NEW RICHMOND, Wis. — It was another game of inches for Bobby Pierce and Hudson O’Neal. And Pierce came out on top yet again.
With two of the sport’s best second-generation drivers going down to the wire for the second time in a month, Pierce’s crafty crossover move exiting turn four Saturday at Cedar Lake Speedway spoiled O’Neal’s last-lap slide job and gave the 26-year-old Oakwood, Ill., driver a $50,000 USA Nationals victory.
Pierce, who nipped O’Neal and the Rocket Chassis house car by two-thousandths of a second for $50,000 four Saturday’s earlier at Deer Creek Speedway’s Gopher 50 in Spring Valley, Minn., scored another rich payday in the upper Midwest by leading the final 66 laps and collected his first wooden eagle trophy at Cedar Lake.
Calling it “a game of inches right there and what an awesome race,” Pierce notched his series-leading eighth WoO victory of the season and third in his last four starts in extending his points lead on the national tour.
"I know the Rocket1 car always finds a way to turn it on at the end,” the fifth-starting Pierce said after emerging in victory lane. “Man, I know he wanted a replay of Deer Creek there, for it to (turn out) the opposite way. And it damn near was. It was awfully close again. I really didn't expect him to be there.”
Martinsville, Ind.’s O’Neal, who was leading the last lap at Deer Creek when Pierce’s slide job got the better of him, was the aggressor this time in looking for last-lap magic at the 3/8-mile oval where he led the first 34 laps from outside the front row.
“I hit that cushion and I looked to my left and he wasn’t there, and I was like, 'I'm might win this thing.’ We were going down the front straightaway and he just started creeping up on me,” O’Neal said. “And he made sure to crowd me and get into me just a little bit to slow me down and make sure I didn't get a run down on the top of the straightaway. But man, that was awesome. I told him we don't need to make a habit of this. I'm so sick of running a second, man. We came so close to two $50,000s this year. We didn't necessarily give this one away, but I don't know … so close. It's hard whenever you're this close to winning these things. It’s aggravating but rewarding.”
Tanner English of Benton, Ky., nabbed the third spot in the final laps while Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., was fourth ahead of Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., who briefly took second from O’Neal midrace but lost two positions in the final laps.
Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., who was aiming to join Billy Moyer as the only driver to win the USA Nationals three consecutive times, gained six positions but settled for sixth in the 100-lap weekend finale. Top-ranked Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., was running third on lap 72 after starting on the pole, but a broken rear end forced him out.
O’Neal took command and mostly cruised in the race’s early stages, but Pierce grabbed the second spot on lap 22 and moved up to challenge, taking command on the 35th lap while the frontrunners flew in the high groove.
O’Neal dropped to a lower groove on a half-dozen laps later and nearly regained the top spot from Pierce, but he couldn’t find a way past and ended up giving up the second spot to Sheppard just past the midway point, briefly slipping to fourth. O’Neal was back to second by lap 56, but he never got within striking distance of Pierce until the white flag flew.
“I’d get to like two car lengths, and then make a mistake. And I'd get to two car lengths, and make a mistake,” O’Neal said. “I rode behind him and rode behind him for so long, and I was just waiting for him to get a little tight leaving (turn) four because the cushion was bigger, or just something, and he never would make a mistake.
“I just told myself there was about 10 (laps) ago, ‘OK, you’re you're not gonna win this thing if you're five car lengths back from him.’ So I just kind of tried to slow myself down a little bit (and) make sure I was running consistent laps and that's what got me back to him.”
Pierce knew he was in control late in the race, but when lapped traffic cost him momentum on the last lap, he caught a flash of blue — O’Neal’s car — out of the corner of his eye.
“I saw the white flag and I was like, ‘Man, I want this race to be over.’ He did a great job,” Pierce said. “He executed that slider perfect. He hit the cushion rocketed off of it and I just so happened to get a good turn down the hill, too. If I wouldn’t have seen his blue, right-front flopper there (at the) last second when he was coming in there, I might not have been able to prepare that crossover and he probably would have got me.”
O’Neal tried to look at the bright side after another tight loss to Pierce.
“We had a really good weekend here. You know, for me not being able to be (at Cedar Lake) the last several years and coming up here and having a good showing, having two good prelim nights and then come here and and have a good night on the last night, it means a lot to me (and) means a lot to my guys,” he said. “We’re inching away at it. We haven't won one here in a month or two and we came so close, these seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths are piling up. I feel like whenever we can just get that one, just knock that one back off, we'll start rolling again and maybe win some more. But we just gotta get that first one.”
English, who landed on the podium in just his second career USA Nationals start, ran in a tight pack with Erb and Sheppard late in the race before squeezing out a third-place finish.
"Finally just had to say 'The heck with it,' you know? I was trying to run my line there not heat my tires up too much. I didn't know how much I had left. So when I saw Dennis, I had to start going for it a little bit harder and just got by Sheppard there at the end, just in time,” English said. “I think Dennis probably was a little bit better but, we just squeaked by there. It was a weird race you know? Like sometimes I would feel really good and then sometimes I'd feel you know like I was sliding, like a death slide. But right there about halfway, I felt like I had the fastest car, but I just hit lapped traffic kind of weird and messed up my air. When you're running in the middle of racetrack like that, air means everything. It’s a a little harder when you ain’t got anything to lean against. But you know, we had a good car and congratulations to Bobby and Hudson. I know they had a heck of a race.”
Pierce was thrilled to win a race he’s had his eye on since breaking into the Super Late Model ranks as a teenager.
“Anyone who asked me before, they know this is a race right up there with the Prairie Dirt Classic that I’ve wanted to win for a long time,” he said. “Back when I first started coming here, 2012 was the first time, and I’d never won a race here until (Thursday), so this place always seems (able) to get me. You know, back in 2014, I finished second to Jimmy Owens, and I think if I would’ve more experience back then — I was only 17 — I might have been able to get the job done.
“I've always thought back to that race and just wondered if we'd ever get a shot at it again. And after last night, I really didn't know if we were going to be able to. The car wasn't great. And then tonight, it was phenomenal. So that's just how things go. It's a tough field out here. Tough competition. Every day is a new day. And you just got to go at it.”
The feature was slowed by five cautions, none for serious incidents.
The first caution appeared on the eighth lap when Daulton Wilson spun in turn two while battling Nick Hoffman for the 13th spot. Nine laps later, Dustin Sorenson spun in turn two after apparent contact from Wilson, causing a minor scare for the frontrunners just behind him.
The third yellow flag fell on lap 25 when a slowing Ryan Gustin collected Todd Cooney in turn one, sending Gustin’s damaged car around. A slowing Nick Hoffman drew a lap-44 yellow.
Kyle Strickler got into the frontstretch wall on the 53rd lap and stopped at the turn-one entrance.
Notes: Pierce has been outside the top three only once in his last 13 feature starts. … That came with a 10th-place run in Friday’s prelim at Cedar Lake, 24 hours after he collected Thursday’s $6,000 preliminary victory. … Eleven of 29 starters completed 100 laps. … Nick Hoffman pitted multiple times trying to solve brake issues; he ended up 18th, two laps down. … Cade Dillard had to replace a faulty battery after losing fire while the drivers rolled in the racing surface; the scheduled 10th starter made it back to the track for the start but had to start on the tail. … Gordy Gundaker also ducked into the hot pit during parade laps and also started in the back. He blew an engine in the consolation race and started the feature in his backup car with a provisional starting spot.
36th annual USA Nationals
Pos. Driver (car no.), hometown, chassis, earnings
1. Bobby Pierce (32), Oakwood, Ill., Longhorn, $50,000
2. Hudson O’Neal (1), Martinsville, Ind., Rocket, $20,000
3. Tanner English (96v), Benton, Ky., Longhorn, $10,000
4. Dennis Erb Jr. (28), Carpentersville, Ill., Rocket, $6,000
5. Brandon Sheppard (B5), New Berlin, Ill., Longhorn, $5,000
6. Jonathan Davenport (49), Blairsville, Ga., Longhorn, $4,800
7. Brent Larson (B1), Lake Elmo, Minn., Rocket, $4,600
8. Chris Madden (44), Gray Court, S.C., Rocket, $4,400
9. Shane Clanton (25), Zebulon, Ga., Capital, $4,200
10. Ricky Weiss (7), Headingley, Manitoba, Sniper, $4,000
11. Kyle Bronson (40B), Brandon, Fla., Rocket, $3,800
12. Cade Dillard (97), Robeline, La., Longhorn, $3,600
13. Ryan Gustin (19r), Marshalltown, Iowa, Rocket, $3,400
14. Gordy Gundaker (11), St. Charles, Mo., Longhorn, $3,350
15. Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., Rocket, $3,300
16. Dustin Sorensen (28), Rochester, Minn., MB Customs, $3,250
17. Johnny Scott (1st), Las Cruces, N.M., Longhorn, $3,200
18. Nick Hoffman (9), Mooresville, N.C., Longhorn, $3,150
19. Kye Blight (31), Kitanning, Western Australia, Rocket, $3,100
20. Ricky Thornton Jr. (20rr), Chandler, Ariz., Longhorn, $3,075
21. Jake Timm (49), Winona, Minn., Longhorn, $3,050
22. Ashton Winger (12), Hampton, Ga., Rocket, $3,025
23. Kyle Strickler (8), Mooresville, N.C., Rocket, $3,010
24. Tyler Erb (1), New Waverly, Texas, Rocket, $3,000
25. Daulton Wilson (18D), Fayetteville, N.C., Longhorn, $3,000
26. Shannon Babb (18), Moweaqua, Ill., Longhorn, $3,000
27. Todd Cooney (30), Des Moines, Iowa, Longhorn, $0
28. Dustin Walker (14W), Polk, Mo., Rocket, $0
29. Trevor Gundaker (14M), St. Charles, Mo., Black Diamond, $3,000
Lap leaders: O’Neal 1-34; Pierce 35-100
Consolation race winners: Gustin, Bronson
Last-chance winner: Timm
Provisional starters: G. Gundaker, Larson, Weiss, Cooney, Walker
Preliminary feature winners (among 49 cars): Pierce, Madden
USA Nationals lineup
Row 1: Ricky Thornton Jr., Hudson O'Neal
Row 2: Tanner English, Brandon Sheppard
Row 3: Bobby Pierce, Brian Shirley
Row 4: Shannon Babb, Dennis Erb Jr.
Row 5: Chris Madden, Cade Dillard
Row 6: Daulton Wilson, Jonathan Davenport
Row 7: Johnny Scott, Tyler Erb
Row 8: Shane Clanton, Nick Hoffman
Row 9: Ryan Gustin, Kyle Bronson
Row 10: Kyle Strickler, Ashton Winger
Row 11: Trevor Gundaker, Kye Blight
Row 12: Jake Timm, Dustin Sorensen
Row 13: Gordy Gundaker, Brent Larson
Row 14: Ricky Weiss, Todd Cooney
Row 15: Dustin Walker
Jake Timm took the checkered flag to win the 30-lap feature for Cedar Lake's Late Model division at 9:40 p.m.; after a period of track conditioning, the USA Nationals starting field will hit the track one-by-one for the event's traditional driver introductions. ... Some forecasts on Friday showed a chance of rain increasing during the evening, but updates pushed the arrival of a precipitation threat to Sunday’s early-morning hours. … The front-row starters for the 100-lap USA Nationals finale have a common thread: both Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz., and Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., are making first-ever starts in the crown jewel event. Thornton is actually a participant in the USA Nationals for the first time in his career while O’Neal’s only previous appearance came in 2018 when he failed to qualify — driving, coincidentally, for the SSI Motorsports team that now employs Thornton. … Thornton noted that his 4-compound right-rear tire blistered “pretty good” during his run to a fourth-place finish in Friday’s 25-lap feature, making him wonder how tire will be over 100 laps with teams using the same hard-compound rubber. “I think you’re gonna see a lot of guys really good early and then fade pretty bad late just because of the blistering,” he said. “You’re gonna have to drive hard but at the same time know that, ‘If I drive too hard here, by, like, lap 50, 60, I’m gonna be toast.’ I think it’s gonna be a management game and the one who does it the best if probably gonna be real good at the end.” … Friday feature winner Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., is well aware that Cedar Lake is a track where “you can abuse your equipment,” so the 2019 USA Nationals winner has a strategy set as he rolls off from the ninth starting spot: “You’ve gotta dodge the darts for awhile and still try to save your stuff and have a good race car at the end of the race.” … As Trevor Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., was completing a third-place run in the first B-main to make the USA Nationals headliner for the second straight year, his older brother, Gordy, limped into the infield with terminal engine trouble. Gordy will start the 100-lapper in a backup car thanks to a WoO provisional. … Other provisional starters are Brent Larson (WoO); Todd Cooney and Dustin Walker (WoO emergencies); and Ricky Weiss (FANS Fund). … Cooney and Dillon McCowan tangled in turn three while racing inside the top five during the 15-lap Last Chance Qualifier, setting off a scramble that left Cooney’s right side on the hood of Chad Mahder’s car and Daniel Hilsabeck with heavy damage to the right-rear corner of his car. … Just three former USA Nationals winners will start the 100-lapper: Madden, Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill. (2018) and Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga. (2015, ’21, ’22). … First-time starters in the USA Nationals finale: Thornton, O’Neal, Cooney, Daulton Wilson of Fayetteville, N.C., Johnny Scott of Las Cruces, N.M., Kye Blight of Kitanning, W. Australia, Dustin Sorensen of Rochester, Minn., and Dustin Walker of Polk, Mo.
Last Chance Qualifier results
(15 laps; top two transfer)
Finish: Jake Timm, Dustin Sorensen, Jason Feger, Dillon McCowan, Chad Mahder, Nick Anvelink, Harry Hanson, Thomas Hunziker, Lance Matthees, Todd Cooney, James Giossi, Daniel Hilsabeck, Brent Larson, Jesse Glenz.
Last Chance Qualifier lineup
(15 laps; top two transfer)
Row 1: Brent Larson, Dustin Sorensen
Row 2: Dillon McCowan, Chad Mahder
Row 3: Jake Timm, Daniel Hilsabeck
Row 4: Todd Cooney, Nick Anvelink
Row 5: James Giossi, Jason Feger
Row 6: Harry Hanson, Lance Matthees
Row 7: Thomas Hunziker, Jesse Glenz
(15 laps; top three transfer)
First consolation finish: Ryan Gustin, Kyle Strickler, Trevor Gundaker, Brent Larson, Dillon McCowan, Jake Timm, Todd Cooney, James Gnosis, Harry Hanson, Thomas Hunziker, Gordy Gundaker, Drake Troutman, A.J. Diemel, Dustin Walker (DNS) Jeff Massingill, Sawyer Specht.
Second consolation finish: Kyle Bronson, Ashton Winger, Kye Blight, Dustin Sorensen, Chad Mahder, Daniel Hilsabeck, Nick Anvelink, Jason Feger, Lance Matthees, Jesse Glenz, Paul Parker, Danny Vang, Ricky Weiss, Ethan Dotson (DNS) Terry Casey, Don Shaw.
Saturday’s consolation race lineups
(15 laps; top three transfer)
Row 1: Ryan Gustin, Brent Larson
Row 2: Drake Troutman, Gordy Gundaker
Row 3: Kyle Strickler, Todd Cooney
Row 4: Jake Timm, Dillon McCowan
Row 5: Trevor Gundaker, A.J. Diemel
Row 6: Dustin Walker, James Giossi
Row 7: Harry Hanson, Thomas Hunziker
Row 8: Sawyer Specht, Jeff Massingill
Row 1: Kyle Bronson, Ethan Dotson
Row 2: Kye Blight, Ashton Winger
Row 3: Dustin Sorenson, Chad Mahder
Row 4: Daniel Hilsabeck, Nick Anvelink
Row 5: Ricky Weiss, Jason Feger
Row 6: Lance Matthees, Jesse Glenz
Row 7: Paul Parker, Danny Vang
Row 8: Terry Casey, Don Shaw
(All times local)
8:30 a.m. - Breakfast served in both restaurants
11 a.m. - Tubing on Apple River
12:30 p.m. - Fans Fund luncheon
2 p.m. - Lawn mower racing in the Cedar Lake Arena
4 p.m. - Grandstands open
4:30 p.m. - Drivers’ autograph session
6 p.m. - Drivers’ meeting
6:30 p.m. - On-track activity
- WoO Late Model hot laps (consolation drivers)
- Limited Late Model hot laps
- WoO Late Model consolation races (10 laps)
- Limited Late Model heat races (12 laps)
- WoO Late Model hot laps (drivers locked into feature)
- Limited Late Model consolation races (12 laps)
- WoO Late Model last-chance race (15 laps)
- Limited Late Model feature (30 laps)
Track prep and driver introductions
- WoO Late Model USA Nationals feature (100 laps)