Two Events Remain in OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car
"Well, that escalated quickly!" said fictitious anchorman, Ron Burgundy, but that definitely applies to OPTIMA's Search for the Ultimate Street Car. Even though the Michigan event wasn't a double-points event, it underscored how much can still change in the USCA point standings in just one event. However, that wasn't the case for all competitors, as some emerged from Michigan without the cushion they were hoping they would have.
Bryan Johnson (pictured) had a strong outing in his 2013 Chevrolet Camaro in the double-points event in St. Louis earlier this year, but after the dust settled in Portland, it became clear that anyone hoping to make the OUSCI field needed points from the equivalent of at least three events. Johnson brought home 211.33 points at St. Louis, which put him inside the top-20 at the time, but the cut-off for the top-20 went from 199.2 points after St. Louis to 216.43 points after Portland. Johnson needed to run in at least one more event to make the OUSCI field, so he headed to Michigan International Speedway. The weekend went well for Johnson and he catapulted from 22nd position to 10th, but didn't need to make it in on points, because he qualified as the top finisher in GT3K in Michigan.
Ronnie Soliman was another competitor firmly entrenched in the top-10 after Portland, who improved dramatically after Michigan. Soliman's 2006 Mitsubishi Evo IX sat comfortably in eighth position among non-qualifiers headed into Michigan, but he emerged in second place in the overall points standings. He also won the AWD class, so he is making plans for Las Vegas.
Ken Thwaits took the overall USCA points lead from Kyle Tucker's 1970 Camaro at the Michigan event in his 2014 1LE Camaro, which has not yet qualified for the OUSCI (although Thwaits has already qualified in his 2014 Z28 Camaro). Even though Thwaits has run two double-points events in the 1LE, he probably won't be able to lock up the season-long points battle until he finishes the Pittsburgh event. The reason is that Kyle Tucker is less than 22 points behind and has only run one double-points event at St. Louis. James Shipka (1967 Camaro) and Chris Porter (1986 Porsche 948) aren't much further behind in GT3K. Ronnie Soliman and AJ Santiago (2011 Nissan GT-R) are also withing striking distance in AWD and even Joe Escobar's 1974 Ford Pinto in GT2K still has a mathematical chance to take home the overall points championship at Pittsburgh, although Escobar is not expected to make that event.
For as much movement as some competitors saw in the standings, others remain frustratingly stagnant, although still on the inside of the top-20. Todd Rumpke (2006 Corvette) struggled with a new engine combination in Michigan and was unable to score points at the event, falling from 13th to 16th. Chris Smith (1967 Chevrolet C10) did run strong all weekend, but couldn't add to his points total and dropped from 12th to 14th in the standings for non-qualifiers.
Greg Schneider was able to add to his season-long points total, but still dropped from 16th to 18th place in the non-qualifier top-20. The same was true for Randy Johnson, who added points in Michigan, but still dropped from 10th to 12th place and Bret Voelkel, who added more than 20 points, but still dropped a position to sixth place. Billy Utley (1972 Chevrolet Nova) had a strong run at Michigan and was able to hang on to 7th position and Chris Gonzalez (1970 Dodge Challenger), Jordan Priestley (2011 Chevrolet Camaro) and defending OUSCI champion, Brian Hobaugh (1973 Camaro) round out the top-10.
Shawn Carroll (2008 Mitsubishi Evo X) made a big leap at Michigan, climbing all the way into the 11th spot with a strong finish in the AWD category and Danny Popp moved the Lingenfelter L28 Camaro in the 15th position from outside the top-20, even though Popp has already qualified in his 2003 Corvette.
It didn't matter that Andy Smedegard was a newcomer in GT2K, because his 2001 Honda S2000 took home the class win. That should call attention to the fact that at least eight more OUSCI invites will be handed out at the final two events. As much as we're focusing on the points here, those invitations will be based on the performance of competitors in those single events and anyone has a shot at getting invited to SEMA and the OUSCI, if they show up at Sebring or Pittsburgh and compete.
The large GT2K field at Michigan diluted the point distribution in that class, making it harder for anyone to catch class leader, Joe Escobar, in the remaining two events and impossible, if they haven't already competed in other USCA events this season. Escobar will be able to rest easier after the Sebring event, as he will have a much better idea of whether or not any of the other 12 remaining GT2K non-qualifiers will be going after his points lead in Pittsburgh.
The class leaders who have not already qualified for the OUSCI and the next 17 in points, regardless of class, will be invited to the OUSCI at the end of the season. After Portland, 20th place in points was 216.43, but that cut-off jumped to 250.06 after Michigan. Points follow vehicles, not drivers, so several non-qualifying vehicles in the top-20 non-qualifiers are being driven by people already in the 2014 OUSCI (Ken Thwaits, Brian Hobaugh and Danny Popp). Karl Dunn is just outside the top-20 in his 1999 Corvette, but has already qualified in his 2002 Corvette. That means Rick Hoback (2007 Corvette) is on the hotseat, as the last qualifier based on points right now. We know he is planning to solidify his position at Pittsburgh, but what about other competitors on the bubble?
It seems unlikely that Monty Pack will bring his Porsche GT3 RS east of the Rockies to lock in a spot at the OUSCI. Does that leave the door open for others? Will Todd Rumpke be able to get his Corvette running strongly soon enough to score some points and move up a few spots in the final few events? Will Greg Schnieder (1966 Chevelle) head for Pittsburgh to lock in his spot for the OUSCI? What about James Stancel? He started out the season strong, leading the points after the first three events, but hasn't made an event since Daytona.
Keith Jurcazak (2013 Camaro) is another West Coast competitor who is unlikely to make the trip back east for either of the final two events. Given what has transpired with points in the two most-recent events, it seems unlikely he'll make it into the OUSCI field on points. Time is running out for Keith and many other competitors. With only two events remaining, there is a long list of competitors who will be on the outside looking in, if they don't make something happen at Sebring or Pittsburgh. Sign up to compete in a USCA event here.