For much of Sunday afternoon it appeared evident that a Kyle Busch Motorsports car would win the 44th Running of the Winchester 400 at Indiana’s Winchester Speedway as dirt racing ace Christopher Bell ran out front much of the race. But in the end it was NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Erik Jones firing the Winchester rifle for the third straight year.The Byron, Michigan native survived multiple incidents and a strong fight from Bell and Cody Coughlin to claim the victory in the prestigious race once again.As part of a promotion put on by CRA and JEGS, Jones leaves the Winchester Speedway $100,000 richer by winning the JEGS Triple Crown. Jones scored wins at Berlin Raceway (MI), and Anderson Speedway (IN) in addition to the Winchester 400 all this season, and is the first driver in the history of the Triple Crown to pull off the feat.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to come out here and cap it off,” said Jones of the accomplishment. “I didn’t know after qualifying what kind of shot we had starting 16th. Probably the hardest we’ve had to work for one of these 400’s.”
Jones claimed the victory after playing tire strategy to get to the front, staying ahead of the field in an attrition-filled race.
Terry Fisher, Jr., a native of nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana, led the field to the green after claiming a surprising pole for the event on Saturday. However, it was Bell who stormed to the lead and dominated the first half of the event from second.
With Bell setting a blistering pace, NASCAR regulars Jones and Chase Elliott worked their way toward the front of the field. Behind them, a cacophony of bending sheet metal and locked-up brakes erupted as the field struggled to tame the world’s fastest half-mile oval.
Third-place qualifier Stephen Nasse was one of the first contenders to drop out of the event after getting spun avoiding a lapped car. NCWTS regular Mason Mingus was eliminated shortly after with electrical issues. Even short-track ace Daniel Hemric was out of the race with 110 laps to go after a flat tire sent him into the turn two wall.
Through all of the carnage, the contenders slowly began to emerge. Bell and Jones traded the lead with differing pit strategies. Coughlin maintained a top-five position. ARCA/CRA Super Series champion and Rookie of the Year Grant Quinlan positioned himself toward the front with smooth, consistent laps, and Elliott overcame a bad run mid-race to rise back onto the lead lap in the final 100 laps.
The advantage going into the final stages of the 400-lap event went to Jones after the former Snowball Derby winner snatched the lead from Jeff Fultz and Jack Smith on the race’s penultimate restart. However, Bell quickly worked his way into second, reeling Jones in as the race neared 50 laps remaining.
The battle between the two young phenoms culminated on lap 350, when Bell jumped to the outside of Jones in turns one and two. Bell appeared to be in position to take the race lead after a strong run down the backstretch, but carried too much speed into turn three, washing up the track and pounding the outside wall.
Bell’s race would end on the following lap as he brought his No. 51 to pit road.
“He was running really high,” said Jones. “He had gotten to the top of me when I thought I was running the top before. I figured at some point he’d probably get the wall.
“At that point (of the race), you’re giving it all you’ve got. He just gave it a little too much and slipped. That’s probably a little bit of inexperience on his part. He’s pretty new to the asphalt world, and to the late model world.”
Bell, whose racing background primarily consists of races on dirt, had only one previous start at Winchester before Sunday’s 400, coming in September when he dominated for a victory in a 100-lap feature. However, the Oklahoma native hadn’t faced the same level of challenge from any competitors, pacing the field for much of the 100-lap event.
Bell politely declined to comment on the incident following the conclusion of the race.
With his biggest competitors gone, Jones found himself holding Coughlin, Elliott and Quinlan at bay in the closing laps. The three drivers would close within two car-lengths of Jones as the race neared lap 385, but would lose ground at the end as they battled among themselves.
Coughlin would ride a smooth race to second, his highest-career finish in the annual event.
“It feels good, but I just wish I was celebrating a win,” said Coughlin of the result. “We were catching (Jones) there a bit and just lost our momentum. Just didn’t have it, but we ran well all day." Elliott would overcome a lap deficit to finish third.
“Third, that’s what it is and what it was,” said Elliot. “Wasn’t good enough to get the job done. That’s the bottom line.”
Quinlan would overcome a late spin to end the day in fourth and claim his first ARCA/CRA Super Series championship, as well as the rookie of the year title.
“400 laps around this place is quite the task,” said Quinlan. “To go up there in practice and do 10 is quite the job. 400 neck-and-neck with Chase Elliot and Erik Jones is something else.
“We came here to race and try and contend for a win. Just looped her there trying to pass the (No.) 1 car.”
Bubba Pollard finished out the top five, with Jack Smith, Jeff Fultz, Rick Turner, Anderson Bowen and Wes Griffith, Jr. rounding out the top 10.
Thirty-eight drivers entered the day with hopes of lifting the prized Winchester rifle awarded to the victor of the event, but it was Jones that shined brightest despite battling issues with a burned foot.
“We set up a new leg brace, and it just didn’t have a shield next to the foot box, and it got pretty hot at a couple points,” said Jones. “About lap 40, I knew it was probably going to be an issue, but I just went with it. It probably tore up my foot pretty good, but it was worth it for sure.”
With a bright future ahead of him, the late model ace may have made his last Winchester 400 appearance for the foreseeable future.
“This may be it for me for a while with late model racing in general,” said Jones. “I just kind of wanted to go out with a bang, and this was the best way to do it.”
As for his plans for the $100,000?
“In the bank,” said Jones, a smile crossing his face. “That’s about it for me.”
Speed51.com will have more from the 44th Running of the Winchester 400, including race highlights, soon on the 51 Network.
For an on-demand replay of today’s Trackside Now coverage, click here: http://speed51.com/trackside-n...
-By Aaron Bearden, Speed51.com Contributor – Twitter: @AaronBearden93
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com
|10||3||Wes Griffith Jr|
|17||81||Terry Fisher Jr|
|19||7||Paul Shafer Jr|
|37||20||Jack Dossey III|