Bakersfield, California -- Kyle Larson became the first driver in 16 years to win back-to-back USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget features in the state of California on Saturday night at Bakersfield Speedway, picking off Michael Pickens for good on the 11th lap and commanding the final 20 laps to score his third series victory of the year.
J.J. Yeley was the last to pull off the Cali double with two consecutive wins in the Golden State in 2003 at Stockton and Madera. Larson's latest triumph came just three days following his big payday in Placerville, Calif.
However, it took three tries for Larson to assume the top spot after twice passing Pickens for the lead on laps six and 10, both of which were negated by yellow flags that reverted the running order to the last completed lap.
The third time turned out to be the charm for Larson one lap following the 10th lap restart as he raced to victory and moved past Jay Drake and J.J. Yeley with his 18th career USAC National Midget victory and into a tie with Dave Steele for 36th all-time.
After turning to his own team to compete last Tuesday at Placerville, the Elk Grove, Calif. native and 2011 USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year is now batting two-for-three in his Kyle Larson Open Wheel/Lucas Oil - iRacing - Finley Farms/King/Speedway Toyota.
"Once again, my car just felt really good up against the cushion," Larson beamed. "I knew I was quite a bit better than he was when I was behind him. I kept thinking he'd move up in front of me, so my entry speed was a little bit slow, but we were able to get by him and run some really good laps out in the lead."
Pickens took the early advantage from his pole starting position while a three-wide scramble for second ensued involving Jesse Colwell and Jason McDougal, with a rapidly-surging and surgical Larson knifing his way to the front from the outside of row three after having set Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifying time earlier in the evening.
A lap two red flag slowed the proceedings to a halt nearly instantaneously when heat three winner Chris Windom flipped in turn one. USAC Western States Midget regular Cory Elliott was also caught in the kerfuffle. Both restarted with Windom getting to 16th and Elliott 20th in the end results.
Meanwhile, Larson restarted fourth behind McDougal and immediately grabbed his lunch pail and went to work on the top side, racing around the outside of McDougal in turn four, then diving to the inside of turn one under Colwell for second, then beginning his descent on Pickens.
Now with clean air and just Pickens standing in his way, Larson ringed the top of turns one and two to construct his momentum, then aimed for the bottom of three. On the sixth lap, Larson tried the move once again in three, sliding by Pickens for the race lead.
Simultaneously, though, Zeb Wise got upside down in between turns one and two while Carson Macedo was also involved, suffering from a flat tire. For Wise, it was his second consecutive race with a flip early in the feature.
Larson was up on the wheel for the restart, but Pickens was briefly able to stifle Larson's relentless attacks by shutting the door on Larson on the bottom of turn three during the sixth lap. Larson tried again in turn three on the following lap, sliding past Pickens who then cut back under to reclaim the throne.
The top was where Larson stuck to in turns three and four the next three trips around, but on lap nine, Pickens was able to fence off Larson's high-riding line off the fourth turn to cling to the advantage. One lap later, Cannon McIntosh slowed a stop to bring out the yellow.
On the ensuing restart, Larson stayed tried and true to the top of one and two, using a major run to power by Pickens on the outside midway down the back straightaway before cutting across the nose of Pickens and stealing the bottom away in the third turn. However, just as that occurred, 8th running Spencer Bayston performed a 360-degree spin, forcing a yellow and forcing Larson to give the lead back to Pickens once more.
It would be the last time that happened. Although, Pickens changed the game up by moving a bit higher on his entry into turn one on the lap 10 restart. Larson tried to go under Pickens to no avail, but stayed in formation with Pickens, building his momentum and setting up his moment to strike.
That moment came on lap 11 when Larson again ringed the high line in turns one and two, pulling ahead of Pickens on the back straight, then locked down the bottom line in turn three and began to distance himself from Pickens. Nonetheless, as Larson distanced himself from Pickens, he closed the distance between himself and lapped traffic, which caused a brief jam that allowed Pickens to keep Larson within reach about eight tenths of a second back.
"When I got to traffic, I didn't do the best job," Larson admitted. "But I felt like maybe I had a good enough lead, I didn't have to worry about him as much."
On lap 22, sixth running Logan Seavey stopped on the back straight to bring out the yellow, thus bunching up Pickens to Larson and clearing the path that lie in front of him. Pickens shot his shot in turn one with a slider attempt on the high-flying Larson, but came up short, losing substantial ground to Larson who hammered out a two-plus second lead in the ensuing laps.
The night's semi-feature winner, Aaron Reutzel, slowed with three laps remaining, necessitating a yellow that restacked the field for a final three-lap dash to the finish.
"On the restarts, my engine was stumbling pretty bad," Larson explained. "(Pickens) showed his nose there the second to last restart. I tried to change it up (on the last restart), but I didn't see his nose the second time, so it must've been a little better."
Larson displayed no signs of weariness or any sort of stumble, burying his nearest contenders as he distanced himself from Pickens and third-running Rico Abreu who were left to duke it out for second. Abreu slid under Pickens entering the third turn coming the white flag, but Pickens countered the move by cutting back underneath the 2014 series champ off four to secure second.
Up front, it was all Larson on the "far-away side" as he put a stamp on a 1.978 second victory at the checker over Pickens in a one-two finish for the New Zealand-based King Chassis. Abreu finished 3rd with Tyler Courtney and Jesse Colwell rounding out the top-five.
Auckland, New Zealand's Pickens took a season best 2nd place finish in his RMS LLC/CRC - EnviroFab - Guess Performance Parts/King/Speedway Toyota and considers his run on this night as sort of a moral victory considering the competition he faced.
"We were just talking, a second to Kyle Larson is like a win. He's so damn good," Pickens said with a laugh. "These guys have worked their butts off. Matt and Dave (Estep), my car owners, they just said go with whatever you want, whatever you guys need, do it, and they haven't let us down. It's a (shame) we couldn't get them a win. Second's pretty neat and I just got to thank them once again for the opportunity."
Likewise, for Rico, it was his best USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget finish of 2019 in his Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian/SafeLite AutoGlass - Curb/Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota. Yet, though he considers it a quality run, he's left to fret what could've been had he only started a little bit closer to the front.
"We just should've qualified better and put ourselves in a better position," Abreu laid it out. "Twelfth to third is good for this team. (This team) works really hard and they've had a rough couple weeks out here on the west coast. It's good to get them some good finishes."
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting position in parentheses) 1. Kyle Larson (6), 2. Michael Pickens (1), 3. Rico Abreu (12), 4. Tyler Courtney (10), 5. Jesse Colwell (4), 6. Jason McDougal (2), 7. Gio Scelzi (9), 8. Thomas Meseraull (20), 9. Jerry Coons, Jr. (5), 10. Tanner Carrick (16), 11. Tucker Klaasmeyer (21), 12. Chase Johnson (13), 13. Buddy Kofoid (15), 14. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (11), 15. Carson Macedo (14), 16. Chris Windom (19), 17. Ethan Mitchell (18), 18. Spencer Bayston (3), 19. Daison Pursley (23), 20. Cory Elliott (25), 21. Robert Dalby (24), 22. Aaron Reutzel (7), 23. Logan Seavey (8), 24. Cannon McIntosh (22), 25. Zeb Wise (17). NT
-USAC Racing Press Release
-Photo credit: Rich Forman