HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — After being in 63rd place Thursday, Kevin VanDam managed to dodge a bullet in the Bassmaster Elite Series Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn.
By making the top 12 cut Sunday, Todd Faircloth had an opportunity to take the lead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Anglers of the Year race. He had to finish sixth to tie VanDam, and any finish higher would have put Faircloth in the lead.
But when Faircloth moved up only one spot — from 11th to 10th Sunday — it assured VanDam of remaining No. 1, if only by 16 points.
However, Faircloth wouldn't even have had to make the top 12 to take the points lead if VanDam hadn't rescued himself from near disaster on both Friday and Saturday. The Kalamazoo, Mich., native made the top 50 cut by only three ounces Friday. Then he caught his biggest bag of the tournament Saturday — 10 pounds, 13 ounces — to move from 49th place to 32nd.
The 2008 AOY race wasn't going to be won or lost this week. But VanDam appeared to be separating himself from the contenders after finishing in the top 10 in the last three tournanments.
There are only two tournaments left in the 11-event Elite Series season. Now with Faircloth close and both Mike McClelland and defending champion Skeet Reese within 150 points of VanDam, this race probably won't be decided until August 10 — the last day of the final 2008 tournament — on New York's Oneida Lake.
"That was my goal, to make up as many points as I could today," said Faircloth, who held the TTBAOY lead before VanDam scored a wire-to-wire win at Kentucky Lake two weeks ago. "I just never had any good bites today.
"With two more events after this, there are probably four or five guys that have a shot at it. I've never been in this position in my career, and it's always been one of my goals."
VanDam already owns three Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles. But he hasn't won one since 1999. And this year the prize money for the title has doubled from a a year ago — to $250,000.
The money probably means less to VanDam than the other contenders. It's tournament and TTBAOY titles that motivate him. After going almost 10 years without an Angler of the Year win and finishing second to Reese in last year's race, VanDam is about as motivated as he can get.
"Todd is competing against the greatest angler of all time," said Marty Stone, who finished 12th Sunday at Old Hickory Lake. "And I hate to admit that about Kevin. But he is why this field is so challenging, and why our competition is where it's at."
Stone, who is from Fayetteville, N.C., was in contention three years ago for the TTBAOY title.
"It was one of the greatest situations in my life," Stone said. "All I can say is don't lose it, make them beat you. Your instincts got you right here, so trust your instincts.
"Todd's gonna have to take it from him, but it isn't undoable. History has already shown it can be done."
Mike Iaconelli also finished in the top 12 (ninth) at Old Hickory on Sunday. Two years ago Iaconelli captured an TTBAOY title that came down to the last day of the last tournament — on Missouri's Table Rock Lake.
"Once you are in the race, you try to tell yourself to just fish," Iaconelli said. "But once you get farther into the year, you think about it. Don't let those guys say they don't think about it.
"Unless you are one of the greats in the sport, it is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
The 32-year-old Faircloth, who lives in Jasper, Texas, has finally admitted this week that he's been feeling some pressure.
"It's definitely intense out there," Faircloth said. "I finally settled down and caught a limit (today)."
The pressure will only go up until that final tournament day in August on Oneida Lake.