 at Merced (Calif.) Speedway, both of those events will award only 50 appearance points and will not give points by finishing position.
As such, Bakersfield marks the last chance for trailing drivers to gain ground in the title hunt.
A topsy-turvy Western World Championship weekend at Arizona Speedway saw the standings shift dramatically, with Tyler Courtney going from leading by 32 points over Chris Windom to trailing Windom by 11 entering the Bakersfield round.
Courtney’s Clauson-Marshall Racing No. 7bc suffered a mechanical failure before halfway in Saturday’s 30-lapper at Arizona Speedway, relegating him to a 22nd-place finish and creating a major blow to the Indianapolis native’s hopes of becoming a back-to-back USAC National Midget Series champion.
The 26-year-old kept his head high, however, knowing there’s still time to mount a comeback.
“We just had a failure of some sort,” Courtney said of his early retirement in the Western World finale. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s racing sometimes. It’s part of it. We’ve still got one more night, so it’s not the end of the world, but we definitely needed Saturday [to go well] to try and give ourselves a bigger cushion and make things a little easier.
“The last couple of months, we’ve worked really hard to put ourselves back in contention … and for one little thing to take us out of [the points lead] that wasn’t in our control is pretty unfortunate,” he added. “We’re not done, though. We’re going to Bakersfield and going to give it our best shot to win this thing.”
Windom is seeking to become the seventh driver in United States Auto Club history to win the Triple Crown by securing championships in all three of USAC’s national divisions.
The Canton, Ill., veteran topped the USAC Silver Crown Series in 2016 before adding an AMSOIL USAC National Sprint Car Series title a year later. The NOS Energy Drink Midget crown is all that’s missing.
While Windom’s pursuit of the Triple Crown is at the forefront of his mind, he was quick to point out that an 11-point lead is not safe by any means.
Depending on how qualifying and heat races play out Tuesday at Bakersfield, Windom will likely have to finish third or better in the Bakersfield feature to secure his first USAC national midget championship.
“It’s a good feeling to be sitting where we’re sitting,” Windom noted. “I’ve had a bit of a string of bad luck the last few months, and it turned around this weekend. That’s a positive, but we know it’s going to be a dogfight to the end at Bakersfield. Just because we’re back in the lead now, it doesn’t mean much. Things can change so quickly in this deal and we know that.
“You’d always rather have the lead going into the last race than be second, but we’re still going to have to run our tails off in that final race to be able to secure the title and bring it home with us.”
Thorson is third in the standings and, prior to the Western World Championship doubleheader, appeared to be completely out of a shot at contending for the USAC national midget crown.
However, a Friday victory and Saturday runner-up effort, combined with Courtney’s misfortune, opened the door for Thorson to have an outside shot at things. He’s 32 points adrift of Windom entering Bakersfield.
Thorson won the USAC national midget title in 2016 with Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports and drove most of this season for Hayward Motorsports in the No. 19 before shifting to Tom Malloy’s camp in late September for the balance of the year.
While the Minden, Nev., native knows it might be a long shot, he’s ready to give everything he has to contend for a second series championship on Tuesday night.
“What we’ve done to get back into this deal shows how strong these cars are in the Tom Malloy stable,” Thorson said after his second-place finish Saturday night at Arizona Speedway. “I’ve got a pretty awesome piece behind me and we’re excited. We’re going to go to Bakersfield and try to pick off one more [win] for this group.
“All we can do is win the race — the rest of it isn’t in our control — so that’s what we’re going out to do.”
The aforementioned trio of drivers are the only ones who are mathematically eligible for the title.
Fourth-ranked Buddy Kofoid is 91 points back of the lead, with only 84 on the table at Bakersfield.
The drivers meeting Tuesday at Bakersfield takes place at 5 p.m. PT, with hot laps starting at 6 p.m. The grandstands are closed to all spectators.
Pit passes are $40 for USAC members and $45 for non-members.