With one week remaining before one of the highest-profile races in the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series, the field of pre-entries has brought the competition into closer focus. While it’s not the last race of the season for the National Series or the USAC/CRA Series, the 24th-Annual Budweiser Oval Nationals Presented By All Coast Construction is undoubtedly the brightest stage for the final Championship run in both series.
Perris Auto Speedway has hosted the final race of the USAC Sprint Car season five of the last seven years (2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018). Extending the West Coast trip for an additional two races this year, the final USAC Sprint Car weekend of racing (November 15-16) will take place at San Tan Valley’s Arizona Speedway.
C.J. Leary has led the point championship race since early May, yet holds a tight 47-point lead over defending champion Tyler Courtney. Stacked behind the two leaders are three standouts ready to strike if the opportunity presents itself. Kevin Thomas Jr., Justin Grant, and Chris Windom are destined to make things interesting.
The USAC/CRA points battle is equally as tight, with a slim 55-point lead for seven-time series champion Damion Gardener (2005, 2013-2018) over Austin Williams. Lurking just behind is another local favorite, Brody Roa, who is waiting for his chance to upset the standings.
How We See It
With a solid list of 42 drivers pre-entered for the event, we can make some educated guesses based on recent and past history. Here are the stories as we see the event unfolding:
Can The USAC/CRA Drivers Run With The National Series Drivers?
In the past eight-to-ten years, it has been rough for the Southwest drivers when the National series came to town. We’ve seen some of the West Coast drivers migrate to the midwest, and hold their own. Recently, Max Adams and Tye Mihocko made that journey and have done moderately well. When you consider the other National series drivers with extensive Southwest experience (Grant, Seavey, and Hodges), and their accomplishments, it’s clear there is a solid level of racing in the CRA group.
Bud Kaeding and Damion Gardner are both three-time winners of the event, and both are entered into this year’s race. Brody Roa and Austin Williams are in proper equipment with experienced teams for this year’s run. Anyone looking at the CRA drivers as “club racers” will probably be in for a surprise. This may be the West Coast version of the Pennsylvania Posse, and we should probably tag them with the “California Clan” moniker.
Finally, we can’t overlook the subtle influence of Tony Jones on the series. His guidance in running the series is under the radar of most. What we have observed is a race director who is paying attention to the trends of the National Series and is implementing this direction into the CRA. Small things like rules-interpretation differences were eliminated, so everything should run smoothly and be familiar to the regional drivers. Jones has added stability to the group.
To answer the question: Yes, the CRA drivers can compete, and win, in a race with National series drivers.
Will The National Championship Be Determined At The Oval Nationals?
Despite holding the points lead since early in the season, C.J. Leary’s recent history at the Oval Nationals has been spotty. If he finishes decently in the points on the final night, he may go on to win the Championship, but a strong case can be made that the Championship was really determined before the Oval Nationals. If he has a mediocre-to-poor showing at the event, Courtney could put himself in position to win his second National Championship.
Leary probably can’t secure the Championship at Perris, but he can lose it there. In 2015, he finished Eighth in the Oval Nationals final, 22nd in 2016, 21st in 2017, and 15th last year. Leary did win the 360 portion of the 2014 Oval Nationals, so the potential for big things on the Perris clay is there. However, Leary has found himself with a great car owner in Andy Reinbold, and a team that is dedicated to doing well. That could be the difference this year.
Other Stories To Watch
Much like Austin Williams, Richard VanderWeerd tends to show up big for major events at Perris. Don’t be surprised if he sneaks in for a top-five finish. Every year, one driver becomes an instant hero. Frank E. Rogers was that fan-favorite, instant legend last year. People still talk about his interview after he ignored the black-flag and stayed on the track. “I’m Frank, and I don’t care. I was having fun.” Who will be the 2019 Frank Rogers?
Crowd size is becoming a larger concern in the modern “live steaming” era of motorsports coverage. For aging fans, there is no replacement for being at the track. You can talk to the drivers, talk to other fans, or even talk to the promoter and tell them how much they are doing wrong. It is the only sport where you have that kind of access to these people. It is going to be interesting to find out what impact live-streaming has on the sport. This show should prove to be an indicator of what to expect in the future.
It is no mystery that car/team owners are a disappearing breed. With longtime team owners passing away or moving on, there has been a rise in driver/owners. These budget and sportsman racers are often overlooked by many race fans. We’ve seen some of these drivers playing a more significant role this year.
Make sure to appreciate the efforts of these drivers that are also wearing the owner’s hat: Chase Stockon, Jeremy Ellertson, Randy Waitman, Tye Mihocko, Dennis Gile, Chris Bonneau, Mike Martin, Matt McCarthy (family-owned), Cody Williams, Charles Davis Jr., Eddie Tafoya, and Steve Hix.
Here is the current crop of shoestring-budget racers who may not win the race, but will certainly celebrate an important top-ten finish: Verne Sweeney, Austin Liggett, Josh Hodges, Chris Gansen, Tommy Malcolm, Joel Rayborne, and R. J. Johnson.
We’d love to hear your predictions for the Thursday and Friday night preliminaries and the final on Saturday night. Leave your response below. Be sure to watch for our coverage and photo gallery of the event.