The key part to C.J. Leary’s 2019 AMSOIL USAC National Sprint Car Series title run is that he didn’t just survive one of the toughest stretches in the season, one he personally dreaded.
He actually improved his position, and Leary was pleasantly surprised.
“I don’t know if it was a different race car or if Davey had a different shock package,” he said, “but we had a different outcome at Eastern Storm. Probably the coolest feeling all year was setting a new track record at Port Royal. That is one of the fastest race tracks in the country, and to get to do it there was an awesome feeling.”
Heading into Indiana Sprint Week, Tyler Courtney picked up a win at Eldora, but C.J. chased him across the stripe and carried a 57-point lead in the standings.
The first race of the eight-race grind came at Gas City and resulted in a minor controversy.
Shane Cottle claimed a popular win, although the transponder system awarded the victory to Leary. All of the USAC officials on hand agreed that Cottle was victorious and, while C.J. was understandably a bit perturbed, in the end it was another quality finish.
Just like in Florida, and just like what had transpired in the Keystone State, this performance set the tone for another pivotal moment in the season.
Looking back, he noted, “We rolled into that stretch, which is almost two weeks long, and Davey and I won our first Indiana Sprint Week championship. I was pumped about our season now. So, we really started crunching the points, and looking at what races were left, and tried to figure out where we were going to struggle, and where our high points were going to be.”
One of the places Leary was certain the team would shine was at Eldora Speedway.
Heading into the 4-Crown Nationals, he was confident that the team could protect their point lead, but that’s when trouble reared its head.
“When we went to the 4-Crown, I really thought that was going to be one of our high points,” he said. “I get around Eldora really well, so I figured Tyler or me were going to win, and we weren’t going to lose many points. Then I got into it with Chris (Windom) and I hit the wall.
“It bent the center on the wheel and we couldn’t get the wheel off. We actually had a lot of problems from the crash, so it is probably good we didn’t get the tire off. It wouldn’t have made a lap. It was kind of a blessing in disguise. That turned out to be our biggest failure of the year. It was our only DNF, and it was all on me because I crashed. It definitely tightened the points up and made us try harder at the end of the season.”
One half of his prediction proved accurate because, while his team was trying with all their might to get him back in the fray, Courtney was streaking to his fourth straight win at the Big E. Even with this setback, C.J.’s lead was relatively unchanged.
However, Leary and his chief mechanic knew full well that Courtney was not about to give up.
“I have a lot of respect for Tyler Courtney,” Davey Jones said with a laugh. “I saw his left rear pick up all year long. The kid is a gunfighter, and in my opinion Rizzy (Tyler Ransbottom) is the best mechanic in USAC.”
With a few dates left close to home and a long trip west looming, the team knew this was no time to let their guard down.
With the final USAC race in Indiana falling to rain, all participants had nearly a month rest before hitting the road once more. The homestretch involved two big events: the Oval Nationals at Perris, California and the Western World Championship at Arizona Speedway.
As the final laps wound down at Perris the irony was thick. This was the spot where Leary, while frustrated, engaged in a casual conversation with Andy Reinbold in 2018. That was a race that he felt got away from him.
Now, with a chance to put a stranglehold on the title, he was climbing to the top spot on the podium in one of the premier races of the year.
“I let C.J. down,” Davey Jones noted. “Because about seven times a year I can get a car perfect. I might not have done that, but I can usually get a car pretty good. But the one time I did get it really good was the Oval Nationals.”
It was a big win in so many ways, and Leary noted that it lifted the spirits of the entire team heading into the final weekend.
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