Gas City, Indiana………’Once you win one, the floodgates will open and you’ll begin to win a bunch of them.”
That’s the sentiment C.J. Leary had heard time and time again over the past few seasons, much to his chagrin, as he came within a whisker of breaking through on several occasions.
“I’ve heard it my whole career,” Leary admits. ‘Once you get the monkey off your back, the wins will come easier.’ I didn’t believe them. It took me 140 starts to get my first USAC National Sprint Car victory and it took me 28 to get the second one.”
But, it only took one more start to go from win number two to USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car victory number three on the third Monday night event in Indiana Sprint Week history, blitzing around the outside of Robert Ballou with five laps remaining to win round three of Indiana Sprint Week presented by Camping World at Gas City I-69 Speedway.
Leary, Sunday’s Lawrenceburg winner, became the first driver to win consecutive Indiana Sprint Week features since Bryan Clauson in 2013. Leary’s seen fire and he’s seen rain, but one or the other would have to win over the other on this night.
Lately, the fire has been Leary who has been en fuego since the beginning of ISW while the rain has been, well, it’s usual self lately. Monday night’s makeup was originally intended as the opener prior to being washed away by the elements last Friday. Yet, on this night, each driver was competing in a pair of races: the 30-lap main event and a race versus Mother Nature that saw the program proceed at a rapid pace with a checkered flag that dropped before nightfall, 8:50pm local time to be precise.
Leary began the race from the outside of the front row, yet, early on, an encore performance from the night before did not appear to be in the cards as he dropped from the front row to fifth on the opening lap. But the 21-year-old second generation driver dug into the high side and went to work as Shane Cottle zipped away on the bottom to lead the opening pair of laps.
On the third circuit, Kokomo winner Thomas Meseraull ripped the top around the outside of Cottle to claim the lead exiting turn four. Robert Ballou followed suit, making the same maneuver to get to the runner-up spot off the second turn. Like he did two nights earlier, Meseraull hurried to the front and appeared to be in total control as he built a more than one-second lead ten laps in.
By halfway, the frontrunners had entered traffic where Meseraull leaned on the cush and Ballou tip-toed around the infield tires. The track’s equilibrium was in perfect balance with the top and bottom proving perfectly equal as Meseraull’s and Ballou’s machines rode in unison as if they were bolted down to a carnival carousel on laps 19, 20 and 21. Neither had budged an inch in either direction as the two shadowed one another with Meseraull leading each time at the stripe by a slim margin.
The action would come to a halt with 10 laps remaining as Ryan Bernal’s mount nosed into the outside turn four guardrail with 10 laps remaining, necessitating a yellow and a lap 21 restart with Meseraull at the head of the class and a surging Robert Ballou right on his rear bumper.
However, under caution, third-running Leary made a key adjustment that would ultimately pay large dividends.
“This thing was digging hard on the top,” Leary explains. We were just kind of riding along. I didn’t think we were going to have anything for them at the end really, but when the yellow came out, we adjusted on the shocks after starting off kind of tight. The car finally came to us. We adjusted from there and became a lot better.”
Still mired in third, Leary would still have to find a way around superstar veterans Meseraull and Ballou on the restart, a tall task to ask from anybody. Leary’s first domino fell when Meseraull drifted high at the exit of turn two, falling off the shelf and over the cushion, dropping him out of the lead as Ballou slipped by on the bottom for the lead and Leary was there to strike as well, taking advantage of the fortuitous occurrence to grab second.
Ballou firmly planted his talons on the bottom while Leary took ownership of the top lane, the only place he felt he needed to be down the stretch.
“It was treacherous around the top,” Leary detailed. “I had to hit my marks, but I really had to run it hard to keep the rest of the field behind us. I think I might’ve stumbled a little bit on the top a time or two, but it was so easy to make a mistake and not get the run down the straightaway that we needed. On the bottom, you could tiptoe around the tires and you could get a pretty good spurt off. But, the longer the race went on, the slicker the bottom got. The top pretty much stayed the same.”
Leary took the long way around, but little-by-little, it began to pay off as he shrunk Ballou’s lead down to a sliver and eventually grabbed the top spot with five to go. Meanwhile, Chris Windom had entered the fray and was able to limbo past Ballou between turns one and two with just four to go. It was a rubber match as the two made contact on exit with Windom’s right rear and Ballou’s left front meeting face-to-face. Ballou’s front wheels took a hop as he lost momentum and fell to a distant third momentarily. Windom then used a big drive on the bottom to surge underneath Leary off of four to take the lead at the line.
However, before the completion of the lap, Hunter Schuerenberg and Tyler Thomas made contact back in the pack, sending Thomas into a 360 spin. Though he managed to keep it rolling, by rule, the spin required a yellow, which meant the lineup would revert to the most-recently scored lap, relegating Windom all the way back to third for the restart behind Leary and Ballou.
Ballou wasn’t keen on letting Leary slip away down the final stretch, keeping tabs on the black 30 and getting a drive off the bottom to come within inches of leading the 27th lap despite clipping one of the infield tires exiting four that briefly lifted his front wheels.
Ballou kept at it, though, and was able to take a two car-length advantage over Leary into turn three on lap 28. However, once again, the infield tires proved a nemesis for “The Madman” as Ballou clipped the same tire with the left front, forcing him sideways and his wheels pointing toward the sky. When he came back to the earth on all fours, he clipped a second tire at the exit of four, slowing him down just enough to allow the unfettered Leary to break free by five car-lengths, an advantage he would not surrender in the final two laps to win for the second night in a row aboard the family-owned Leary Racing/Leary Construction – Highsmith Guns/DRC/1-Way Chevy over Ballou, Windom, Chad Boespflug and Brady Bacon.
When It rains, it pours, figuratively speaking, of course. As the race against the rain was defeated, Leary’s confidence is at an all-time high right now after changes in personnel as well as bits and pieces on the car prior to Indiana Sprint Week where he now holds a 13-point lead in the series with four races remaining, picking back up at the Terre Haute Action Track Wednesday following a day off Tuesday.
“(The changes) are really paying off,” Leary said. “My confidence is up and I think it kind of showed tonight. We got her qualified up-front at a track that’s not really one of my better tracks. Last night, people could’ve said it was my best racetrack and blah, blah, blah, but not tonight. To go back-to-back in Indiana Sprint Week is unreal. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I really wish we were racing tomorrow. We got the roll going and I don’t want to stop now.”
“We’re going to take it night-by-night and we’re not going to start counting the points until the end,” Leary added. “We can pat ourselves on the back for a little bit Tuesday on our day off, then get prepared for the final four nights and we’ll see where we end up.”
Rocklin, California’s Robert Ballou led five laps on his way to a runner-up result in his Robert Ballou Motorsports/Deaton’s Waterfront Services – Lucas Oil/Don Ott-powered Twister-X chassis, a car that Ballou estimates is around 15 years old, but still gets the job done.
“Unfortunately, if you can’t find your comfort level, you’ve got to try something else,” Ballou explains. “I put these Twister-X cars together from Jimmy Crawford who sent them out here from California. We’re just trying to get things back in line with some old cars. I’ve ran this car before. They’re good cars and I’m comfortable in them. We pulled a car out the first night at Kokomo on Saturday and you just can’t pull a car out and expect to pick back up where you left off. It’s been years since we’ve run it. But I knew if we could put it together in time, it would be good and it’s been pretty good so far.”
On a wild lap scramble for position at the front with four laps to go, Ballou dropped from first to third in one sequence. But a yellow flag fell in his favor moments later, serving as his saving grace and placed him back in position with an opportunity to win on the final restart.
“I got lucky. I got lucky,” Ballou reiterated. “A lot of times things fall in your favor and a lot of times they don’t fall in your favor. Tonight was one that fell in my favor. When the track is slick and you have to drive it off the right front, rotate around the tires and get off the corner, that’s not Robert Ballou. We were a tick off all night. I couldn’t get the thing stuck on the right rear the way I wanted to and to where I feel comfortable. I couldn’t hit my marks as good as I wanted. It got so narrow and tedious that I’d lose the right rear, then I’d have to wait on it. I was holding everybody up, let’s be honest. But it’s racing and C.J. found a way around me.”
“Hats off to the O’Connors,” Ballou praised the family operating the track. “Everything was against them weather-wise, so I have to commend them for taking on the task and doing what they did. But we missed the setup a little bit. We’re inching closer and closer every night. I still feel a little rusty and I feel I haven’t quite caught my stride yet. We’re getting closer and we’re getting the racecar more comfortable. If I’m not comfortable, it’s kind of like what Donny Schatz says along the lines of ‘if the driver isn’t comfortable, it’s over with.’ I just haven’t found that perfect comfort level yet that makes me fast every night. We’re almost there at certain tracks and I believe the rest of this week should show that.”
Chris Windom had an ignition box fall by the wayside prior to his heat race, forcing him to go through the semi to earn a spot in the feature lineup. Windom recovered with a solid third-place run, though it came with a bit of heartache after being caught out by a yellow after taking the lead with four laps remaining. There are no days off for Windom to lick his wounds as he has a test scheduled Tuesday to prepare for his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut July 19 at Eldora Speedway before returning to redemption in the Baldwin Brothers Racing/Fox Paving – AMSOIL/DRC/Claxton Mopar sprinter Wednesday at Terre Haute, a place in which he’s won the two most recent times he’s visited.
“It was pretty frustrating knowing we were the best car and had a caution come out soon as we take the lead,” Windom laments. “It was hard to pass and I knew we were dead in the water after that. I’ve got the easy job of driving the car, so I’m always ready to get back in the seat, but my guys definitely need a day off to regroup for the second half of the week.”
Contingency award winners Monday at Gas City I-69 Speedway include Chase Stockon (ProSource Fast Qualifier), Josh Hodges (Simpson Race Products 1st Heat Winner), Aaron Farney (Competition Suspension, Inc. 2nd Heat Winner), Robert Ballou (Chalk Stix 3rd Heat Winner), Kody Swanson (Indy Race Parts 4th Heat Winner), Tyler Courtney (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Jarett Andretti (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).