By – Chris Porter
Coming in to the 2009 SBS season, some of the pre-season discussion revolved around who and when the 18-second barrier would be broken into. Along the way, three different drivers were able to nail down times in the 19.1 range, but no one was able to pull off an 18.9.
Like their bigger brothers, perhaps a set-up for a 2-lap time trial would offer up some blistering times? Nope, at least they didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t last season. Russ Brown topped the chart in 2008 with a Classic pole time of 19.255 seconds. Brian Sobus was the only other driver to throw down a lap in the 19.2Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s, circling OswegoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fast 5/8 mile with a time of 19.271. The rest of the field was a full 10th of a second behind.
With a straight, heads-up start, time-trialing is absolutely an essential element to putting together a winning run in the SBS Classic. Throw in the fact that caution laps count, the ever-so increasing competitiveness of the class and week-to-week difficulties in passing, earning a good starting position is that much more crucial.
A perfect example of how a heads-up start puts passing at a premium, was the first of two 20-lappers two weeks ago. The top six finishers all started in the first six positions. The initial double-file start and all ensuing restarts will play critical roles Saturday afternoon. Once again, the time trials will ultimately tell the story of how the Classic will be won.
So, who does the importance of time-trialing bode well for? Two-time defending SBS Classic winner, David Cliff has recorded the two fastest laps in 2009. CliffÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s laps of 19.102 and 19.151 put him atop the season-long speed charts.
However, since their feature win on July 18th, Gnomey Racing has run into a brick wall. In the six features theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve run since their win, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve earned finishes of 7th, 21st, 19th, 18th, 17th and 10th – not the kind of momentum a team likes taking into the biggest weekend of the year.
In the last few seasons, CliffÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s luck has seen extreme highÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and extreme lowÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s. The team is fighting to dig itself out of quite a deep pit right now. Will the extra week off put them back on the right track again? TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve proven they have the speed and have proven in the past they can go the distance as well. Seemingly stuck in their current rut, the odds are certainly against them earning a three-peat. However, if they can nail down one of their 19.1Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s, put themselves in the front of the field and avoid their recent engine woes, you can all but throw that ring of roses around DaveÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s neck come Saturday night.
No one can deny that this has been the season of Dave Gruel and the Tim Barbeau-owned No. 50. GruelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s five feature wins, including two on the night of the regular season-finale, were three more than any other driver. Gruel led the division with eight heat race wins and he spent more time atop the field in feature competition than another other driver. In fact, Gruel led roughly half of all feature laps run in 2009.
With finishes of 8th, 15th and 17th, Gruel may have stumbled into the final points night. However, his two wins to seal the track title proved the team was back and ready to finish what they started back in May. Like Cliff, a solid time-trial run that puts them atop the field will make it nearly impossible for anyone else to reach victory lane. A few mid-season bumps in the road showed that the team is not invincible. But, if their run this weekend resembles anything like it did two weeks ago, Gruel will have a Classic crown to go along with his track title belt.
Driving the Steve Abt-owned No. 58, Barbeau is the only other driver to have scored himself a lap in the 19.1-second range this season. Consistency has been the issue with the No. 58 this season. Having stopped the clocks faster than any other car on more than one occasion, Barbeau has certainly shown he can wheel his SBS racer around the lakeside oval. He hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t scored a top-five finish since July 18th and will need an excellent starting spot if he wants to contend for his first Classic win.
Mike Bond, Brian Sobus and Brown are the other major threats to the Classic pole. Brown earned it last year, but has yet to lead a lap this season. His experience, consistency and near-top speed put him in contention once again in 2009. His 11 top-five finishes are tops among all SBS drivers this season, finishing out of the top five only once. Never short on confidence, Brown will do everything he can to start ahead of his closest competition.
Just as consistent, Sobus finished in the top 10 in every feature, minus the final 20-lapper two weeks ago. Winner of the 2008 SBS Racing News/Outdoor Power Small Block Super Survival Challenge, Sobus proved once again in 2009 that speed and patience offer up good results. The No. 79 reached Oswego SpeedwayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s victory lane twice this season and has laid down many 19.2Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s.
Right now, Bond is looking at retirement after 2009. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s won this race before – 2003 and 2004. He took the lead away from Sobus in last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Classic, but later lost it to Cliff in a game of bumper tag near the halfway mark. Bond hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t topped the speed charts much this season, but has always been near the front. His moves on the track have often made up that difference, earning him a feature win earlier in the year. If the No. 26 car is capable, rest assure, Bond will put it in victory lane.
No driver has shown more improvement over the last month than Andrew Schartner. Picking up two feature wins and a fourth and fifth-place finish to close out the season, a solid time-trial by the young UNC-Charlotte student instantly makes him a solid contender. Like Bond, Schartner gets the most out of his car. With his confidence at a season high and well-earned Rookie of the Year title under his belt, do not underestimate the Crow Motorsports No. 18 car this weekend.
These are the drivers SBS Racing News sees as those with the best shot at reaching the winnerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s circle this weekend. We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think the victor will come from outside the top six qualifiers – the competition is just too close. Seeing an underdog steal the checkered flag always makes for a great story and welcomed site. Stan Gates and Dave Danzer could fill that glass slipper. A win for Kevin Knopp would be a great way for the 2008 track champ and division vet to bow out of his SBS career as well.
With that, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll go with Brown earning his fourth Classic win. Bond and Sobus will run second and third. SchartnerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s phenomenal rookie season should see him land in fourth. Saving it all up for this weekend, JJ Andrews should make things exciting in the main pack, driving his No. 93 to a hard-earned fifth-place finish.
As for Gruel? Honestly, if he can put the No. 50 in front early and not run into trouble (or have trouble run into him), heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the man to beat. Simply put, if he finishes, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll win.
The SBS Classic is fickle event. Only three drivers have won the race more than once – all three will be gunning for another this weekend. Greg Furlong, Tim Gareau, Otto Sitterly and Ray Graham, Jr. never won the SBS Classic. Even multi-time SBS track champs Keith Gilliam and Mark Regan were unable to capture an SBS Classic win.