From Richie Murray
PERRIS, Calif. (November 16, 2016) — The mountain was high and the valley was low at the beginning of Damion Gardner and the Alexander team’s 2016 USAC/CRA AMSOIL Sprint Car campaign.
The season began with sadness as the team lost its biggest supporter, sponsor Ken Goecke of Scott Sales Company. Just one week later, with heavy hearts, the team soldiered on to compete in the season-opener at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway.
However, trouble ensued from the get-go as the team was unable to run a single lap in competition due to mechanical trouble, putting them behind the eight-ball in their quest for another championship season.
Yet, the season is long and the possibilities large and even a rocky start wasn’t going to deter Concord, California’s Gardner and Alexander from capturing their fourth consecutive title.
The team put their collective minds to work and got the proverbial ball rolling in the following race at Perris. Quick all night and victory was a near certainty on the final lap. However, Gardner was caught and passed by young Josh Hodges off the final corner for his first career win.
Though Gardner and Alexander appeared to be back up to speed, there was still a sense by some that there could be a changing of the guard at the top of the USAC/CRA standings with the aforementioned Hodges as well as the emergence of Richard Vander Weerd, Brody Roa, Jake Swanson and Austin Williams.
Gardner quickly made up ground, however, reeling off finishes of 4th, 5th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd in the ensuing five races. On July 30 at Perris, though, Gardner would suffer another heartbreak, running out of fuel while leading with five laps to go.
As the page on the calendar turned to August, to the surprise of all, “The Demon” was still searching for that first win. Prior to this year’s campaign, the latest Gardner had gone through a season as a full-time USAC/CRA competitor before scoring his first win was mid-April of 2013.
Gardner was pounding on the door of victory lane, but the window of opportunity remained unlocked with the appearance of his personal ATM – Perris Auto Speedway – looming on the schedule once more in late August.
Once again, Gardner was running up front – third, to be exact – on the tenth lap when he was caught up in an incident of his undoing. Gardner restarted from the tail of the 23-car field and proceeded to rip by everybody in the final 20 laps, including Roa with two to go to breakthrough for his first win of 2016 as the series headed into “California Sprint Week” where the flood gates, in a sense, began to open.
Gardner followed a runner-up finish and an 11th place run at Calistoga with two straight victories at Petaluma Speedway and Chico’s Silver Dollar Speedway. Gardner nearly pulled off three in a row in Hanford, but was narrowly beaten on the last lap by Thomas Meseraull. Gardner’s cumulative results were solid enough to clinch his first “California Sprint Week” title.
After “Sprint Week,” Gardner reeled off finishes of 5th, 6th and 4th and added another victory at Perris in October just before the National series came to town for the two-night “Western World Championships” at Arizona Speedway and three-straight nights at the “Oval Nationals” in Perris.
Gardner, a USAC National Sprint Car regular from 2007 to 2012, came up strong against the toughest competition faced all season with fields consisting of the top-runners from both the West Coast and the National scenes.
Gardner rode into the “Oval Nationals” in top form after a pair of runner-up finishes on both nights at Arizona. Perris holds a special place in Gardner’s career. It’s the site of 40 of his 70 career USAC/CRA victories. To put that number into perspective, no other driver in the history of the USAC/CRA series has won more than 37 races total!
Gardner ran a solid 4th on opening nights of the “Ovals,” then slipped back a bit to an 8th place finish on night number two. But, the Saturday night finale would prove to be magical for Gardner as he led all 40 laps on his way to becoming the third three-time “Oval Nationals” winner, joining Dave Darland and Bud Kaeding.
It was the first USAC National win for Gardner since an “Eastern Storm” victory at Pennsylvania’s Port Royal Speedway in 2012. But, biggest of all, it signaled a resurgence of the west coast as Gardner -became the first USAC/CRA regular competitor since Mike Spencer, also in 2012, to win a USAC National race.
It was a year of the emergence of new stars and parity in USAC/CRA. It wasn’t until September when the series finally had its first repeat winner of the season. In total, 14 different drivers took the checkered flag – the most since 2009.
Yet, when all was said and done, it was the familiar silver No. 4 with Damion Gardner and the Alexanders that scaled the mountain once again for the fourth consecutive year – the fifth driving title for Gardner and fifth owner title for the Alexander who also took the championship in 2007 with driver Tony Jones.
At times, the peaks and valleys were tough to tame this year for Gardner and Alexander. A multitude of incidents and gremlins plagued the team for the first half of the season, but nobody should ever count out any team in the month of March during the racing season, especially one the caliber of this combination.
After refusing to show any quit or give in to the pressures and frustration experienced early on, Gardner and Alexander proved why they are successful year-in, year-out. They consistently know how to get the job done and, as a result, their names will forever be etched as 2016 USAC/CRA AMSOIL Sprint Car champions.