BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – The battle for the NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series championship came down to the final lap Tuesday night at Bakersfield Speedway.
Chris Windom, the incoming point leader who started 20th in the 24-car field, charged his way forward to maintain his advantage by a single point over rival Tyler Courtney.
Windom finished sixth after a controversial final lap, with Courtney coming home third.
With only two appearance-point-paying events at Merced (Calif.) Speedway remaining on the table, all Windom has to do is turn a competitive lap in the final pair of races to officially lock up his first USAC National Midget Series championship.
It will also be the first USAC national midget crown for Windom’s team, Tucker/Boat Motorsports, co-owned by former driver Chad Boat and ace mechanic Corey Tucker.
“This is what I’ve worked my whole career for,” Windom said after the race. “The way the race track was tonight, we buried ourselves by not qualifying well. It was so hard to pass in the feature without throwing huge slide jobs on guys, and that’s what I had to do to get to the front and get us back into contention.”
While Windom lined up in the 10th row for the 30-lapper, Courtney rolled off third and the third championship-eligible driver – Tanner Thorson – gridded sixth for the title-decider.
Courtney and Thorson raced inside the top five virtually all night long, while Windom found himself buried in 13th heading into the final restart of the race with 10 to go – after an incident for Thomas Meseraull bunched the field together once more.
At that point, Windom raised the intensity level, climbing from 13th to seventh over the next nine rotations around the third-mile dirt track.
“At that point in time, I don’t know anyone in the pit area is going to sit there and run 11th in the last race of the year, knowing what’s at stake and what everyone has worked for all year,” Windom explained. “I turned it up, and it was so hard to get by guys. Restarts were crucial. You could slide one or two guys in one corner on the restart and you could hold those spots and that’s what I kept doing restart after restart.
“I was trying to see how far Tyler was ahead of us; I saw it was two (spots), it was three, it was four, then back to three, and I just raced as hard as I possibly could until the end.”
Heading into the final lap, Windom sat seventh, while just ahead of him was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – driving a team car to Courtney’s Clauson/Marshall Racing-prepared mount.
A tussle between the two in the last set of corners led to contact, with Stenhouse ultimately spinning around and Windom getting the last spot he needed as a result.
With the yellow lights blinking on at the finish, Stenhouse was relegated from an apparent sixth-place result to the tail of the lead lap in 16th. That also elevated Windom from seventh to sixth place, turning a two-point deficit into a one-point lead in the title tilt.
“I slid Ricky on the white flag lap, and he crossed me over and dove to the bottom,” Windom recalled. “(On the last lap), I was going to the bottom as hard as I could and drove into the back of him and he spun around. I got into him there, but I saw the position, and that was what I needed, one more spot to secure a Triple Crown.
“It was a split-second decision and that’s what happened.”
As long as Windom participates in the two Merced races, he’ll secure a USAC national midget title to go along with past championships in the USAC Silver Crown (2016) and USAC national sprint car (2017) divisions.
That will make him the seventh driver in history to achieve the Triple Crown – winning all three USAC national championships – joining the likes of Pancho Carter, Tony Stewart, Dave Darland, J.J. Yeley, Jerry Coons Jr. and Tracy Hines.
On the flip side of the coin was Courtney, who was seeking to win the USAC national midget championship for the second consecutive year.
He had little to say after the race, utterly disappointed at the final outcome and thinking about what nearly was. This year’s expected one-point margin will equal the closest final outcome in series history, tying the 2008 battle between Cole Whitt and Tracy Hines.
“I think we just came up one spot short, not even a spot, a point. That’s frustrating, and it sucks; it really does,” said a deflated Courtney after his third-place finish.
Thorson finished seventh in Tuesday’s feature and will end up third in points, 31 back of Windom, following Friday and Saturday’s action at Merced.