Barberville, Florida (February 13, 2023) - Points weren’t a part of the agenda during Monday night’s Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals opener for the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park.
However, Jake Swanson made it a point to demonstrate that his blazing run to finish line the previous season was still hot to the touch to start the new year in 2023. The Anaheim, Calif. native had closed out 2022 with five podium results in his last seven feature starts, including a victory.
Swanson checked out on the 22-car field from his pole starting position, then saw his substantial four-plus second lead evaporate with a mid-race yellow. He then completely rebuilt his advantage down the stretch en route to a $5,000 payday with his 25-lap feature victory in his Team AZ Racing/Apache Transport – Stratis Construction – USW Cat Construction/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
Even after the yellow, nothing was going to stop Swanson from an exhilarating wire-to-wire performance during Monday night’s non-points special event, showing proof that he had no inkling of backing off the proverbial throttle despite admitting that he did accumulate a little bit of rust over the winter months away from the racetrack.
“I still felt like we were pretty good,” Swanson said regarding the continuation of his dominance following the lap 17 caution. “I definitely got a little bit sloppy before the yellow and I have some things to clean up on. I love being back in a sprint car but there’s a little bit of rust that developed over the winter.”
Swanson surged to the point on the opening lap, but in turn three, he hiked up the wheels as he danced atop the curb, forcing second running Chase Stockon to check up slightly right on Swanson’s rear bumper. Swanson gathered it up, got back on the saddle and headed forward and forthright.
Behind him, 2022 Volusia winner Thomas Meseraull dove under Stockon to snare second away in turn two on lap two. Swanson, now up 1.965 second, was already surpassing the tail end of the field by lap nine. Swanson cleared with relative ease to put Brandon Mattox a lap down and was able to stretch his interval to an astounding 4.407 seconds nearing the midway point.
Trouble soon hit a pair of frontrunners shortly thereafter. First to fall by the wayside was fifth running Kyle Cummins who had an engine lock up on him on lap 11, forcing him out of the contest. Earlier in the evening, Cummins broke Steve Kinser’s 1981 Volusia non-wing sprint car track record of 16.559 seconds, resetting the 42-year-old standard with a time of 16.398.
While Swanson maintained control at the forefront of the field, the jockeying for position among second, third and fourth was hot and heavy in the distance behind him. Stockon made the first move, shooting past Meseraull for second on lap 15 while, moments later, Bacon ripped away third from Meseraull around the outside. On lap 17, the culprit became evident when Meseraull fell off the pace with a flat right rear. He’d make a stop in the Indy Metal Finishing work area for fresh rubber, but only managed to return to 15th after restarting from the tail.
For Swanson, the yellow flag meant the erasure of his commanding 4.733 second lead. Yet, it didn’t seem to add any obstacles for him on the ensuing restart with nine laps remaining even though the half-mile track surface tried its darnedest to throw a monkey wrench in his plans.
“With that curb, I really had to slow down and make sure not to trip up on it too hard,” Swanson explained. “We were getting tripped up and we were definitely getting slowed down, but I was a little better off to hit it too hard - as long as it didn’t bite me – than I was to go too slow and let those guys rip around me. We have a lot of good racecars in this deal, so you’ve got to be on your toes and be pushing 100 percent all of the time.”
Swanson never relented on his constant push, all while Robert Ballou fired off a slider in turn two to take third from Bacon on lap 22. With one to go, Ballou picked off one more for good measure, sliding his way into second past Stockon in turn one. Ahead of him, however, with Swanson retaining a 1.6 second lead, he knew there wasn’t any time to let up. Not now. Not ever.
“I was more so trying to pay attention to whether anyone was coming,” Swanson said. “For the most part, you can kind of hear something coming so I was trying to pay attention to that. I was starting to hear them toward the end as I was getting tripped up more and more on that curb. If I just minimized mistakes, I knew it was going to be hard for them to get by me. We did our jobs and it’s a great way to start the season.”
Ballou (Rocklin, Calif.) made a late-race burst to find his way into second after starting back in the seventh position in his Ballou Motorsports/Suburban Subaru - Berks Western Telecom/Triple X/Ott Chevy, a career best Volusia finish for the 2015 series champ who grabbed a fifth and a fourth in two appearances a year ago. To get there, he made his own line, skating the top on entry and slipstreaming down to the bottom on exit to thrust him into the top-two.
“I was one of the first ones to find (the line) on lap eight or nine, and about four laps later, Brady found it. But if you got tripped up there, you kind of had to do something to protect,” Ballou recalled. “We changed just about everything but the driver’s seat tonight. I’m just trying to fine-tune and get this thing a little bit better with us being able to run ‘H’ tires for these first two nights. My balance was off a little bit; we changed and changed and went just a little bit too far. We just got the right corner a little bit too high, and once we lost the fuel load, I was kind of just riding along. Everyone else seemed to bottle up on the curve, but my car was so free, I could pretty much just go anywhere.”
Slick to the curb isn’t exactly his forte, but outside front row starter Stockon (Fort Branch, Ind.) was Swanson’s closest challenger throughout the early going. Ultimately, Stockon took a solid third place result in his KO Motorsports/Banded Ag – Dewig Meats – AMSOIL/Flea RC/Fisher Chevy.
“I was somewhat sad to see that caution there after we got into a pretty good rhythm there,” Stockon lamented. “I knew we weren’t going to be fast enough to catch Jake; he was up there ripping. We were able to get through lapped cars pretty good, and once we got to them, I knew we had a pretty good chance at the podium tonight.”
Justin Grant (Ione, Calif.) struggled for much of the night, qualifying 12th, then followed up by missing the transfer spot for the feature. Yet, ultimately, the reigning USAC National Sprint Car champion found his mojo in the feature, racing from his 14th starting position to take fifth, thus earning him the hard charger award for the night.
FEATURE: (25 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Jake Swanson (1), 2. Robert Ballou (7), 3. Chase Stockon (2), 4. Brady Bacon (3), 5. Justin Grant (14), 6. Kevin Thomas Jr. (12), 7. C.J. Leary (11), 8. Emerson Axsom (4), 9. Daison Pursley (9), 10. Mitchel Moles (10), 11. Jason McDougal (8), 12. Jadon Rogers (17), 13. Matt Westfall (15), 14. Logan Seavey (16), 15. Thomas Meseraull (5), 16. Garrett Aitken (18), 17. Steve Irwin (20), 18. Tom Harris (13), 19. Carson Garrett (19), 20. Joey Amantea (22), 21. Brandon Mattox (21), 22. Kyle Cummins (6).
Story - Richie Murray, USAC Media
Photo - Josh James Swanson Continues Scalding Stretch at Volusia