By Richie Murray
Speedway, Indiana (October 14, 2020)………Throughout the 50-year history of the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series, the championship race has been good to the last drop, with a driver taking over the point lead during the final race.
It’s happened on 13 occasions entering this Sunday afternoon’s Bettenhausen 100 presented by Fatheadz Eyewear at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield on October 18, where a total of 12 drivers remain mathematically eligible to capture the season’s title.
In those 13 previous occurrences, trouble might’ve befallen the point leader to knock him out of the point lead in the finale, or a close point race that could’ve swung one way or another wound up going to a driver who saved their best performance for last. And on two different occasions, a driver has come from all the way back in third in the standings to win the championship during the final race of the year – Mike Bliss (1993) and Tony Stewart (1995).
A spread of just 63 points lies between championship leader Justin Grant and 10th place Bryan Gossel. Grant’s 22-point margin leads Kody Swanson by 22 points, followed by Kyle Robbins and Matt Goodnight (-32), Chris Windom (-33.), Shane Cottle (-36), Aaron Pierce (-48), Mike Haggenbottom (-50) and Gossel (-63).
With a point race this close, anything is within the realm of possibility. However, it should be noted that the point leader entering the final Silver Crown race has won the championship in 36 of the past 49 seasons. With that said, let’s explore those past instances when a come-from-behind championship run has occurred in the Silver Crown season finale.
In 2016, Chris Windom overcame a 10-point deficit by dominating all 50 laps of the season-ender at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. A third-place or better finish would’ve resulted in a championship season for Kody Swanson, but while running 2nd early on, was caught up in an accident while negotiating lapped traffic. Swanson returned with a damaged racecar, and remarkably, came back to finish 5th in the feature, 10 points behind Windom.
The 2010 finale at Ohio’s Toledo Speedway saw the championship battle turn on lap 124 of 150 when Bud Kaeding, running ahead of Levi Jones and headed for the title, was involved in a three-car tangle on the backstretch. He was able to continue but needed to pass Jones to claim the championship. Jones finished one position ahead of Bud Kaeding in 7th to win the title by a mere two points, equaling the closest margin between first and second in the history of the Silver Crown series (1993 & 1995).
Tracy Hines overhauled Dave Darland for the series championship in 2000 at Tennessee’s Memphis Motorsports Park season finale, finishing second in the race and ending with a 29-point margin in the standings. Darland ran outside of the top-10 for most of the race and spun out on the white flag lap, finishing 15th. Darland had led Hines by five entering the last race.
Trailing Brian Tyler in the points coming into the final event of the 1998 season at Gateway International Raceway in Illinois was Jason Leffler, down by 14 entering the finale. Leffler knew he would need a solid finish and some help. He got both. Leffler finished the Gateway race a solid fourth while Tyler suffered from brake problems all day and came home 16th, losing the championship to Leffler by only 16 points.
After the final race of the 1996 season, Jimmy Sills didn’t know he’d won the championship until after he pulled into victory lane. Sills’ unexpected Silver Crown championship came after trailing Irwin by 138 entering the Del Mar (Calif.) Fairgrounds. Needing only a sixth-place finish to clinch the championship, Irwin had the title in the bag, running fourth on the last lap when a tire blew, and he slid into the outside wall in the fourth and final turn. Sills won the race while Irwin was relegated back to 11th at the checkered, and 42 points behind Sills.
Entering the 1995 finale at Sacramento, California’s Cal Expo State Fairgrounds, Dave Darland led by Jack Hewitt by eight points, and each needed only a top-seven finish to eliminate Tony Stewart, 155 points behind, from contention. Stewart needed a second-place finish or better and DNFs by Darland and Hewitt for any chance at the crown. Darland was the first out of the race, an oil fire putting him on the sidelines only 11 laps into the contest. Hewitt slid wide and hit the outside wall on lap 33, ending his night, leaving Stewart to chase winner Donnie Beechler to the checkered flag. The finish gave Stewart a two-point victory over Darland, with Hewitt third in the final ranking.
Trailing the championship points by 58, Mike Bliss finished fourth in the 100-mile Silver Crown finale of 1993 at Cal Expo, while pole sitter Ron Shuman, who made a pit stop for a tire on lap 79 of 100, ended up seventh. Shuman had run ahead of Bliss, and second to Jimmy Sills, for the first 68 laps of the race before the pit stop in which the wing nut jammed. Bliss won the title by just two points over Shuman.
In 1992, Steve Butler finished the season with a seven-point margin of victory, the closest in the history of the series to that point. Butler entered Eldora down by seven to Swindell and promptly won the pole for the 50-lap race. After a post-qualifying rain out that delayed the program, Butler proceeded to lead the first seven laps when racing resumed the following week. Swindell passed Butler for the lead on lap 8 and led the next 20. Butler went back to the lead after Johnny Parsons’ wall contact with 10 laps to go. Swindell was running third with four laps remaining, which would have been good enough for the championship, but in the final four laps, Tray House and Tony Stewart got by and sealed his doom.
In the last race of 1982, Ken Schrader’s own mount suffered engine problems, forcing him to borrow Sheldon Kinser’s regular ride for the night, then came from the last row to finish fourth and sew up his first ever USAC championship. Ron Shuman led the drivers’ points by 19 over Schrader going into the Nazareth, Pa. show, but a broken shock ended Shuman’s title hopes. Shuman ended up third in the final standings after finishing 12th in the race. Mark Alderson finished in the runner-up spot in the final standings, 74 behind Schrader.
Entering Eldora in 1981, an accident in the Hut Hundred Midget race at Terre Haute took Rich Vogler out for the balance of the year. Vogler had led the points by 17 markers entering the final round at Eldora, but with him on the sidelines, the title race was down to Larry Rice and Jack Hewitt. Hewitt finished fourth, but Rice was two better, finishing second, and the 40 points he scored were more than enough to vault him past the injured Vogler.
Bobby Olivero captured the 1979 championship in grand style, coming from 27 points behind to win the title and the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds all in one-fell swoop after starting all the way back in 17th, then ducking beneath Billy Engelhart going down the backstretch with only three-and-a-half laps remaining to win the race. Only 43 points shy of Olivero’s 403 total was Engelhart with Pancho Carter third and Vukovich fourth, who failed to finish at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and slipped from second to fourth in the final standings.
Consistency did the job for Billy Cassella in 1976 after trailing by 30 points to Johnny Parsons going into the final event at Syracuse, N.Y. No less than 12 other drivers had a mathematical chance of tying Parsons’ total. Cassella emerged as the champion after finishing fourth in the season finale at Syracuse to clinch the title, coming from behind to overtake point leader Parsons, whose 10th place finish was just 60 points short of Cassella’s final total.
In 1973, Al Unser, dominated the season-ending Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, winning the race for an unprecedented fourth consecutive time. However, Al’s victory also enabled him to snare the 1973 USAC Dirt Track Championship away from Viceroy teammate Mario Andretti by 60 points. Mario came into the final race with a 140-point lead and an unblemished record, having won at both Springfield and Du Quoin. But he burned a piston during early morning practice and was forced to start the race on only seven cylinders. He dropped back drastically at the start from his seventh starting spot and retired from the race on lap 33. Two laps earlier, Al had lapped him.
On Sunday, grandstand ticket sales will be limited to 20% capacity in order to promote a safe atmosphere and allow for proper social distancing. In addition, face coverings will be required, temperatures will be checked upon arrival, and multiple handwashing and sanitizing stations will be placed throughout the venue.
The Sunday, October 18 Bettenhausen 100 presented by Fatheadz Eyewear will feature the USAC Silver Crown Series in the 57th edition of the event. Grandstand capacity is set at 20% and tickets are available online at www.trackenterprises.com or by calling the Track Enterprises office at 217-764-3200. The advance sale tickets will also save fans a couple of bucks compared to purchasing them at the event.
Pit gates will open at 8am Central, grandstands and ticket office at 11am, practice at Noon, qualifying at 1:15pm, the last chance race at 2:15pm and the 57th running of the Bettenhausen 100 presented by Fatheadz Eyewear will take the green at 3pm. All times listed are central.
For more information or to order tickets, visit www.trackenterprises.com or call 217-764-3200.
The Bettenhausen 100 can also be watched LIVE on FloRacing at https://bit.ly/2Zs7zFP.
CHAMPIONS WHO TOOK OVER THE POINT LEAD IN THE FINAL USAC SILVER CROWN RACE OF THE SEASON: (1971-2019)
Entering Finale: Chris Windom trailed by 10 to Kody Swanson.
Result: Chris Windom won championship by 5 over Kody Swanson.
Entering Finale: Levi Jones trailed by 1 to Bud Kaeding.
Result: Levi Jones won by 2 over Bud Kaeding.
Entering Finale: Tracy Hines trailed by 5 to Dave Darland.
Result: Tracy Hines won by 29 over Dave Darland.
Entering Finale: Jason Leffler trailed by 14 to Brian Tyler.
Result: Jason Leffler won by 16 over Brian Tyler.
Entering Finale: Jimmy Sills trailed by 138 to Kenny Irwin Jr.
Result: Jimmy Sills won by 42 over Kenny Irwin Jr.
Entering Finale: Tony Stewart trailed by 155 to Dave Darland.
Result: Tony Stewart won by 2 over Dave Darland.
Entering Finale: Mike Bliss trailed by 58 to Ron Shuman.
Result: Mike Bliss won by 2 over Ron Shuman.
Entering Finale: Steve Butler trailed by 18 to Jeff Swindell.
Result: Steve Butler won by 7 over Jeff Swindell.
Entering Finale: Ken Schrader trailed by 19 to Ron Shuman.
Result: Ken Schrader won by 74 over Mark Alderson & by 91 over Ron Shuman.
Entering Finale: Larry Rice trailed by 17 to Rich Vogler.
Result: Larry Rice won by 23 over Rich Vogler.
Entering Finale: Bobby Olivero trailed by 27 to Billy Vukovich.
Result: Bobby Olivero won by 43 over Billy Engelhart. Billy Vukovich finished 4th by 169.
Entering Finale: Billy Cassella trailed by 30 to Johnny Parsons.
Result: Billy Cassella won by 60 over Johnny Parsons.
Entering Finale: Al Unser trailed by 140 to Mario Andretti.
Result: Al Unser wins by 60 over Mario Andretti.