2008 Elite Series - Bluegrass Brawl Kentucky Lake - Gilbertsville, KY, Jun 12 - 15, 2008

Alone atop race with three tournaments left

Kevin VanDam
Kevin VanDam

GILBERTSVILLE, Ky. — One week ago Sunday, Kevin VanDam wiped the sweat from his brow, carefully looking at the scales as Jeremy Starks weighed in his five bass at the conclusion of Alabama's Southern Challenge Elite Series event.

And that's when Starks did a huge fist pump, dislodging momentarily the king of bass fishing from his throne by a mere eight ounces, leaving VanDam in a position that he doesn't enjoy occupying at a final weigh-in.

Afterward, a disappointed VanDam, when reminded about the gains he had made in the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, said "I try to win every time I go out there. I'm not fishing for points and I'm not fishing for a check."

He then added "You know, against these guys you've got to take a few chances and look for patterns that are going to produce winning size stringers for the body of water, that's what you look at."

Loosely translated, that's swing for the fences trying to win and things like winning a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title will take care of itself.

What a difference a week can make.

This time, during the final round weigh-in on Kentucky Lake for the "Elite 12" anglers fishing in this week's Bluegrass Brawl presented by DieHard Platinum Marine Batteries, it was Timmy Horton sitting on the hot-seat as KVD came to the scales last.

As the numbers settled, VanDam did his own fist pump into the air, claiming the championship trophy and a check for more than $100,000.

Not a bad way to celebrate Father's Day, huh?

While KVD by his own admission fishes for wins and not paychecks or AOY points, VanDam's surge up the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year leaderboard with four "Top 10" finishes in a row culminated this week with him officially wrestling the lead away from Todd Faircloth.

With three Elite Series tournaments to go, VanDam now leads Faircloth with 2,043 points to 1,978 points.

Sitting in third place after the Bluegrass Brawl is Mike McClelland with 1,949 points, followed by defending AOY champ Skeet Reese in fourth place at 1,898.

Edwin Evers' making the "Elite 12" cut this week has pushed him into the AOY title race with 1,862 points.

But with a 65 point lead over Faircloth and three tournaments on waters laden with smallmouth bass — which VanDam loves to catch — is the TTBAOY title his to lose?

Maybe, maybe not he said.

"I want to win Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, but I want to win this tournament today," VanDam said from the weigh-in stage before his bass hit the scales.

When the scales registered 16-9, he had accomplished his desire to win the Bluegrass Brawl while taking a big step toward his fourth TTBAOY title.

"I've been fishing really well lately, making four Top 10s in a row," VanDam said. "I'm kind of on a roll (and trying to keep the momentum going)."

He knows that will be a tough thing to do over the season's final three events.

"I've had some success on Old Hickory (site of the next Elite Series tournament), but these guys are doing it each and every week," VanDam said.

"I mean, Faircloth, McClelland, and Skeet never have a bad (tournament)."

This is why they remain very much alive in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year chase, including its $250,000 winner's check from Toyota Tundra Trucks.

But for the moment, VanDam has the inside track to an TTBAOY win in August.

With a third-place finish at the Classic, five Elite 12 cuts made this year, two Top 5 finishes including last week's runner-up showing, and now two Elite Series wins, VanDam is on fire in 2008.

But Faircloth and McClelland have been equally as good this season and still have very realistic shots to catch him.

With an Elite Series win in Texas earlier this year, not to mention three Top 10 finishes and one Top 20 finish, Faircloth is certainly within striking distance of winning the 2008 TTBAOY crown.

"Yeah, I feel good about it," Faircloth said. "I know that the remaining tour events, in order for me to have a chance, I'm going to have to have three good tournaments in a row.

"And the guys up there at the top, one of them will have three good tournaments in a row. So you just have to catch them."

Faircloth, while far from surrendering his title shot, is also realistic about the kind of year that he has enjoyed this Elite Series season.

"Even if I don't win Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, I've had a great year and some great tournaments," he said. "It's something that I would like to achieve, but if I don't, I can't gripe about my season."

After Sunday's tournament weigh-in, McClelland said that he also felt good about his chances, noting that Oneida Lake, site of the 2008 Elite Series finale, not only has good smallmouth bass fishing, but it also has some fair largemouth bass fishing.

"If I can do well over the next two events, maybe I'd have a chance to key into the largemouth bite and catch him at the end," said McClelland, who came into this year seriously focused on winning the TTBAOY title after talking with his wife during the off-season.

With an Elite Series win earlier this year in Florida, as well as two "Top Five" finishes and two "Top 20" finishes, it appears that McClelland's devotion to winning the TTBAOY title is paying off through a remarkably consistent year of fishing.

And that has put him very much in the running for his first Angler of the Year award as the 2008 season's stretch run begins.

The bottom line after this weekend's Bluegrass Brawl is simply this — while Kevin VanDam is firmly in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead for the moment, Faircloth and McClelland are still very much alive in the TTBAOY title chase.

And by no means should anyone count out Reese or Evers either.

As red-hot and consistent as all of these anglers have been so far this season, don't be surprised if the winner of the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title literally comes down to the last day on the last event.

After all, what more would you expect in the superb 2008 Elite Series season, one of the most exciting BASS tournament campaigns ever?

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