NICK SCHWIEN • Hays Daily News C.J. Johnson competes in hot laps prior to an NCRA 360 sprint car race last year at RPM Speedway in Hays.
Jeremy Campbell sits in his sprint car in the pits during an NCRA event last year at RPM Speedway in Hays.
By NICK SCHWIEN
Rarely in 2012 was there a time when C.J. Johnson and Jeremy Campbell weren't near each other.
The two drivers on the NCRA 360 sprint car tour battled each night -- along with several other drivers -- for the coveted spot in victory lane. Both won two races last year, and both also claimed several top-five finishes.
That resulted in a season-long battle for the NCRA points title, which eventually went to Johnson by only 155 points. It was Johnson's third career NCRA crown.
"We stayed pretty close for most of the season," said Johnson, who lives in Quinter. "He had a DNF at Wichita with about two or three races to go that helped me out. He's a good guy to race against. He races you close and clean, which is all you can ask for."
The two -- along with several other of the nation's top sprint car drivers -- will battle again this season, starting at 7 p.m. Saturday at the third annual Air Capital Shootout at 81 Speedway in Park City.
The night is expected to be one of the largest -- if not the largest -- sprint car shows in the state this season and features a $5,000 payout for the winner. More than $20,000 in prize money is up for grabs, and NCRA officials and drivers are expecting anywhere from 40 to 50, perhaps even more, drivers to compete.
"There's going to be a lot of cars out there this weekend," said Campbell, who lives in Wichita. "There's going to be national tour guys and ASCS guys. I'm expecting there to be 50 to 60 cars out there. There really isn't another race out there in the region this weekend."
Johnson and Campbell headline a stellar NCRA cast of drivers that also features Mike Peters, Jon Freeman, Luke Cranston, Ty Williams and Zach Blurton -- the 2012 rookie of the year -- just to name a few. All will be trying to start the season off on a good note.
"In these things, you have to have some luck and have things go your way," said Freeman, who is from Salina.
Many of the NCRA drivers haven't had a chance to get on a track yet this season. So Saturday's season-opener might bring along a few surprises.
It also will bring in some big names.
Brian Brown, last year's Knoxville Nationals runner-up who later won an NCRA event in Hays at RPM Speedway, is expected to fly in from California to compete. Brown will fly in Saturday morning and drive one of Ty Williams' cars.
"There's going to be some major heavy-hitters there," Williams said. "Guys from Oklahoma and the ASCS tour. ... It will be a hard race to make the feature."
Then there's the strong likelihood of ASCS powers Jason Johnson, Johnny Herrera, Tony Bruce Jr. and Jack Dover making the trip. Former World of Outlaws great Danny Lasoski also is expected to race.
It will be the largest NCRA sprint car payout since the division officially began 15 years ago.
"We started the first year with $3,000 to win, then went to $4,000 to win last year," said NCRA promoter C. Ray Hall. "We'd certainly like to continue to add to it."
This year, the runner-up will take home $3,000, and third place will finish with $2,000. The top five finishers pocket at least $1,000.
While plenty of big names will be present, don't count out the local talent as well -- including C.J. Johnson and Campbell.
The battle between those two last year only increased the popularity and strength of the NCRA 360s.
"The NCRA tour was strong before, but not quite to the ASCS level yet," Campbell said. "C.J. and I stepped it up last year to help bring it to a higher level, along with everyone else."
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3rd annual Air Capital Shootout
General admission: $15
Ages 6 to 10: $5
Pit passes: $30
Gates open at 5 p.m.; races start at 7 p.m.