By Lonnie Wheatley
TULSA, Okla. -- Sammy Swindell put the finishing touches on a perfect week by racing to victory lane in Saturday night's 23rd Annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire 50-lap championship feature event, besting an event record of 281 competitors.
After slipping back as far as fifth for a brief moment at the race's midway point, the Tennessee shoe took to the upper reaches of the QuikTrip Center's ¼-mile Tulsa Expo Raceway clay oval and blitzed to the head of the pack in short order, taking the lead away from Tracy Hines on the 34th circuit.
"To pull this off the way we did, to be undefeated here in every race, it was fun," Swindell commented afterward. "We had a great car and a lot of good fortune that we didn't get in trouble, and didn't tear up anything or get banged around."
Swindell survived a set of cautions in the final handful of circuits along with a foray or two above the turns one and two cushion to capture an unprecedented fifth Chili Bowl title and the coveted Golden Driller trophy that goes along with it.
Swindell was chased to the line by Hines, with Brad Kuhn making a last-corner move around Jerry Coons, Jr., to snare the show position. J.J. Yeley rounded out the top five.
The triumph, his first since reeling off four wins over the stretch from 1989 to 1998, capped an undefeated week of competition for "Slammin' Sammy" aboard the unique Esslinger-powered Venture Racing/ARIENCO/John Christner Trucking No. 1 Spike that sported an old-school appearing super modified tail tank.
Swindell opened the week with a Race of Champions victory on Tuesday and then swept Wednesday night's card with wins in heat race, qualifying race and main event competition to establish himself as a strong favorite in Saturday night's finale.
"Sometimes you can really get in trouble when you have a car that's really good," Swindell explained. "This place here is a little bit of momentum and rhythm, if I can get in that one little zone there I don't make many mistakes."
For the first half of Saturday's finale, third-starter Swindell was chasing front row starters Hines and Coons, who paced the initial 26 circuits that ran off in rapid fire fashion with the only interruption a lap 19 spin in turn four by Josh Ford.
While Coons led from the outset, Hines persistently pressured for the lead with Swindell, Kuhn and Levi Jones in pursuit. A Hines bobble exiting turn two on the tenth round briefly moved Swindell into second, only to have Hines battle back by two laps later as the leaders worked the tail of the field.
The pace continued after the lap 19 caution, with Hines taking quick advantage to take the lead by ducking underneath a Coons' push exiting turn four on the 27th lap.
Meanwhile, Swindell turned up the jets after slipping behind Kuhn and then Jones. "I tried to slow down a time or two and slowed down too much."
Stepping up the pace, Swindell quickly negated Jones' move and took to the top side of the track, blasting by Kuhn, then Coons and then Hines on successive laps to take command on the 34th circuit.
"I wanted to have a car that was good the second half, I was just waiting for everyone to get comfortable on the bottom and it left me the top open," Swindell explained. "I just caught it right at the right time, I played my cards good."
Despite narrowly missing a Donnie Ray Crawford spin on the 37th lap, surviving a perilous trip into the cushion on the 47th lap and three late cautions, Swindell raced to Roger Slack's checkered flag without challenge over the final 17 rounds.
Hines and Coons battled for runner-up honors behind the lapped cars separating them from Swindell in the final rounds, with 2005 Chili Bowl king Hines finally taking runner-up honors in Tony Stewart's Kistler-powered Chevy/Bass Pro Shops No. 21 Spike.
"Basically, we just didn't tighten the race car up enough," Hines explained afterward. "We did exactly what we wanted to do, it just wasn't enough."
Salt was added to the Coons wound when Brad Kuhn battled by in the final corner to take the show position in the Toyota-powered RW Motorsports No. 17b Beast, bettering his previous best Chili Bowl finish of fourth in 2006.
Coons settled for fourth in the Toyota-powered Wilke-PAK Motorports Speedway Motors No. 11 Spike, his best career Chili Bowl finish in a dozen tries.
J.J. Yeley rounded out the top five in Cruz Pedregon's Toyota-powered Odyssey Batteries No. 1J Spike by nipping Dave Darland at the line by inches. Darland settled for sixth, with Chris Windom charging from 23rd to seventh in his second Chili Bowl championship feature start.
Cole Whitt climbed from 17th to eighth, with Steve Buckwalter edging Brad Loyet at the line for ninth.
Loyet's tenth-place showing aboard one of three Loyet Motorsports entries in the finale was the best of a handful of drivers that made the cut for their first career Chili Bowl championship feature event including Gary Taylor (12th), Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (14th), Thomas Meseraull (16th) and Chad Kemenah (25th).
Loyet also beat teammates Jon Stanbrough (13th) and Jesse Hockett (18th) in the finale as Loyet Motorsports bested the other super-teams by landing three drivers in the main event. Tony Stewart, Wilke-PAK, Keith Kunz Motorsports, Tel-Star Communications and Daryl Saucier each had two cars make the main event.
After exiting "C" Main action, defending Chili Bowl champion Damion Gardner utilized the defending champion's provisional to start 25th and ultimately took the checkered flag in 19th.
Levi Jones held down the fifth position until jumping the turn two cushion and stalling his mount just five laps short of the checkered flag. Jones was credited with 24th after calling it a night.
NASCAR star Kasey Kahne's day was cut short when he tangled with Jason Meyers while dicing for a transfer position just three laps short of the night's first "C" Main.
The night's main event capped a full day of racing action that included 23 championship feature events that opened with Twin "L" Mains.
Cody Kershaw opened the day with a win in the first "L" Main in Chili Bowl history, with Dusty Heistand winning the second "L" Main.
Kevin Bayer won the first "K" Main and then advanced through "J" and "I" action before his day ended in an "H". Plagued by misfortune during the week, 2008 Belleville Midget Nationals champion Brad Sweet won the second "K" Main (in which Dylan Peterson took down some turn one fencing) and advanced through the second "J" before an "I" tangle doused his hopes of a significant alphabet run.
Chad DeSelle won the first "J" Main before advancing from an "I", with Brock Lemley winning the second "J".
Dave Camfield, Jr., raced past Glenn Styres on the third circuit en route to winning the first "I" Main punctuated by a wild backstretch tumble by French Grimes, while Will Pierce wired the field in the second "I".
Eventual first "H" winner Rick England took the point away from Jennifer Greenberg on the third round, while Joe Cleveland took command of the second "H" for keeps when leader Ricky Ehrgott did a not-quite-quick-enough 360-degree spin in turn four on the third lap.
A top-ten finisher last year, Brady Bacon's day opened with a hard-fought "G" Main win over "H" Main transfer Danny Stratton followed by a late charge on the top side to claim the fourth and final move-up in the first "F" Main before running out of steam in the "E". Matt Mitchell led all the way in the second "G" before mechanical woes early in the "F" ended his day.
Critter Malone aced the first "F", with Garrett Hansen matching the trick in the second "F" in front of "G" Main transfer Davey Ray, who survived a four-wide scramble into the final pair of corners to move on from his "G".
Chad Boat sailed to the first "E" Main win, with Jeff Bland, Jr., victorious in the second "E" Main.
Jason Meyers fought off Matt Streeter to win the first "D" Main, while Cole Carter made a late move around Billy Wease to win the second "D" as Hunter Schuerenberg shot from 14th to third.
Jason Leffler beat Kevin Swindell to the line in the first "C" Main, with Mat Neely taking the checkered flag in a second "C" that concluded with the day's nastiest flip as Frank Polimeda biked it and then barrel rolled a half-dozen times down the frontstretch in a valiant effort gone bad to take the sixth and final transfer position from Bud Kaeding.
Josh Ford won the first "B" Main to make the grade for his second consecutive Chili Bowl main event as Windom nipped Brent Beauchamp by just 0.011-seconds for the sixth and final transfer position. Danny Lasoski was battling for a transfer position until flipping after contact with Bryan Clauson, who also incurred damage in the scrum.
Casey Shuman won the second "B" Main, with Shane Hmiel ranking as this year's top finishing Chili Bowl rookie when he missed the feature cut by just one position in seventh. Darren Hagen had climbed from 12th to the final transfer in sixth only to be forced to the infield four laps shy of the checkered flag in the 20-lapper.