On paper, Erik Jones winning a major short track race may seem like old news as the youngster from Michigan has collected plenty of notable trophies on his trip up the stock car ladder. But as every fan stood, waved their hats, and cheered in the closing 20 laps, Jones’ victory in a thrilling and intense Winchester 400 battle Sunday will go down as one of the best chapters yet in the proud history of the Midwest’s most prestigious late model race.
Jones held off Travis Braden over a back-and-forth final 100 laps that saw the duo swap the lead a few times and try to outduel each other through pit strategy. The critical moment of the race came on lap 391, when Braden pulled off a slide job on Jones in turn one, only to have Jones return the favor that same lap in turn three. By the time Braden got back in the gas, he was two carlengths behind Jones, and for the final eight laps Braden could get no closer as Jones flashed under the checkered flag to claim his second straight victory in the Winchester 400. Braden had plenty to smile at himself as he claimed his second straight ARCA/CRA Super Series title as well as a $5,000 bonus from JEGS for winning their CRA Triple Crown.
“We got the toe knocked out a little bit on a restart,” Jones said moments after climbing out his #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota in Victory Lane. “It just made the car way, way too tight, tighter than it had been all day. But we fought hard, raced hard with Travis. It was good, clean, hard racing. I’d call it ‘short track style’. It was cool to battle hard and pick up our second 400. We come here for one reason and that’s to win these races and to do it means a lot to us.”
Braden agreed with Jones’ assessment of the hard-fought battle being a classic short-track affair.
“I had a shot at him there,” Braden said as he was being handed the championship trophy. “Once we got going [into a green flag run], he began running a higher line. His spotter must have told him that I was running the bottom and he moved down, started running a defensive line. One time we got him a little loose, got under him, and then he returned the favor down here in 3 & 4. It was a little bit aggressive racing but I bet they’d think the same. I think it was a great Winchester 400. If I was a fan here today, I’d be pretty pleased.”
Jones entered the day as the prohibitive favorite by virtue of winning the pole in Saturday’s qualifying session. Jumping out early in the race, Jones appeared as though he may turn the race into a runaway. But Winchester, as it often does, slowly whittled the field down by attrition and the resulting caution flags allowed teams to mix up the pit strategy in a 12-tire race with live pit stops.
Jeff Fultz and Wes Griffith tangled in the first big wreck at lap 100. Sentimental favorite Rick Turner was the next to follow a few laps later as the result of a right front tire failure. Johnny VanDoorn fought rear end issues while Mason Mingus blew an engine. Augie Grill wrecked late as he was beginning his charge and Daniel Hemric followed him to the garage with a blown motor. The most notable of them all though was Ross Kenseth. He had led the majority of the race up until a late pit stop. The team did not realize until it was too late that they a fuel filler issue and subsequently ran out of gas before the next restart. By the time the team had diagnosed the issue, he was thirteen laps down and out of the Winchester 400 picture as well as the ARCA/CRA title battle.
That left it down to Jones and Braden. Jones had seemingly appeared to get the final advantage after coming out first following a lap 324 pit stop. But Jones spun the tires on the subsequent restart, allowing Braden to scoot by. Jones got back by on lap 360 when he pulled a gutsy crossover on Braden in turn four right before the caution flew again. Braden never officially led again, but trailed Jones by no more than three carlengths over the final drive and managed to lead for half a lap with that double crossover inside of ten laps to go.
On comparing the 2014 win to last year’s Jones said “I honestly felt like we had a little bit better car this year, at least up until we got the toe knocked in. Luckily, being in the lead we were able to hold him off and kill off his momentum on the bottom. Like I said, I think we were a bit better this year but we also had to fight harder for it.”
Jones became the first driver to win back to back Winchester 400s since Mike Cope won three straight in the mid-1990s. He has now won the Snowball Derby twice, the Winchester 400 twice, the Howie Lettow Memorial and the Florida Governor’s Cup. Asked why he keeps coming back to the short tracks even as his NASCAR career takes off, Jones laughed and simply said “Because I love late models.” He said the next races on his short track ‘bucket list’ are the Slinger Nationals and LaCrosse Oktoberfest.
Braden was about as happy as a runner-up could be after a race. He becomes just the second driver to win back to back ARCA/CRA Super Series titles after VanDoorn. The title bonus money plus the JEGS Triple Crown money means his team can now prepare on going down to race at the Snowball Derby in early December.
“We made some unbelievable calls today. We had older tires on all day banking on that we would have newer ones at the end and we did. I don’t know versus Erik, but versus those other guys I know we had fresher tires and it showed.”
“It came down to that last 40-lap run. I wasn’t going [on the restarts], but finally started getting going [late] and that made it a good race. It just came down to who could get the lead on that restart. The outside was the place to be. But Erik made it happen on the inside that one time and that’s how he got us.”
Donnie Wilson cracked a big smile and said he simply “couldn’t complain” after rounding up the podium. Twice before he led at the 300 lap mark but failed to finish the race. This marks his best finish in the 400 and by far his best effort since a 4th back in 2008.
“That’s the second one we actually managed to complete,” Wilson noted. “We had a great car all weekend, but we were just a little tight at the end and couldn’t keep up with the top two. Our adjustments were good, but we were just a little off. On to the Snowball.”
Cody Coughlin overcame a flat tire that knocked him into the wall and down two laps at the halfway point of the race and drove back through the field to a 4th place finish.
Laughing he said “We popped two tires, and when that happens you tend to hit the wall. It was a good fight though to come back because I thought we had a winning car. Situations happen and it’s hard to be angry about a fourth place finish, but I am. It’s a good problem to have.”
Brian Hoar may have missed his traditional biggest race of the year, the Vermont Milk Bowl, but made the most out of his trip to Winchester and procured a 5th place finish.
“It was an awesome run. We came out here and we simply didn’t even have a notebook. We were going to test on Thursday, but got rained out. So here we are Friday [at the start of the official race weekend] and we have to sort through a lot of things. And heck, we’re still sorting through things yesterday.”
“We came to raceday, did those hot laps this morning and thought we STILL had things to sort out. I was getting pretty comfortable with the track, but figuring out what the car was going to need was tough. We weren’t ultra-competitive here but we knew the attrition was going to be a big factor. It was going to be all about racing the racetrack. The guys kept reminding me and that’s what I went out there and did.”
Braden was the fourth CRA champion crowned at 400 Weekned. Dan Leeck (JEGS/CRA All-Star Tour), Greg Van Alst (CRA Late Model Sportsman), and Jason Atkinson (CRA Street Stocks) will be honored with Braden in the 2014 banquet on January 3rd in downtown Indianapolis.
— By Tim Quievryn, 51’s Third Turn(powered by 51's Third Turn)
| 1||1||51J||Erik Jones||400||165||Running|
| 2||4||01||Travis Braden||400||42||Running|
| 3||7||2||Donnie Wilson||400||0||Running|
| 4||6||1||Cody Coughlin||400||0||Running|
| 5||13||37||Brian Hoar||400||27||Running|
| 6||8||29S||Tommy St. John||400||0||Running|
| 7||28||99||J.J. Haley||400||0||Running|
| 8||16||26P||Bubba Pollard||400||0||Running|
| 9||10||51N||Stephen Nasse||399||0||Running|
| 10||21||51||Brandon Oakley||393||0||Running|
| 11||12||81||Terry Fisher, Jr.||391||0||Running|
| 12||5||77||Ross Kenseth||386||149||Running|
| 13||29||98||Daniel Hemric||373||17||Oil Pressure|
| 14||9||29||Anderson Bowen||359||0||Transmission|
| 15||17||4||Scott Neal||350||0||Accident|
| 16||19||5||Dalton Sargeant||344||0||Accident|
| 17||15||68||Austin Theriault||336||0||Running|
| 18||18||112||Augie Grill||314||0||Accident|
| 19||22||7||Paul Shafer, Jr.||294||0||Eletrical|
| 20||26||47||Allen Karnes||238||0||Engine|
| 21||24||5G||Will Gallaher||183||0||Suspension|
| 22||2||71||John VanDoorn||181||0||Rear End|
| 23||27||98M||Mason Mingus||160||0||Engine|
| 24||3||26||Rick Turner||131||0||Accident|
| 25||14||23||Eddie Van Meter||125||0||Accident|
| 26||11||54||Jeff Fultz||101||0||Accident|
| 27||23||33||Wes Griffith||99||0||Accident|
| 28||20||9||Brandon Watson||58||0||Accident|
| 29||33||84||Jay Niewiek||57||0||Suspension|
| 30||25||28||Jack Smith||56||0||Accident|
| 31||30||1S||Jon Beach||50||0||Vibration|
| 32||31||8||Tommy Cook||24||0||Carburetor|
| 33||32||7X||Mike Stacy||5||0||Handling|