By Richie Murray
Haubstadt, Indiana………Kevin Thomas, Jr. has a lot going for him right now. He’s established rides for every race on the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car, NOS Energy Drink National Midget and Silver Crown schedules. He’s also riding a wave of momentum earned last weekend, triumphing with one of the most stirring final laps we’ve seen in recent times.
Least we mention that he has a track in Tri-State Speedway on his forecast this Saturday night, April 13, in which he owns five USAC National Sprint Car victories since 2013, plus three out of the last four since 2017, and has an opportunity to become the winningest USAC National Sprint Car driver in the track’s history.
More often than not, Thomas seems to find himself in the mix up front at Tri-State in Haubstadt, Ind. On two occasions in 2017, the Cullman, Ala. native was involved in last lap battles on the quarter-mile paperclip – one of which went his way and one that did not.
In last year’s “Spring Showdown,” the wave went KTJ’s way once again as he surged to the lead through the tight crevice between the outside wall and C.J. Leary’s right-side wheels exiting turn four with four laps remaining to win the “Spring Showdown,” co-sanctioned by the Midwest Sprint Car Series.
This place can be a tricky joint. So many things can occur in the snap of a finger. You have to be on your toes, yet you have to keep your cool to put yourself in a position to win, which Thomas has been a natural at.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to do, but you have to be as patient as possible here,” Thomas admitted following his victory last Spring at Tri-State. “Even right there at the beginning, I fell back a little bit. You get to racing with others, you fall back and you’re not on the aggressive side. I just started picking them off; (Justin) Grant and I had a good race midway through the feature. We’re sliding each other back and forth and that’s fun, but whenever you’re doing that, people are steadily driving away. Once we got cleared, we kind of had the seas part for us.”
Kody Swanson (12 laps) and C.J. Leary (14) controlled much of the race at the point, and at the halfway mark, Thomas was the beneficiary of contact between Swanson and Dave Darland while battling for second that allowed Thomas to capitalize into the runner-up spot for the time being.
“When Dave and Kody got together, they split wide open and we went through both of them and got to second,” Thomas recalled. “Lapped traffic is a key here too. You can’t miss a step. As soon as the leader gets clear, he’s going to pick up the pace quite a bit. If you’re stuck three or four cars back, you can end up about a straightaway behind. You have to watch yourself really closely there and you have to make stuff happen. Once we got to second, I had to be the aggressor. Running second for a while tonight allowed me to move around a little bit. Tonight was one of those nights when running second was better.”
Leary was indeed clear with the lead on the restart with 12 laps remaining. With an open track ahead and lapped cars separating he and second-running Thomas, the advantage was all his. Yet, Thomas made quick work, clearing the traffic, but still remained a second-and-a-half back from Leary.
Following a Donny Brackett back straightway spin with six laps remaining, Thomas threw a series of curveballs, sliders and spitballs at Leary to no avail as Leary clung to the spot by the quick of his nails until Aric Gentry’s car went up in a ball of flame and smoke to bring out the final yellow with four laps to go, forcing one final restart. Thomas acted a student on the previous restart, taking notes for the final exam he would have one more opportunity to ace on the lap 27 restart.
“I was watching C.J. in front of me, seeing where I could gain ground and where I couldn’t,” Thomas said. “I could gain ground in (turns) one and two and I’d lose it all in (turns) three and four. We were pretty tight, so I just couldn’t figure out how to get through three and four without the nose pushing a little bit. I just spent a few laps working on my line in that corner, and then once I figured it out, luckily, we had a caution.”
With Leary maintaining his midline route, Thomas stuck his car on the high-line and, at the exit of turn four, emerged with the lead, squeaking by Leary without much room to spare on either side. Thomas would pull away in the final laps to win his first race for the famed Hoffman team by just a tick under a full second over Leary, Seavey, Darland and Grant.
Time and time again, KTJ has shown his power at the quarter-mile paperclip, thus beginning what very well could become the new dominant era at the track. We’ve seen it before with the likes of Daron Clayton and before that, Cory Kruseman and Rick Hood. With one more win Saturday, KTJ would become the winningest USAC Sprint Car driver at Tri-State, putting him in a territory of his own doing as an all-time great at Tri-State.
The “Spring Showdown” begins this Saturday featuring USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship (co-sanctioned by the Midwest Sprint Car Series) and Modifieds.
The pits open at 3:30pm Central with grandstands open at 4:30pm, the drivers meeting at 5:30pm and cars on track at 6pm.
Adult general admission tickets are $25 apiece with students (age 13-18) $20 and children 12 & Under FREE!
The “Spring Showdown” can be watched LIVE on http://www.FloRacing.com/.