Two riders have won the last four championships in the American Flat Track Series (AFT) and they are at it again as Jared Mees and Briar Bauman fittingly square off in a winner-take-all contest to end 2021 on the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the season finale, which can be seen this Saturday, October 9 (NBCSN 10 p.m.).
Four points separate the riders in a system where five is the difference between first and second with another three markers back to third-place. It is a system that rewards finishing up front and that is precisely what Mees and Bauman have done all year. In 15 rounds, each has failed to stand on the podium just twice.
With results that tight, a third-place finish can be critical.
“There’s just such a big gap between first and third,” Bauman told NBC Sports. “It’s not impossible; it’s just huge. I can’t afford to give up that many points in one shot and we did it three rounds in a row. Both Sacramento (races) and one of the Springfield shows.
“(Mees) gained so many points right there. It’s just such a tough game right now because he and I, we’re either going to win or be on the podium. When you’re that close all the time you can’t afford to be third you have to be second.”
Bauman’s trio of third-place finishes came in the last three races. Had he finished second in any of those events, a single point would separate the two competitors.
“I’m aware of (the clinch scenarios); they’re really easy to figure out,” Mees said. “Briar’s tough. He’s a hell of a competitor and he knows that he needs to go out there and win, so I have to go out there and win.”
Mees has five previous AFT championships with the most recent coming in 2017 and 2018.
But Bauman has the opportunity to do something Mees has not. He is gunning for his third consecutive title after winning in 2019 and 2020.
“We’ve led the points pretty much every round after the first few,” Bauman said. “The last couple of races, I haven’t done bad; Jared Mees has just won. I’m still right in the mix and when looking at my past seasons, it’s no secret that the miles are harder for me. As much as you can look at it like ‘Oh shit, he lost the points’ at the same time I’m like, ‘Dude I look pretty good’.”
For the finale, the playing field is level. Charlotte is a high-banked, clay, half-mile oval where speed and balance are critical. Mees holds the lead, but Bauman’s three wins this season have all come on half-mile tracks.
For the two riders, it’s been a tale of two seasons. After finishing fourth at Volusia County Speedway in Barberville, Fla., Bauman stood on the podium in the next eight races.
Meanwhile, a training crash injured Mees’ knee prior to Round 3 and the Atlanta Motor Speedway TT, contributing to a 15th-place finish. By late June, the advantage was distinctly Bauman’s and when the series left Allen County Fairgrounds in Lima, Ohio, Mees was at his low point.
“I was okay most of the rounds and able to gut it out,” Mees described his brief moment of doubt about the outcome of the season. “But when I came to Lima, I think I got eighth or ninth there. That place was really grueling on my knee and leg and I couldn’t get through it well, struggling all day long with it.
“When I was sitting there on the couch (afterward), with my leg up on the pillow swelling, realizing that I might have to wait and postpone the next year for me, (that was my moment of doubt). But, it worked out good.
“By Weedsport, I really felt good physically, that’s where I really started picking them up and laying them down.”
Mees finished third in the first race of the doubleheader at Weedsport (N.Y.) Speedway and won Race 2. Bauman finished second and sixth in the two events.
In the next race in Peoria, Ill. on a TT course combining elements of oval and road racing, the two crossed under the checkers second and third, with Bauman holding the advantage.
“After Peoria when I was 25 points down, we had exactly five races and it was like, ‘Alright in order to win this championship I just have to win the rest of these races and I’ll be the champion’. We’ve won four so far and have to make this last one count. I’ve won five in a row before but not with this type of pressure of winning the championship.”
Mees’ incredible charge puts Bauman in a position in which he is recently unaccustomed. He’s behind in the points for the first time since the very beginning of the year and facing a tougher battle entering the finale than he has in the past two seasons.
“Every win I had last year I won by multiple seconds – at least three or four seconds,” Bauman said. “The last couple of laps you coast it in and that’s also how the championship went.”
This year has been different.
Only one or two positions separated Mees and Bauman in 12 of 15 rounds. In seven of those 12 events, Mees was ahead.
But instead of feeling the pressure, Bauman is energized.
“There are only so many moments in your life to be great and this is one of those moments for me,” Bauman said. “It’s like Tom Brady with a ball in the last drive of the game. Who are you going to be? Are you going to be the guy that everyone remembers that pulled it off or are you going to be the guy who brought it home second?
“I’ve actually been thriving off of this a lot, which is weird because the first couple of nights after I lost the points’ lead I was stressed out. Obviously Jared Mees has to be one of the greatest ever. As weird as it sounds, I’ve won the last two championships but everyone’s money has been on Jared.
“So when I beat him, it’s still big and I look forward to having the opportunity to make a last ditch effort, throw a Hail Mary and drive my team down the field to win this thing.
“The last two seasons I’ve had just enough points to not think about it too much. This time it’s pretty cut and dry. In the past there’s been a lot of different scenarios. This time there’s pretty much only one way for me to do this, which makes it pretty mellow. It’s a little surprising on my end, kind of funny.”
Mees’ current, four-race winning streak has come on one-mile tracks in Springfield, Ill. and Sacramento, Calif., but the size of the event is not defined by the length of the track.
The finale takes place at the epicenter of stock car racing in Concord, N.C., across the street from Turn 4 of Charlotte Motor Speedway where the final race of the Round of 12 will determine who continues to battle for NASCAR’s top prize. Without practice or qualification for that race, it’s a fair bet that most eyes will be focused on the dirt track this Saturday.
“This season has been pretty epic,” Michael Lock, CEO of American Flat Track, told NBC Sports. “We started the season back in March, not really knowing what the journey was going to be this year. Since we were still heavily into COVID protocols which were varied across the country, you would go to one state and have to deal with one set of circumstances and another state, completely different. So we started the season with some uncertainty.
“What we didn’t know was quite what an epic battle there would be on top of Super Twins in 2021. It’s probably the closest season for a long, long time between two very dominate riders who are on separate teams but are both supported by the same (Indian) factory. The rivalry is very close and the tension is very high going into our final round and nobody I know can say with any certainty who is going to win.”