Jake Swanson set the tone early on during Saturday night’s Avanti Windows & Doors Corn Belt Clash at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway.
To start things off, the Anaheim, Calif. native set quick time during qualifying, then made the show with a last lap pass to grab the fourth and final transfer spot in his heat race.
During the feature, he led for less than a quarter mile, but it just so happened to be the money lap worth $12,000 as he chased down Brady Bacon in turn three on the 30th and final circuit to capture his second points-paying USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship feature of the season in his Team AZ Racing/Apache Transport – Stratis Construction – USW Cat Construction/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
For Swanson, he’s now won three of his four career USAC National Sprint Car features on half-mile dirt ovals. This one was certainly a memorable affair, having come in front of a crowd of racing royalty on National Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction weekend at one of the most famed dirt tracks in the world.
“I’m so pumped to get Team AZ to winner’s circle at Knoxville,” Swanson exclaimed. “I’m so pumped to add my name to a list of winners that is just unbelievable. I’m so thankful to have the people behind me that I do and I’m so thankful to be winning USAC races.”
Swanson rolled off from the sixth position as front row combatants C.J. Leary and Kyle Cummins took turns trading places at the front of the field where it was polesitter Leary ably nipped Cummins at the line by a single car length on each of the first two laps.
Cummins took charge on the third go-around as he hit the bottom of turn one and slid up in front of Leary by the time the pair hit turn two within the shadow of the museum’s facade. Leary got Cummins back briefly in turn three, but Cummins shot down underneath to secure the lead for the time being.
In the meantime, fifth-starting Bacon took second from Leary on lap six with a turn one slider, then began his pursuit of Cummins whose lead rapidly dwindled as Bacon chopped his way into contention. With a big run on the back straightaway, Bacon breezed by Cummins to take over the helm on lap eight.
Almost instantly, Bacon upped his lead to a half-straight as he caught the back of the field at the race’s halfway point. As he worked lapped traffic, Bacon swiftly sliced his way through to increase his lead to 4.313 seconds with only nine laps to go.
However, the feature’s lone yellow flag was displayed on lap 22 when 23rd running Logan Calderwood stopped at the top of turn four, resetting the deck for the final stretch run.
Back behind the front two, reigning series champion Justin Grant swiped the third spot on the restart from Leary. As Leary cut under and the two drifted side-by-side through turn two, space was tight, resulting in contact and wound up with Grant’s left rear wheel hiked in the air. As Grant came to, Mitchel Moles brushed his right side tires off Grant’s left side sidewalls. Grant regathered himself but dropped all the way down to 15th in the running order at, seemingly, the snap of a finger.
The biggest beneficiary was Swanson who took fourth from Grant, then tracked down Leary with an outside turn two move for the third spot on lap 24. He followed up with an undercut of Cummins on lap 26 for second in turn three.
At that moment, Bacon was in full control, a full two seconds ahead with just four laps remaining, and even held a similarly steady 1.5 second lead with just two to go. However, the tide shifted quickly, with Bacon experiencing tire trouble and Swanson soon found himself right on Bacon’s bumper on the final lap.
In turn three, Swanson made the winning move, darting to the bottom and sliding across Bacon’s nose and sticking his right rear in the rubber before finishing off the final corner to score a “look-what-I-found” victory. How do you do?
“I knew that the rubber was coming but I didn’t think I was going to have a shot to win the thing,” Swanson admitted. “The rubber came really hard and really fast, and I didn’t expect that, but we sure capitalized on it.”
Perhaps it was a premonition. Perhaps just a gut feeling. But the way the final laps unfurled, it was as if it was all part of the team’s plan to strike when others found disarray.
“I was just so tight into (the cushion), and I just had to be really ginger with it because I smashed it a couple times in turns three and four and the thing biked up,” Swanson explained. “The whole time, I was like ‘man, I wish I could talk to my crew chief right now.’ Then, sure enough, the turn of events took place, and I couldn’t believe that we were so good in the rubber. It was all a testament to Mike’s (Burkhart) choices. I think he knew all this was coming.”
Although it was easy to get jumbled up on the treacherous cushion, quick thinking was the remedy for Swanson to counteract what very well could’ve put him into the guardrail and sullied his shot.
“It was really tricky,” Swanson related. “You kind of had to short slide, and it got a little sketchy there before the rubber. There was a fine line between powering around the outside of it and not, so you really had to make the right choices. Otherwise, you were going to get stuffed up into the wall. It was just the way the race was, and I don’t think anyone could do much about it. I was just trying to be smart and save my racecar for the end and I’m glad I did.”
For the bulk of the race, it looked like Bacon had it in the bank. But after leading a race-high 21 laps, the Broken Arrow, Okla. driver fell just two turns shy of his record-extending fifth career USAC National Sprint Car win at Knoxville. Instead, he was forced to settle for a second place finish on this night, which was his fifth-straight top-two result at Knoxville in his Dynamics, Inc./Tel-Star Technologies – DriveWFX.com – Fatheadz Eyewear/Triple X/Rider Chevy. As a consolation prize, Bacon became the new series point leader, surpassing Cummins who was running fifth on the final lap but fell to 14th with a tire issue.
This night marked the best performance of Mitchel Moles’ USAC National Sprint Car season. In the Raisin City, California native’s first Knoxville appearance, he brought home a third place result after charging all the way from seventh in the final eight laps in his Reinbold-Underwood Motorsports/AME Electrical – Mesilla Valley Transportation/Spike/Stanton Chevy.
Chase Johnson’s first run with the USAC National Sprint Cars at Knoxville paid off. For his hard charging performance from 19th to 7th in the feature, Penngrove, California’s Johnson collected a $2,000 bonus courtesy of Avanti Windows & Doors.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s Yeley Racing teammate, J.J. Yeley, made his first USAC National Sprint Car feature start since 2009 Indiana Sprint Week at Kamp Motor Speedway. The Phoenix, Arizona driver’s Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts Semi-Feature victory on Saturday night was his first triumph in a last chance race with the series since the July 19, 2003 round of Indiana Sprint Week at Lincoln Park Speedway.
Swanson’s fourth career points paying USAC National Sprint Car feature win moved him to 102nd all-time alongside Rob Chaney, Cary Faas, Jesse Hockett, Van Johnson, Steve Kinser, Michael Lewis, Ralph Liguori, Don Nordhorn, Lee Osborne, Red Riegel, Ken Schrader, Al Smith and Danny Smith.
Furthermore, Swanson recorded his eighth career Honest Abe Roofing Fast Qualifying time with the USAC National Sprint Cars on Saturday night at Knoxville. That tied him for 57th all-time with Bubby Jones, Kelly Kinser, Pat O’Connor and Hunter Schuerenberg. Ironic it is that on this night, Swanson also captured his first Bubby Jones Master of Goin’ Faster Presented By Spire Sports + Entertainment feature event win. Swanson now leads the points after three rounds of the 10-race miniseries by a 16-point margin over Mitchel Moles.