It's definitely good to be Alton ... Jones, that is, the guy in the driver’s seat of the 2011 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. He hasn’t got it quite sewn up — not just yet — but he’s going to be very, very difficult to catch.
For starters, the next stop on the Bassmaster Elite Series trail is South Carolina’s Lake Murray, site of his Megabucks win in 2000. He hasn’t always excelled on Murray, but he’s never bombed there, and he’s fishing so well this season that a collapse seems unthinkable.
Alton has a lead of 107 points in this year’s AOY race. It’s the second largest lead at this point of the season in Elite history. Only Skeet Reese set a faster pace; in 2010 he led by 258 after five tournaments.
We all know what happened to Reese last season. After a stellar regular season, he stumbled in the postseason, opening the door for Kevin VanDam to take home his sixth AOY trophy.
Of course, this year there’s no postseason — no chance to undo the work of a regular season. That works to Jones’ advantage and cuts into the chances of anyone making a comeback.
Here are a couple of other things that make it look like the year of Alton Jones:
(1) In the five previous Elite seasons, every eventual AOY leader after eight tournaments (the full regular season this year) was also leading after five events with a single exception. In 2009, Skeet Reese trailed the leader (KVD) by five points.
(2) Five points is the biggest deficit any angler has made up with three events to go in the season. Terry Scroggins (2nd), Kevin VanDam (3rd) and Steve Kennedy (4th) have a lot farther to go than that.
It's not easy to say that Scroggins, VanDam and Kennedy are out of it, so I won't, but the odds against them are longer than you might think. If Jones were being chased by lesser anglers — maybe some rookies or guys who had never challenged for AOY this late in a season — I'd call this race and congratulate Alton. Instead, he's being by pursued by three talented veterans. Everyone else — all 95 of them — are finished as far as the AOY race is concerned.
Put a fork in 'em.
The race for All Star Week is different. Eight anglers will qualify for that, and it's a pretty safe bet that five or six guys currently in the top eight will be among them. The rest could be a little surprising. Every year at this stage someone starts to mount a big comeback and jumps into the top eight from much lower in the standings.
Last year it was none other than KVD. He was 21st after five events — 88 points out of the top eight — but got hot and slipped into the postseason where he made the most of the opportunity and earned his sixth AOY title.
All Star week won't decide the AOY race, but it will put a lot of cash into the pockets of the qualifiers, so the struggle to get there will be hard-fought. Then, of course, there's the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.
To earn a spot in the Classic, an Elite angler will likely need to finish in the top 35 of the AOY standings. That covers the top 28 finishers (who are guaranteed berths in the championship) plus the winners of the eight regular season events (also guaranteed berths), almost all of whom will double-qualify by virtue of finishing in the top 28 in the AOY standings.
While you can just about guarantee that someone will mount a big comeback and move into the top 35 from the 50s, it's also safe to say that it won't be more than one angler.
That means Tim Horton (50th), Cliff Pace (52nd), Gary Klein (53rd) and Skeet Reese (58th) are in big trouble. One of them might sneak in with a Herculean finish, but not more than one.
It also means that perennial Classic qualifiers like Boyd Duckett (63rd), Mike McClelland (76th) and Tommy Biffle (92nd) are definitely out unless they can win one of the final three tournaments. These guys need to pull out all the stops and go for broke. Win and they're in. Anything else and they work the show floor at the Expo.
And what's happened to Derek Remitz (97th), Terry Butcher (82nd) and Russ Lane (70th)? A year ago they were fighting for the AOY title in the postseason. This year they're fighting to keep their Elite status. If things don't improve for them, they don't have the exemptions necessary to guarantee a return to the trail. It's past time to worry for these three.
Stick around. The season's just getting interesting.