O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass
STANFORD, Ind. — Earlier this week, Levi Jones was named the Non-wing Driver of the Year by the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
It was his third Driver of the Year award and comes in recognition of Jones’ fifth USAC national sprint car championship.
Although Jones hasn’t received the national recognition that USAC garnered when its championship series defined the nation’s racing picture, his accomplishments put him squarely among the best of the past champions. Perusing USAC’s record books, the names documenting its half-century of competition are memorable.
The list of those who have earned championships comprise a racing Hall of Fame. Beginning with Shorty Templeman, Pat O’Connor and Tommy Hinnershitz, the names are hallowed. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Jack Hewitt, Steve Butler, Rich Vogler, Mel Kenyon and Pancho Carter just begin to touch on the racing giants who have claimed point titles. In more recent years, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and J.J. Yeley continued the tradition.
In 2011, Jones captured both the national sprint car and Silver Crown titles for the second consecutive time. He is only the fifth driver to successfully defend his Silver Crown title, the others being Hewitt, Yeley, Bud Kaeding and Dave Steele. He didn’t get a win in the Traxxas-sponsored series, but with four second place finishes, he edged Jerry Coons, Jr. by three points.
While many of those on USAC’s honor rolls ultimately transitioned from the short ovals, leaving their marks in other racing series including the National Championship, Indy cars, NASCAR and Formula 1, Jones has remained focused on sprint cars.
With his fifth national title, he edged ahead of Butler as the all-time sprint car championship leader. And on the overall record compiling all USAC national championships, only Foyt has more (13) than Jones’ seven. (Both Vogler and Kenyon also have seven national crowns, and if you add in USAC regional championships, Vogler and Sleepy Tripp total nine and Kenyon eight.)
Jones captured his first title in 2005, wheeling the Lucas Oil 2B sprinter for Scott Benic, then moved to Tony Stewart’s garage, where he has hung his helmet for the past six years. During these seven seasons, he hasn’t finished worse than second in the points, and looking at the record he has compiled, it is easy to see why he has been so successful.
USAC competed 225 point-paying features in the national sprint car series during those seven years. When chasing a point championship, consistency is king, and it is easy to let a title slip away with a rash of mechanical problems, an injury, or just bad luck. Jones compiled 177 top-10 finishes, nearly 80 percent. And while that means he finished ahead of the majority of the other racers nearly every time he started, it is in top-5 finishes that the points are really racked up, and pressure is put on the other competitors. During this period, Jones has finished in the top five 111 times, approximately every other time he buckled his helmet, tightened his belts and pushed off. But this doesn’t mean that Jones sacrificed race wins for consistency. With 22 feature wins in 225 starts, he has averaged a feature win every 10 races for seven years.
So how does he do it?
Clearly having good equipment is important, and while Stewart Racing doesn’t field any trick or special hardware, his crewmen, John Sayne and Brad Mariscotti, have given him fast and reliable cars every time they unload. After that, they are exceptional at predicting how the track is going to change, and how to optimize the Maxim for the main event.
Looking at the 2011 season in detail, Jones had more fast qualifying times (five) than anyone else. Seldom did he find himself starting deep in the field and getting caught up in other driver’s mistakes. And while the fast qualifier can start no better than sixth, only Chris Windom led the most laps in races more often than Levi. This combination of charging hard and not beating himself, makes Levi very tough to top over a complete season.
In the first nine races of 2011, Jones finished in the top five six times, and no worse than ninth. With only one win, this gave him a 71-point margin over Jon Stanbrough going into Indiana Sprint Week. Even though he has won the Sprint Week title three times in the past, last summer’s proved difficult as he only recorded two finishes better than 10th during the seven-race stretch. His worst finish of the year came at Bloomington when he somersaulted over the turn three banking after something appeared to break on the car. With three consecutive second-place finishes and a win at Terre Haute in the first four rounds of Sprint Week, Windom quickly sliced Jones’ point lead to just seven. But with a second at Brownstown and sixth in the finale at Haubstadt, Jones rebuilt his margin to 38.
For the next seven races, the point battle appeared to be a dogfight between Jones and Windom. Then Jones scored his second victory of the year as the Midwest portion of the season closed out at Lawrenceburg in October.
After the victory lane celebration, Levi was pragmatic.
“We won at Pennsylvania and then I won in my own car at Haubstadt once, but we’ve just had some bad luck. We’ve been fast. At Eldora last week, we had the best car by far, and cut a tire down. But you know, to win races you have to be in position to win. We didn’t have the best car, but we hung around there and the leader got into trouble and we were able to stay ahead of (Windom) and (Schuerenberg). It doesn’t matter how much you win by.”
“It almost felt like I was trying to win my first race again. Before the race Brad said, do you remember how to get your picture taken out there? So it’s almost like a monkey off our back, like the very first one. We just keep working hard.”
Like his car owner, Stewart, Levi has always been a strong finisher. In the final six races he only had one finish worse than fourth, and capped the season with a flag-to-flag victory at Hanford, California’s Kings Speedway. When Windom wrecked during his heat race, it gave Jones a 99-point margin, the largest of the season.
Standing in victory lane at Kings, he noted that USAC had changed the championship structure of the national sprint car division before the season started. For the first time in more than two decades, it was an all-dirt series. “I don’t know if they thought that would give a lot more guys a chance to knock us off,” he said, “but here we are, champs again.”
With his third Hall of Fame Driver of the Year award, it is timely to point out that we have been watching history being made. The quiet, smiling kid from Olney, Ill., has become the most accomplished sprint car racer, without a wing, in the history of the sport.
And, he has earned his seat among the USAC greats.