These days, Kyle Larson doesn’t get the chance to jump behind the wheel of a USAC Midget as often as he once did due to his NASCAR commitments to Chip Ganassi, but on Tuesday night in the 12th annual “Indiana Midget Week” opener at Montpelier Motor Speedway, Larson looked as if he never left the open wheel ranks, crafting a masterpiece of wheelmanship to take his first USAC National Midget win since 2013 in his first, as well as the series’ first, visit to the quarter-mile dirt oval in Montpelier, Ind.
Larson, in one of eight Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports entries, started on a star-studded front row that included recent Indianapolis 500 starter Bryan Clauson on the outside. Larson quickly jetted out to the lead at the start, but on the second circuit, teammate Tanner Thorson threw his car to the track’s edge, running down and disposing of Larson as the two reached the flagstand at the end of lap two.
On lap five, a Steve Buckwalter turn four tip-over, that also collected Dave Darland, brought out the red flag.
Thorson, who was looking to repeat his “Indiana Midget Week” opening night victory from a year ago, came under constant attack from Larson as the race neared the one-third mark. Larson threw a rapid fire succession of sliders on Thorson on the tenth lap in turns one and three, but was unable to keep the advantage after pushing the nose of his machine over the cushion. On lap 11, Larson attacked Thorson once again in the first turn with a slider, but Thorson battled back to remain up front.
Two laps later, Larson attempted yet another major slide job on Thorson for the top spot, pulling in front and almost bringing the two a halt as Thorson continued on and Clauson scooted past Larson for second.
Just before the halfway point, it was Clauson’s turn to take on Thorson for the lead. Clauson’s slider attempt briefly put him in front, but it was to no avail as Thorson fought his way to remain the man to beat.
After a Spencer Bayston spin on lap 18 brought out the yellow, Clauson immediately returned to the “slider-fest” on the ensuing restart, entering turn one with a full head of steam, emerging in front of Thorson at the top of turn one, but Thorson made contact with the rear bumper of Clauson’s car, sending Larson slightly off the berm as Thorson sped off with the advantage as Larson moved back into second.
Thorson and Larson distanced themselves from Clauson with less than ten to go as Larson bounced off the concrete in turn four, but a Holly Shelton spin in turn four reset the lineup with just eight laps remaining.
After the restart, Larson followed Thorson on the high side for the next couple of laps, setting up his next move on Thorson. With five to go, Larson finally made the slide-job stick as the two entered one, with Larson pulling away and building a gap between him and second-running Thorson. But, once again, a yellow slowed the action, setting up a three-lap shootout between Larson, Thorson, Clauson and Bell, who charged from the tail after an opening lap incident.
Larson was able to get a huge jump on the restart as Thorson began to fade and Clauson and Bell moved past Thorson to run second and third. However, no one was in the vicinity of Kyle Larson, who pulled away at the end to take a 1.905-second victory over Clauson, Bell, Jerry Coons, Jr. and Brady Bacon.
Larson, of Elk Grove, California, picked up his 4th career “Indiana Midget Week” win and his 13th career USAC National Midget victory, tying him with Rico Abreu, Steve Knepper, Don Meacham, Ryan Newman and Stevie Reeves for 49th on the all-time list after taking the win in his Keith Kunz – Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Parker Store – Target/Bullet/Speedway Toyota.
“That was a lot of fun.” Larson exclaimed. “I didn’t think the top in (turns) one and two would be that great, but Tanner was able to rip around me. I knew I was a lot better than him in (turns) three and four. I just couldn’t quite figure out turn two. I was getting beat pretty bad over there. I don’t know if it just got cleaned off or what, but my grip off of turn two got a little better and I could stay closer to Tanner and then, eventually, throw the slider. I had so much fun, though! Thirty laps fly by in these races. It’s so enjoyable to run with Keith (Kunz) and Pete (Willoughby). They deserve all the attention that they’ve been getting the last few years.”
Just two days after competing in his third career Indianapolis 500-mile race, Noblesville, Indiana’s Bryan Clauson returned to the controls of his RKR-Dooling Racing/Cancer Treatment Centers of America – B & H Contractors/Spike/Stanton SR-11 to take second place after a furious race-long battle with Larson and Thorson.
“It became a race between me and Kyle to see who could clear Tanner first,” Clauson explained. “I got a run and threw something at him and Tanner got into me when he came back across and I let Kyle get by us. We just started getting tight there at the end. It might not have made a difference because it got tough to run once the track got real curby, but second is a solid start to “Indiana Midget Week.”
Norman, Oklahoma’s Christopher Bell came back after getting caught up in a first-turn, first-lap scrum involving two other cars that put him near the tail of the field of the restart. Bell stormed back to the front to salvage a third in the Keith Kunz - Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/TRD – DC Solar/Bullet/Speedway Toyota.
“Staying out of trouble was huge,” Bell said with a sigh of relief. “Everybody kept crashing each other and it got me on the first lap. But once I got back there, they kept running into each other and I didn’t really feel like I passed a whole lot of cars. I was good at the end; it just got to be so fast around the top that you couldn’t really slide anybody unless you had a big run like Kyle did. I worked around the bottom really well, so that helped, but we just needed them to bottle up on the top one more time.”
Contingency award winners at Montpelier included Christopher Bell (ProSource Fast Qualifier), Steve Buckwalter (Simpson Race Products First Heat Race Winner), Carson Macedo (Competition Suspension, Inc. (CSI) Second Heat Race Winner), Rico Abreu (Benic Enterprises Third Heat Race Winner), Kyle Larson (Indy Race Parts Fourth Heat Winner), Dave Darland (KSE Racing Products/B & W Auto Mart Hard Charger) and Kyle Schuett (Wilwood Brakes 13th place finisher).
FEATURE: (30 laps) 1. Kyle Larson, 2. Bryan Clauson, 3. Christopher Bell, 4. Jerry Coons, Jr., 5. Brady Bacon, 6. Chad Boat, 7. Dave Darland, 8. Chris Windom, 9. Tyler Thomas, 10. Jimi Quin, 11. Zach Daum, 12. Spencer Bayston, 13. Kyle Schuett, 14. Rico Abreu, 15. Tony DiMattia, 16. Holly Shelton, 17. Gage Walker, 18. Tanner Thorson, 19. Carson Macedo, 20. Ryan Robinson, 21. Shane Golobic, 22. Justin Peck, 23. Steve Buckwalter. NT
-USAC Press Release. Photo credit: Travis Branch