Montpelier, Indiana………C.J. Leary was content to run third late in Friday’s USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature at Montpelier Motor Speedway. However, after a late-race red flag, Leary’s newfound spirit saw him split between both Chris Windom and Kevin Thomas, Jr. on the back straightaway on the final lap to emerge with his second consecutive series victory and equaling a series-best with his fifth win of the year.
“We just fell in line and started riding at the beginning,” Leary recalls. “I didn’t really feel like we had that great of a racecar. We had some yellows and adjusted on the shocks a little bit. Once the track slicked up, we picked off a car, then another car. I was content with third, but then the red came out on the last lap. I thought we’d have a chance to win because I knew KT and Windom were going to go at it pretty hard.”
Leary began the race from the third position, but would run in the fifth or sixth spot throughout the majority of the 30-lapper as Windom captured the early race lead from the outside of the front row. However, a pair of red flags in the first half would stifle the action on multiple occasions.
On lap seven, Cooper Clouse broadsided the stopped car of Jarett Andretti before tipping over on his side. One lap following the restart, a similar-looking incident occurred on the opposite end of the racetrack with a different set of players. Jon Stanbrough spun sideways between turns one and two as series point leader Justin Grant plowed into the left side of Stanbrough and flipped over. The incident proved damaging to Grant’s championship hopes with his lead shrinking from 77 to 35 over Windom by night’s end.
When racing resumed, Dave Darland was the man on the move in his first ride of the season in Gene Goodnight’s No. 39G. After working and working on Windom for the position, Darland edged ahead on the outside to lead both laps 14 and 15. On the 16th lap, Windom held serve by sliding up off four in front of Darland to secure the lead.
Meanwhile, that brief side-by-side battle allowed Thomas to enter the fray and, by lap 19, he slid by Darland entering turn four, as Darland snagged the cushion, to secure second and immediately began to chase down Windom as lap traffic loomed.
After dodging a Kyle Robbins spin right in front of the leaders with three laps remaining, lap traffic would be cast to the background, although the surging Shane Cottle and C.J. Leary would soon be cast with lead roles on the quarter-mile stage.
Cottle, running fourth, applied pressure to Darland for third on the restart and, on lap 28, made a move to the inside of Darland for the position entering the bottom of turn three. With minimal room to spare, the two made slight contact, sending Cottle sliding sideways to a halt in the middle of turn three. With no place to go, Chad Boespflug made heavy contact with the sitting duck that was Cottle. Boespflug immediately ran over to check on Cottle following the crash, but both walked away from the scene albeit with a pair of battered racecars.
On the lap 28 restart, Windom stayed true on the bottom as Thomas worked the high side. Coming to the white flag, Windom slipped off the bottom between turns three and four, drifting to no man’s land in the middle while Thomas used a monster run off four to snare the lead and appeared to lock it up and bury the key as he took over the low line from Windom heading into one.
“It’s just one of those wait-and-be-patient deals,” Thomas explained. “I knew I was faster through turns three and four. He didn’t know the top was there. He’d been leading where he’d been running the entire race. I was trying to run the top in turns one and two and it was getting a little dusty. Then we started wearing the bottom out, but it was still just a little bit better. Once we had the caution with three to go, I decided to follow him into one and two. That’s where I was losing ground and tried to get him in three and four.”
Windom took one last shot at Thomas into three, but wasn’t close enough to pull off a slider as Thomas headed for a surefire victory. However, with victory cradled in both arms coming off four, the red flag was displayed when Robbins got upside down in turn two. Clouse was also involved, but both were uninjured.
By rule, that set up a green-white-checker finish with a top-three running order of Thomas, Windom and Leary. Leary appeared to be the wild card of the bunch, yet just prior to the red, Leary hung right with the lead pack and it seemed as if one slip up by the front two could put him in just the right position at the right time.
“Our car got really good at the end,” Leary explained. “My guys were watching Race-Monitor and said our times were getting faster and faster at the end while theirs stayed the same or slowed down a little bit.”
Thomas led the green-white-checker finish by tip-toeing around the infield tires as he directed the field to the green flag. Thomas and Windom clung to the bottom while Leary was the lone bandit up top. Thomas held a four car-length advantage over Windom as the two raced off the second turn. Windom dove to the bottom of Thomas in three, successfully completing the slide job to lead lap 29 at the line by a single car-length.
Simultaneously, Leary had pulled even with Thomas on the outside in second at the flag stand. Windom missed the bottom in turn one, allowing Thomas to squeeze underneath to take the lead as Leary raced around the outside of Windom off turn two. Thomas drifted up to the top of the back straight in front of Leary as Windom surged back to pull side-by-side with Thomas just as Leary moved to the inside of Thomas.
Midway down the back straightaway, Windom, Leary and Thomas were three-wide for the lead. Emerging through the middle with the lead into three was the third-place car of Leary who dove to the bottom of turn three with a full head of steam before sliding back up to the top to score the improbable win as Windom slid past Thomas for second on the final corner. Darland and Robert Ballou rounded out the top-five.
Whether it was lap 1, 15 or 30, Leary admits that, provided the same opportunity, he would take advantage of the chance he saw to win Friday night. As he quipped, if you quit taking those chances when opportunity arises, you’re no longer a racecar driver.
“Coming off turn two, KT came from the bottom all the way to the top,” Leary remembered. “I turned it down and I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to drag race by him back across the line, but he wasn’t even there. When I slid myself, I just banged off the curb and was able to get off the corner really good. I was so worried about banging the cushion because it was so big off turn four.”
It marked Leary’s first win with this particular DRC/1-Way Chevy combination in his Leary Racing/Leary Construction – Highsmith Guns-sponsored No. 30. It was intended to be the team’s primary car for 2017, but Leary admits that he just didn’t feel all that fast with it after competing the first half of the season in it.
Despite everything clicking right now for the team from top to bottom, the most power comes from the confidence beaming from the driver’s seat, which Leary has an abundance of right now.
“My confidence is up for sure,” Leary acknowledges. “We’ve got really fast race cars right now. You put us up front and it’s going to be hard to beat us. This team’s on a roll right now and I don’t see much stopping us at this point.”
Although victory eluded him after leading a race-high 27 laps, Chris Windom of Canton, Illinois made up an enormous amount of ground in the championship race with a second-place run in his Baldwin Brothers Racing/Fox Paving – AMSOIL/DRC/Claxton Mopar. Grant’s misfortune was Windom’s gain as more than half of his deficit was erased Friday night with now just seven races remaining.
Cullman, Alabama’s Kevin Thomas, Jr. seemingly had the winner’s check signed, sealed and delivered to him as he headed for victory on the final lap, but misfortune befell him once again after a magnificent late-race charge. However, the driver of the KT Motorsports/Jeff’s Jam-It-In Storage – Abreu Vineyards/DRC/Speedway Chevy had to settle for third after leading with just half a lap to go.
“I didn’t know if it was Leary or Darland behind me,” Thomas admitted. “When I restarted behind Windom, I saw somebody up there. I figured it was Dave. I didn’t know it was Leary. Once I got by Windom on the last lap, he missed the bottom a little bit and I got under him down there where the track was a little greasy. That got it a little tight, a little push-tight. I just let it float and kept my speed up. Obviously, that was the wrong move. I got slid by C.J. and tried to cross him under. I just didn’t have enough grip to get by him on the cross under. I really don’t like losing races, especially on the last lap. It (ticked) me off. I’ll just go faster tomorrow.”
Contingency award winners Friday night at Montpelier Motor Speedway included Dave Darland (ProSource Fast Qualifier), Robert Ballou (Simpson Race Products Heat 1 Winner), Chad Boespflug (Competition Suspension, Inc. Heat 2 Winner), Justin Grant (Chalk Stix Heat 3 Winner), Colten Cottle (Indy Race Parts Heat 4 Winner & KSE Racing Products/The Lightle Family in Honor of Bryan Clauson Hard Charger Award) and Isaac Chapple (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).