Ocala, Florida (February 18, 2023) - There was a point in time earlier this week when winning, let alone even competing, seemed unfathomable for Kyle Cummins and the Rock Steady Racing team.
When Cummins pulled into victory lane on Saturday night after capturing the $10,000 top prize at Bubba Raceway Park’s Winter Dirt Games XIV finale, the Princeton, Ind. racer knew this one was special and how much of a true testament it was to the all-hands-on-deck effort that put this outcome into the realm of possibility.
After blowing an engine on Monday at Volusia Speedway Park, the team sat out Tuesday’s non-points special event race, then grabbed the only other powerplant they had on hand and installed it under the hood for Wednesday’s open practice at Bubba’s. Two laps into the session, their second and final engine took its last gasp.
Seemingly finished for the weekend and with dreams of a potential USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship buried six feet under with the possibility of missing the first three points races altogether, a lifeline from roughly 12 hours away was delivered just in the nick of time.
Insert fellow competitor Chet Williams who was in Texas on Wednesday when he received a call regarding the engine dilemma that the team found themselves in. Williams finished his half-day drive to Indiana, loaded up the engine into the back of a pickup truck, then, with the help of Jay Harrington, immediately made another 12-hour beeline to an Ocala, Florida hotel parking lot where the engine was delivered, promptly plugged into the No. 3R, and ready to race on Thursday where Cummins proceeded to drive the car to a fifth place finish.
Fast forward two nights later to Saturday and there they were, right back at it with Cummins making the winning pass on Brady Bacon with just four laps remaining to score a hard-earned victory, which might be the understatement of the century, in his Rock Steady Racing/Avanti Windows & Doors – Tim Mason ReMax/Mach-1/Kistler Chevy.
This particular engine certainly has a winning pedigree as it was the same one used by Cummins to win multiple features in 2022 and helped him finally break through for his first career Bubba Raceway Park win after previously finishing second twice and third on three occasions.
“We had some motor failures there at the beginning of week and just some weird dumb luck, like stuff that would never happen and breaking stuff that never breaks, and it wasn’t anything on our part,” Cummins recalled. “Chet and Jay got a motor from Indiana, then drove all through the night to get down here, which put a little pressure on me to make sure we performed. Our team just worked and worked and worked and worked to get to this point. We just sat back on Wednesday night thinking, ‘what do we do now?’ We’ve got one of the fastest cars in the pits and we’re just sitting here.”
Cummins’ victory was the 15th of his USAC National Sprint Car career, tying him with Bobby East, Cory Kruseman and Brian Tyler for 39th all-time. In the process, he moved ahead of Billy Cassella, Lee Kunzman, Chase Stockon and Bruce Walkup.
Thursday night’s Ocala feature winner Brady Bacon started from the pole with Cummins along for the ride to the outside of the front row. Bacon held the early upper hand as he slipped out to the early advantage around the 3/8-mile dirt track.
However, the first stoppage of the main event came on lap four when two-time Ocala winner Robert Ballou, running 11th at the time, was knocked out of the race with a broken camshaft. Despite his early retirement from the contest, Ballou’s 16 positions advanced throughout the weekend were still tops among all drivers and earned him an $800 bonus as the Flamingo Sandy/Hughes Racing/Indiana Mafia Winter Dirt Games XIV Passing Master.
On the ensuing restart, defending series champion Justin Grant made headway up into the second position as he drove around the outside of Cummins. Undeterred, Cummins fought his way back by Grant a lap later as the two engaged in a see-saw soiree that consisted of four changes of position between the two in a five-lap span. Grant retook the position briefly on the seventh circuit before Cummins emerged ahead into the runner-up spot once and for all on lap nine.
Cummins managed to pull even with Bacon on lap 11 as the two frontrunners began to work traffic. Bacon escaped by the skin of his teeth as he pulled the wheels up on the high side of turn two in the narrow band between himself, Cummins and the outside wall in order to escape back to the forefront.
Closing in on 10 laps remaining, Bacon’s half-second advantage ballooned to 1.5 sec. as the second and third place cars of Cummins and Leary fought to wrestle a path by the lapped car of Tafoya at the exit of turn two.
Traffic had been the name of the game for the head of the pack throughout much of the second half of the affair. However, with the laps dwindling to just six to go, an even heavier load of traffic occupied the lower line that Bacon had utilized for practically the entire duration to that point.
With four to go, Bacon found himself at a crossroads, whether to stick to the bottom or leave it behind for the top. Bacon chose to ride it high into turn one, and, initially, it paid off as he fired off around the outside to put Daison Pursley a lap down. With that said, turn three was another story as Bacon found himself mired in proverbial quicksand multiple lanes off the bottom, which simultaneously opened a door for Cummins to attack. Cummins took an axe to the door similar to Jack Nicholson in The Shining, seemingly shouting “Here’s Kyle” as he broke through at the exit of turn four to gain the lead on lap 32.
Despite a bevy of traffic to navigate throughout the next four laps, Cummins weaved through it all with relative ease and precision, closing out a masterful run on what was a tumultuous week to prevail at the checkered flag 0.688 sec. ahead of Bacon with Leary third, Grant fourth and Jason McDougal fifth.
For Cummins, not only was it huge to finally get a win at one of his favorite tracks where a win had eluded him since his debut in 2012, he had to beat a front row starting Bacon, which took everything in Cummins’ tank to muster successfully, and he did just that.
“I’m just glad to knock Brady off because normally when he starts on the front row, it’s like ‘oh my gosh,’” Cummins noted. “Brady is basically the best one here. He was better in open traffic than we were, and once we got to traffic, I was messing with shocks and just holding on.”
“(The lapped cars) kind of slowed his pace down just enough,” Bacon continued. “I knew they were kind of dirtying up the top a little bit, and the lap before, I was going to go to the top, then he went to the top, so once I got around him in three and four, I was just buzzing around the top as hard as I could run. I was coming to the bottom, and then I got stuck out there again. Then, I was like, ‘oh, white flag,’ then I thought I better go protect or he’ll just drive right back by me. But everything worked out and it’s nice to start the season out a lot better than how we started the beginning of the week.”
It was almost career win number 48 for Brady Bacon (Broken Arrow, Okla.) who led 31 of the 35 laps en route to a second place finish in his Dynamics, Inc./Tel-Star – Western Flyer Express/Triple X/Rider Chevy. However, he came up just short in his bid to move into sole possession of third place on the all-time USAC National Sprint Car win list. As a consolation, the four-time champion leaves Florida as the series point leader.
“I just saw (Cummins) poking his nose out there and the lapped cars just kept slowing me up,” Bacon explained. “Then it got to where I could hardly get my car loaded to go fast because I was going so slow behind them. I just made the decision (to go to the top) and it was the wrong one at the time when I did it, and he was able to sneak by me. After he did that, then it all kind of fanned out. If I would’ve stayed on the bottom, I might’ve been able to hang on but you’re a sitting duck in that situation and 35 laps leading from the pole is a long time. I don’t know if anybody’s won from the pole here and there’s a reason for that. It’s a tricky place and it’s hard to know where you need to be on the racetrack without having somebody in front of you to judge off.”
It was another solid podium result for C.J. Leary (Greenfield, Ind.) and his BGE Dougherty Motorsports/Altoz – Hornbeck Concrete - Highsmith Guns - Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts/DRC/1-Way Chevy. For the third straight feature race this week, Leary brought home a third place finish, first at Volusia and the latter two in Ocala.
“In a split second, it could change you from taking the lead or running third or fourth,” the seventh place starting Leary described of the race. “I felt like our car was really good around the bottom, but I just started a little too deep. I knew with Brady and Cummins rolling off the front row, they were both going to be really tough to beat but we were right there with them. With a new team, it’s really tough to jell sometimes, and I think out of the box, we’ve jelled really well. We’re all having fun and that’s what we’re all here for.”
A one hour and nine minute delay took place after Kevin Newton rode out a frightening flip down the front straightaway during the semi-feature. The impact of his car with the fence sheared off a wide swath of posts and catch fencing. Newton was able to escape and walk away from the incident while repairs to the fence were made before racing activity recommenced.
During qualifying, Chase Stockon recorded the 32nd fast time of his USAC National Sprint Car career, moving him ahead of three-time champion Sheldon Kinser and into sole possession of 11th on the all-time list. Meanwhile, Stockon’s KO Motorsports teammate Jason McDougal set fast time during Thursday’s season opener. That became the first instance of two different drivers from the same team setting fast qualifying time during the first two events of the season in 56 years. In 1967, the Ward Dunseth/Paul Leffler team captured the first two fast qualifying awards of the year with Greg Weld in the opener at Pennsylvania’s Reading Fairgrounds while Bob Wente time trialed the quickest in race two at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.
FEATURE: (35 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Kyle Cummins (2), 2. Brady Bacon (1), 3. C.J. Leary (7), 4. Justin Grant (5), 5. Jason McDougal (4), 6. Emerson Axsom (8), 7. Chase Stockon (6), 8. Matt Westfall (3), 9. Kevin Thomas Jr. (16), 10. Logan Seavey (10), 11. Mitchel Moles (11), 12. Jake Swanson (19), 13. Daison Pursley (12), 14. Carson Garrett (17), 15. Thomas Meseraull (9), 16. Brady Short (15), 17. Jadon Rogers (14), 18. Joey Amantea (21), 19. Tom Harris (23-P), 20. Brandon Mattox (20), 21. Eddie Tafoya Jr. (18), 22. Cameron Smith (22), 23. Robert Ballou (13). NT
Story - USAC Racing
Photo - John DaDalt