SPRING VALLEY, Minn.—It was a battle for the ages on opening night of the 18th Annual Featherlite Fall Jamboree as a season-long battle to become the 2016 USMTS national champion came down to the final turn on the final points night.
Trailing defending champ Jason Hughes by 10 points coming into Thursday night’s clash at the Deer Creek Speedway, Cade Dillard found himself behind the eight-ball early on as a deep draw in his heat race got even worse when contact on the race track forced him to the pits.
He returned to finish the race and claw his way to a fourth-place finish.
Meanwhile, Hughes started on the outside of the front row in his heat race and easily drove away from the field to take the win and earn a spot in the top-eight redraw for the main event.
Another front row start for the 42-lap feature set Hughes up nicely in his run for the title while Dillard began the nightcap five rows back in 12th.
Hughes swiped the lead from polesitter R.C. Whitwell to earn an all-important bonus point for leading a lap, but Whitwell fought back and took the spot away from Hughes five laps later.
On the seventh lap, Hughes returned the favor but Whitwell jumped back in front to lead the ninth orbit.
While Whitwell and Hughes traded blows for the lead, Dillard was marching toward the front. Following a brief caution on lap 10, Dillard blasted ahead of teammate Chris Brown and third-running Josh Angst to move into third behind the two leaders.
With Whitwell setting the pace up front, Dillard pulled event with Hughes for the second spot on lap 13. The two touched briefly in turn four with Dillard coming out ahead entering the next corner.
By now it was obvious that Dillard was on a mission. He quickly began reeling in Whitwell while putting ample distance between himself and Hughes.
Whitwell crossed beneath the flagstand to lead the halfway mark on lap 21, but Dillard snuck by using lapped traffic in the next corner and had the top spot when he came by to complete lap 22.
Once again, Dillard immediately began to distance himself from Whitwell and his advantage over third-place Hughes was more than a straight-away when the yellow flag waved for the third time on lap 36.
At the moment, should the running order stay the same for the final six laps, Dillard would best Hughes for the series title by a single point.
Hughes didn’t need to pass Dillard to repeat as the USMTS national champ; he just needed to be the runner-up, but his Hughes Racing Chassis was surrounded by four MB Customs Race Cars on the restart, including two drivers—Whitwell and Angst—hungry for their first-ever USMTS victory, and Brown’s No. 97 machine that looked identical to Dillard’s.
But despite being outnumbered four to one, this was the 94th USMTS feature race held at the Deer Creek Speedway and Hughes owns 14 of them—more than any other driver at the track—and swept all three nights of last year’s Featherlite Fall Jamboree.
When the green light came back on, Dillard again flexed his muscles and pulled away from his pursuers while Hughes flew around the outside to steal the second position away from Whitwell.
With Dillard cruising to victory, Hughes had his hands full with Brown who shot underneath him as they completed lap 39.
But Brown’s mount slid up the track in turn two and Hughes drove back underneath to regain the spot with Whitwell coming along to third.
With Hughes keeping Whitwell as bay, Brown raced around the high side of the high-banked 3/8-mile oval of dirt, but at the finish line it was Hughes hanging on for the runner-up paycheck with Brown and Whitwell filling the next two places.
Dillard did everything he had to do. He passed 11 of the toughest dirt modified racers on the planet to take down his first Featherlite Fall Jamboree win and first-ever at ‘The Creek.’
The $5,000 triumph was Dillard’s 10th career USMTS win, tying him with Brown on the all-time list of winners, but his team’s celebration was somewhat tempered with the news that Hughes had bested him for the season-long title by a mere three points.
Meanwhile, for perhaps the first time in his 16 years on tour Hughes and his crew were elated with their second-place finish—one that came with a $25,000 paycheck for becoming the 2016 USMTS national champion.
“It feels good to get a win here in this event, and against this caliber of competition,” Dillard told USMTS announcer Bryce Hall in Widow Wax Victory Lane. “It’s tough though. After all the work and long hours to come this close… it’s tough.
“Jason and Steve (Karver, crew chief for Hughes) are some of my best friends. We race side by side every night, but at the end of the night we go on and remain friends throughout the deal, so I couldn’t pick anybody else I’d rather lose it to. They’re two of the best in the business, so just to have the opportunity to have a chance to win this thing is an honor.”
For Hughes, it marked his third USMTS national championship and third in the last seven seasons despite being absent the entire 2014 campaign to race with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.
“I was just paying attention a lap at a time trying to drive as hard as I could,” said Hughes. “It’s been a lot of fun racing with them guys all year long. They work their tails off too and we’ve been running up and down the road together and parking beside each other. It’s been fun.
“When he got up there and led all them laps I knew we had to run second. I was thankful for that caution and we held on there.”
The battles for first place in the race and the Hunt for the USMTS Casey’s Cup powered by S&S Fishing & Rental weren’t the only ones taking place during the 42-lap nightcap.
Jumping past three cars in the final six laps, Zack VanderBeek came home fifth in the main event and was able to nip Jesse Sobbing by a single point for fourth in the final points standings after Sobbing battled mechanical issues all night long.
Angst held on for sixth, Rodney Sanders raced from 19th on the grid to finish seventh, Dereck Ramirez started and finished in the eighth spot, Austin Siebert nabbed ninth and Lucas Schott complete the top 10.
The KSE Racing Products Hard Charger Award went to Canadian Masen Big Eagle who finished 15th after taking the green flag from the 28th starting spot.
Dillard did, however, put two other titles in his pocket Thursday night.
Hughes Racing Chassis and MB Customs Race Cars came into the event tied atop the Manufacturers Championship points with MB Customs getting the nod due to Dillard’s triumph.
Dillard also secured the overall Sybesma Graphics Pole Award title while Sanders claimed the KSE Racing Products Hard Charger of the Year Award.
-USMTS Press Release. Photo credit: Buck Monson