PERRIS, Calif. — Making his eighth start in the Budweiser Oval Nationals, C.J. Leary led the final 24 laps to win the 24th annual event for the AMSOIL USAC National Sprint Car Series Saturday night at Perris Auto Speedway.
It was a much-needed win for the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship point leader and the crew of the Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports/AME Electrical – Mesilla Valley Transportation/Spike/Foxco Chevy in a myriad of ways.
It had been nearly nine months and 29 races since his most recent USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory. Ironically, Leary’s first win of the season came in the third race of the year in Ocala, Fla. Saturday’s victory at Perris came in the third race from the conclusion of the series campaign.
Secondly, it provided a boon to a team in the midst of a close championship battle where every position means everything. Leary took care of that, earning max points with the win and gained 12 points on second-place Tyler Courtney in the title pursuit, 44 up, with two races remaining on the docket.
“Man, this is awesome,” Leary exclaimed. “This race, I feel like, has escaped me three or four times in the past. I got the 360 Oval Nationals deal done a long time ago, but this definitely takes the cake. The white eagle is my favorite trophy to win.”
Leary captured victory in the six lap, six-car Super Six dash to claim the pole position for the 40-lap main event. However, outside front row occupant Chase Stockon ripped the top of turns one and two to take the lead on the opening circuit where he’d remain for the first 16 trips around the half-mile until Leary utilized a drive off the bottom of turn two to grab the lead from Stockon on lap 17.
Leary opened up a three-car-length advantage over Stockon who was now involved in a tussle for second with Courtney, Brady Bacon and Chris Windom all under a proverbial blanket. Courtney dipped into turn three underneath Stockon to gain the second spot on the 23rd go-around and set forth toward Leary.
Leary and Courtney, who swapped the lead between them four times in last year’s Oval Nationals final night feature, resumed their wrestling match in traffic for the top spot.
On the 26th lap, Courtney almost parked it as he closed abruptly on Leary’s tail tank at the entrance of turn three. Courtney slid sideways above the cushion, losing second and third in the ensuing two laps to Stockon, then Bacon.
Thursday and Friday Perris winner Bacon was suddenly the man on the move as he began to track down Stockon for the second position until lap 29 when, unrelatedly, Max Adams came to a stop in turn two, necessitating a yellow flag.
As Stockon slowed for the yellow, the trailing Bacon ramped over Stockon’s left rear wheel and slid backwards to a stop without making wall contact. However, his bid for an Oval Nationals sweep was denied.
Down the stretch, several cautions wreaked havoc on Leary’s flow with a flat right rear on teammate Logan Seavey’s ride on lap 31, an Austin Liggett turn four flip on the 35th lap, a Justin Grant turn four spin on lap 37 and a debris caution for the exodus of bodywork on the nose of Damion Gardner’s silver bullet.
However, each time a stoppage occurred, Leary was superb on the restart, jaunting out to a three to four-car-length advantage each time, which no other seemed to have an answer for.
Chris Windom had worked his way underneath Stockon on the 33rd lap to get into contention with Leary, yet had to contend with preserving his second spot from the onslaught of attacks from both Stockon and Gardner in the waning laps, which went all to Leary’s benefit as he closed out his ninth career series victory with a 1.624-second interval over Windom, Gardner, Stockon and Courtney.
“I never really thought we would’ve just run the bottom the whole time, but figured we’d make the switch to the top and I just kept pulling away. Davey was giving some good hand signals from the trailer,” Leary recalled. “He and I put a lot of time into these racecars and to come out here and win this one is (sweet).”
Windom finished second.
“We’re definitely happy, but it’s a little frustrating,” Windom admitted. “I feel like we run second or third every year and have some sort of issue that puts us starting in the fourth or fifth row. Overall, we’ve overcame a lot in the last 24 hours. Everybody on this team has done a phenomenal job all weekend to get us here.”
Three-time Oval Nationals victor Damion Gardner came away with a third-place run, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes on Saturday night of the event to 11 years.
“It’s points, it’s winning the Oval Nationals, all the cautions and running out of fuel is always a concern, then the hood blew off. I was really worried that would be the two laps I needed to finish the race,” Gardner said. “Last year, we literally sputtered to the checkered and that was a lot of drama there, so I was worried about that.”
To see full results, turn to the next page.