PAST HALFWAY: World of Outlaws season building thrilling path to World Finals

The road to the World Finals championship finale in November is past halfway for the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series with the top contenders taking shape.

Three-time and defending Series champion Brad Sweet, of Grass Valley, CA, continues to lead the points, with his closest championship rivals currently being David Gravel in second, 54 points back, Sheldon Haudenschild in third, 84 points back, and Carson Macedo in fourth, 100 points back.

Sweet and his NAPA Auto Parts Kasey Kahne Racing team have been able to hang on to their championship lead since April, despite struggles to find Victory Lane.

For the first time in his full-time Series career, Sweet went the first half of the season with only one win – at Vado Speedway Park in March. However, he’s been consistent, securing 14 podiums in the first 40 races of the season. He currently leads all drivers with most top fives this season (24).

His latest came with a long-awaited return to Victory Lane but this time at arguably one of his worst tracks – Williams Grove Speedway. Having a career run at the historic half-mile, Sweet finished fourth the opening night of the Champion Racing Oil Summer Nationals and then bested the stout field on the final night to claim his first victory at the speedway.

“You know it’s a weird year when we’re at the Summer Nationals getting my second win (of the year) and it’s at Williams Grove,” Sweet said in Victory Lane. “This team, I feel so bad for them. They work so hard and are used to getting the results for the hard work that we put in.

“This year, we’ve gone through a lot of adversity. You know, it’s been a tough year. There were many times that I wanted to quit. I’ll tell you what, these NAPA Auto Parts guys never give up… To win here at Williams Grove is such a relief. No one can say I didn’t conquer this place.”

After securing three straight World of Outlaws titles, Sweet entered the year saying all he wanted to do was win. He wasn’t going to worry about points and planned to take more risks to secure victories. While he failed to do so the first half of the year, winning at Williams Grove could be the momentum booster he and his team needed to be dangerous the rest of the season with more big races still to come, such as the Empire State Challenge Weekend at Weedsport Speedway, Ironman 55, 61st NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals pres. By Casey’s, the AGCO Jackson Nationals, the fall West Coast Swing and more.

However, with three drivers still 100 points or less away from catching Sweet, the margin for error has grown tighter.

After falling from the points lead early in the season, David Gravel and his Big Game Motorsports team have also recently found some momentum, winning the Jokers Wild and Knight Before the Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway. Like Sweet, they’d been on an inconsistent slump after picking up two wins earlier in the year.

But Gravel is on a run of 14 top-10 finishes in the last 15 races with his worst finish in that time being an 11th at Port Royal. There’s a good chance that streak could continue at the Empire State Challenge Weekend at Weedsport Speedway (July 30-31), where the Watertown, CT driver won last year. He hasn’t finished outside the top five in his last three starts at Weedsport too.

He’s in his second full year with Big Game Motorsports and 2021 World of Outlaws Crew Chief of the Year Cody Jacobs, and for the second year in a row they’ve put themselves in contention for their first championship. Together, they currently have the most top-10 finishes of all teams (37) this season – one ahead of Sweet – keeping them in the title hunt.

“Like I’ve been saying, we’re extremely average but we’re right there,” Gravel said. “Just like tweaks here and there to challenge for wins. Just the toughest it’s ever been in Sprint Car racing since I’ve been involved, and you have to earn every single race.”

The runner-up spot in points hasn’t been easy to hang on to this year, though. Gravel, Haudenschild and Macedo have traded it throughout the season with no clear favorite to hunt down Sweet. Each have had their weeks of glory and weeks of defeat.

Haudenschild, of Wooster, OH, is having a career year, putting himself in the championship hunt for the first time. The only thing holding he and his Stenhouse Jr./Marshall Racing team back is the continuing theme of consistency.

He’s already collected eight wins this year – tying his career high for most wins in a season and tying him with Bobby Allen for 20th on the all-time Series wins list with 30 overall victories. However, between those milestones are wins lost due to errors or uncontrollable circumstances and random streaks outside the top 10.

As he and crew chief Kyle Ripper continue to build their notebook and improve their NOS Energy Drink #17 car week to week, Haudenschild said that’s what’s helped them stay in contention for the title.

“I think more time with me and Ripper and figuring out what we need as a package rolling into each night; I feel like we’ve got that,” Haudenschild said. “I still feel like we have work to do. Especially at these bigger tracks, just getting qualified well. That’s a lot of it. I feel like if we can improve our qualifying a little bit more we’ll be right there.”

While this is the first year Haudenschild and the team have put themselves in contention for the title, he added that hasn’t changed their approach yet.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said about going after the championship. “We want to win races. A championship would be great. I think if you play it smart, go out to win races and just keep your nose clean and finish these races in the top five and top 10, you should be there at the end.”

Macedo, of Lemoore, CA, is the youngest of the championship contenders in age and experience. The 26-year-old is in his fourth full-time season with the World of Outlaws and his second full season with Jason Johnson Racing.

He’d moved himself to second in points for a while, closing the gap between he and Sweet but a handful of finishes outside the top 10 and top 20 have dropped him to a 100-point deficit.

Along with Macedo’s seven wins this season, what’s helped keep his Albaugh #41 car in the hunt, so far, is the improvement in his overall consistency which comes from his new mentality.

“Last year, I wrecked a few times,” Macedo said. “I wrecked twice one night at Cotton Bowl. I wrecked at Eldora. I had several instances. Wrecked at [Silver Dollar Speedway] in the Dash. I realized at the end of the year when I did some math that if I just would finish those nights, I would’ve been right there with a very good chance at the championship. It made me revaluate, ‘OK, it is important to win races, don’t get me wrong, nobody on a race team wants to race for months on end with no wins. You got to win races. But at the same time, there are nights when your car is good enough to run fifth and making it try to be a winning car can sometimes cause you to wreck and that just doesn’t win championships.’

“So, it’s made me revaluate that when my car is good enough to be in the top five, then some nights that is what I have to take is a fifth or a seventh. Just put together a consistent season… Philip (Dietz, JJR co-owner) is good at what he does and (crew members) Clyde (Knipp) and Nate (Repetz), and they’re going to make sure it is good at the end of the race. I think that’s changed me a lot and given us the mentality that we are capable of winning the championship and being at that elite level.”

With 30 races to go this season, the championship conclusion at the World of Outlaws World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte, Nov. 2-5, is far from predictable. Logan Schuchart and 10-time Series champion Donny Schatz sit fifth (178 points back) and sixth (190 points back), respectively, in the standings with time to gain ground if they can find something in the back half of the season.

While not mathematically out of contention, drivers like Spencer Bayston (324 points back) and James McFadden (342 points back) have a large hole to try and climb out of in 30 races. However, for Bayston it’s still been a successful season, being his rookie year. He has a substantial lead over Kasey Kahne for the 2022 Kevin Gobrecht Rookie of the Year title and has picked up two big wins at Bristol Motor Speedway and Huset’s Speedway.

The road to World Finals continues Saturday and Sunday, July 30-31, at Weedsport Speedway for the first ever doubleheader event at the New York track. For tickets to events like Weedsport and World Finals, and to see the remaining 2022 schedule, CLICK HERE. If you purchase a four-day World Finals ticket package by Aug. 31, you will receive a free fan pit pass.

To keep up with the 2022 World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series points battle, CLICK HERE.

If you can’t make it to the track, you can watch every World of Outlaws race live on DIRTVision – either online or by downloading the DIRTVision App. The Knoxville Nationals will only be available with an annual DIRTVision Platinum FAST PASS subscription.

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