NICK SCHWIEN • Hays Daily News Jeff Radcliffe buckles himself into his URSS sprint car earlier this season prior to a heat race at Rush County Speedway in La Crosse. Radcliffe will be competing at the Wheatshocker Rebel Nationals this weekend in Hays.
By NICK SCHWIEN
There's something to be said about being lucky.
But there hasn't been much luck to do with C.J. Johnson's dominance at RPM Speedway in Hays when he competes in the United Rebel Sprint Series.
In fact, the sprint car driver nicknamed "The Natural" is just that on Hays' dirt oval. He's right at home in comfortable surroundings.
But this weekend, the Quinter driver won't be quite as comfortable. Instead, he'll have to start farther back in the pack for Sunday's feature race of the fifth annual Wheatshocker Rebel Nationals.
The two-day event that quickly has become the signature weekend for the URSS begins at 7 p.m. Saturday. The top 10 drivers from that night's A-main automatically lock themselves into the first five rows for Sunday night's feature -- which pays $2,000 to win.
The rest of the field will have to qualify for the final 10 spots from B features Sunday, and those drivers will start -- at best -- in the sixth row.
"It's tougher every year," said Johnson, who won the event in 2008 and 2010. "Everybody gets faster. It's going to depend on the race track. Hopefully this cool spell will help and we'll have two lanes to race. You've got a chance to come from the sixth or seventh row and win it then."
The best Johnson possibly can start Sunday night will be 11th. He'll be competing in the NCRA 360 Hutchinson Nationals on Saturday night, meaning he won't get a chance to lock himself in to the top 10 spots. He leads the NCRA standings, only 10 points ahead of Jeremy Campbell. He'll also be trying to win his fourth Hutch nationals crown as well.
But Sunday night, Johnson will be back in Hays to compete. He's won eight of the 20 URSS races at RPM, including a span of six in a row from 2008 to 2009.
"It's one of the races I look forward to every year," Johnson said. "It's in Hays, and it's close to home, and we have a lot of fans there. And, the Wheatshocker has always been good to me."
He makes a good point. Johnson, the URSS career wins leader with 35, has won two of the previous four Wheatshocker crowns. Patrick Bourke and Kasey Beckham won the other two.
Last year, the Hutch nationals fell on the same weekend, and Johnson was in a similar spot. He started 12th after winning one of the two B features and made his way all the way up to third, falling short of Beckham -- who led all 30 laps -- and Tyler Knight.
In four Wheatshocker events, Johnson has finished no worse than fourth -- the year Bourke won it.
"It always seems like we run good at Hays," he said. "The track is totally different, though. One year, the track was where you could run way up (top), and one year it was at the bottom."
While many people might put money on Johnson to win another title, there are many other drivers competing who can put a wrinkle in his plan.
Two of those are Brian Herbert and Jeff Radcliffe. Both are near the top in the URSS national points standings, and Herbert is trying to become the first driver to win two national titles. He won his first in 2008.
"Definitely if you can even run in the top five there, it's a good payout," Herbert said. "Actually, it pays pretty good all the way through. But we're going to try to win the thing. We're tired of these seconds, thirds, fourths."
Radcliffe is a relative young gun yet, but the Hill City driver is making a name for himself. He's qualified for the A-main the last two years and is looking to make a statement this year in Hays.
He's made a solid first half of the season, even winning a $1,500 payout in the second race of the year in Beaver, Okla.
"Getting that first one early on was nice," he said. "We've got the pressure to win one off, but at the same time there's pressure still to win again. If we can win one of these dual region races, we'll be OK."
The Rebels start the weekend with a stop at WaKeeney Speedway on Friday night. Johnson has won the last two races there, but he won't be competing Friday. Races in WaKeeney are set for 7:30 p.m.
Also competing Friday in WaKeeney will be the modifieds and hobby stocks.
On Saturday in Hays, the modifieds, stocks and sport mods will be competing, with the hobby stocks and sport compacts competing Sunday. School buses races will be both nights.