By Brett Bowman
Tribune sports columnist
Lincoln’s Dave Darland came painfully close to capturing his second career USAC Amsoil National Sprint Car Series title in 2012 while piloting the always potent Jeff Walker Racing No. 11.
Heading into the final weekend of the season, Darland held the championship points lead as he was vying for his fifth overall USAC national championship. However, a combination of some bad luck for Darland and good luck for Bryan Clauson joined forces to allow Clauson the title by a mere six points over Darland when the checkered flag fell on the final night.
Surprisingly, despite racking up a dozen feature wins a year ago, Darland found himself in the position of trying to find a ride to again compete for his first USAC sprint title since 1999 when he chauffeured the Hoffman Racing No. 69.
When Darland was informed by Walker that the Walker Racing team was going in a different direction, he contacted Steve and Carla Phillips about the availability of their No. 71P that he had driven on occasion the last couple of years but was primarily wheeled by Jerry Coons Jr.
“I called them when I was in Arizona racing earlier in the year,” said Darland. “At that time, they weren’t sure if [Jon] Stanbrough was going to drive for them or not this year and Jerry had already committed to the Edison team. They told me they were waiting to see what Stanbrough was going to do, but then the next time I talked to them they said the ride was there for me if I wanted it.”
With the sour taste of coming so close a year ago still fresh in his mind, Darland is looking anxiously to this season for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, he has his sights set on eclipsing Tony Elliott as the all-time leader in sprint car wins at the Kokomo Speedway. Heading into the 2013 campaign, he trailed his long-time rival by just one feature win.
“That is something I would like to get taken care of pretty early,”he noted. “There are a lot of things this year I am hoping to do. Besides Kokomo, I am hoping to get the Phillips’ team its first USAC National win. That car has always been pretty good and its won some features, but none of them have been USAC races.”
In the season-opening event at the Bubba Raceway Park in Florida, Darland and Clauson were back at it again, tussling tooth and nail for 30 laps before Clauson cleared the Lincoln veteran on the final lap to score the win.
“That was a good race,” said Darland of his battle with Clauson. “I think I led just about every lap except the one that counted the most.”
As for Kokomo, Darland never dreamed that one day his name could well be the one atop the all-time feature win list when he began his career in the mid 1980s.
“It never entered my mind when Dad and I started out way back then,”he said with a chuckle. “I remember the first one I ever got at Kokomo. It was on Father’s Day in 1986 and I started seventh that night. I’ll never forget that I had to get around Bobby Kinser late in the race to win and he sure made that car of his hard to get by.”
Besides Kokomo, Darland also is the career feature win leader at the Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville as he is closing in on nearly 60 feature wins at the southwestern Indiana bullring. Ironically enough, the driver he surpassed there was none other than Kinser.
His soon to be Hall of Fame career also sees him in the top 10 in all-time feature wins in USAC competition as he has totaled 76 wins in USAC’s big three of Traxxas Silver Crown, Mopar Midget and Amsoil Sprint car competition. He sits in the top five all time in sprint car wins, trailing Tom Bigelow (52), Jack Hewitt (46), Tracy Hines (45). Both he and Gary Bettenhausen have taken home 40 wins.
Through all the highs and lows that accompany being a full-time race car driver, Darland seems to still have the same enthusiasm that he did 15 years ago, although as he’s grown older the business side of the sport is more visible now than it was when he was the fresh-faced new kid.
“I’m just going to go out and give it all that I’ve got whenever I am at the track,” he said. “Like I said, I would really like to finally get the Phillips’ team that first national win. They are great supporters of the sport and good people to work with and they deserve it. I’ve got a midget ride lined up for a lot of the bigger shows and hopefully everything will fall into place so that I can drive the No. 56 car in the Silver Crown Series. I know that Sandy Jarvis [the wife of car owner Mike] has had some health issues and that is more important right now, but if she gets better, then I think the car is there for me to run it.”
As for his schedule and how often fans can expect to see him compete at his home track, Darland stated that in the early going it will probably be pretty often.
“I would say that before Sprint Week we will be running a lot at Kokomo and Gas City,” he noted. “I know that Sprint Week is important to all of us and if we are running at the tracks pretty regularly then it will help us when that week rolls around.”
Brett Bowman may be reached at email@example.com or through the sports department.