BARTLETT, Tenn. — Blog by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — Chris Seelman photo — After struggling the past couple of days to come up with a blog topic, I figured I would go back to what I know best since nothing was coming easily to mind: sprint cars.
When the 2014 season started, I expected several drivers to be competitive on a weekly basis in the United Sprint Car Series 360ci division, but I have to admit — Anthony Nicholson was not one of them.
Nicholson, the series’ 2008 Rookie of the Year, has been on the tour the past six seasons, and while he had shown flashes of brilliance at times there wasn’t anything to indicate that he had championship potential in him that I saw. Four career victories and a best finish of third in the points standings didn’t give me a lot of optimism going into the season — especially considering three of those six seasons (2008, 2010 and 2011) he went winless.
However, the 28-year-old veteran is making me eat my words this year — and I’m more than happy to based on his season-long performance.
Nicholson captured his fifth USCS victory of the season and second-in-a-row this past Saturday night at Tennessee National Raceway, winning the Tennessee Fall Nationals for the second consecutive year. He currently sits in a tight battle for third with Mississippi driver Jeff Willingham in the national points standings and comfortably holds third in the Mid-South regional standings with just nine series points races remaining on the year. If it weren’t for the fact that he missed the season-opening race at Magnolia Motor Speedway, he would be in a virtual dead-heat with Terry Gray for the Mid-South region title.
Oh, by the way, for all you math majors out there — I did say he had five wins this season alone. That’s more than what he had in his entire career coming into 2014!
Am I surprised? A little bit, yes. But in the same token, several factors have come together behind the Tennessee native to produce a winning combination.
There’s seat time, which is always a big factor in future success. This is Anthony’s seventh season on the USCS tour, and for as up-on-the-wheel as he was as a rookie, he’s driving like a seasoned veteran now — still up on the wheel, but using his head and being patient enough to make exactly the move he needs to right when it counts the most.
There’s people too that are helping make things happen. For the most part, the team is Anthony and his dad, with crew help coming along whenever they can get it. However, the Nicholsons have engine support from Ricky Stenhouse Sr. and Dynotech Performance, and that group has stepped up their game in 2014 in a big way.
Nicholson alluded to it in his post-race interview Saturday night:
“Ricky Stenhouse and Dynotech are on it right now. They’ve hit on something under the wing that has made these cars as fast as any I’ve had since I started in sprint cars. Right now, I feel like we can go to about any track and be in the top five or a threat to win. We may be done going east for the year, but I still think we can win one or two more of these before the year’s out.”
Do I know specifically what’s behind the increase in performance? No, but then — I’m not in the engine department. But I do know that there’s not many drivers who could wheel a car that’s starting to push water to victory lane by a half track the way Nicholson did on Labor Day at Tri-County Race Track. He drove a remarkable race that night and afterwards you could tell he was worried he had hurt the car a little bit, but that he hadn’t been about to give up the win that was in his grasp.
The upped performance by the car has given the driver a third factor — increased confidence — and I’ll tell you, Nicholson is showing a little bit of that swagger at the track now.
Is it cockiness? Absolutely not. It’s the air of a driver who rolls into the pit area trusting his race car and knowing he can be competitive from the minute he hits the race track. It’s confidence; confidence that has paid big dividends for a driver who until now I looked at as being on the second-tier in the USCS sprint car ranks — someone who could win occasionally, but wasn’t quite to the level of a Tim Crawley or a Derek Hagar or a Terry Gray in that every time he’s in the field, the other drivers are on notice.
They’re on notice now though, as am I. And for once, I’m glad to admit I was wrong.
Anthony Nicholson may not win a championship this season, but he’s got all the pieces in place now to start winning them in bunches. I don’t know exactly when the first one will come, but I do know this much:
He’s sure going to make it fun to watch while he’s trying.