Ventura, California — On the rare occasion that Kyle Larson gets the chance to take the wheel of a midget these days, he certainly makes each opportunity count.
On Thursday night in the centerpiece of the USAC National and Western States Midget calendar, Larson cooked up one of his patented performances, holding off a furious late-race rally from early leader Brady Bacon to win his second career “Turkey Night Grand Prix” in the 76th running of the prestigious event at California’s Ventura Raceway.
Larson, of Elk Grove, Calif., started from the outside of the front row in his Keith Kunz – Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Bullet/Speedway Toyota alongside Bacon. Larson fought his way to the lead on lap 21 with a turn two outside pass of Bacon. Larson then navigated through numerous bouts with lapped traffic as Bacon rapidly closed to mount a serious challenge on Larson for the victory in the final laps. Larson weathered the storm and sped off to grab the 0.303 second victory over Bacon, Carson Macedo, Rico Abreu and Damion Gardner.
Larson became the 18th driver to win “Turkey Night” twice during his career and also joins Mel Kenyon, Ron Shuman, Stan Fox, Billy Boat and Dave Darland as one of six drivers to claim a “Turkey Night” victory at two different tracks after also winning in 2012 at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway.
“I had a good qualifying run and started second,” Larson explains. “I was able to get by Brady (Bacon) fairly early and got through traffic. I tried the bottom early on, but it still felt like the top was better, so I went back to the top. I could see he was closing in on me a little bit more on the bottom and I knew I just had to get around that one lapper. I was running the top and could see Brady running to my inside. I knew eventually I’d have to get down to the bottom and I knew if I could clear him, I could run a better pace around the bottom. As soon as I cleared the lapper, I got down just in time to hold onto the lead. Once I cleared him, I ran the bottom even though I still went to the top a couple times in (turns) three and four and Brady was still right there. The white flag was not too far after that. A 98-lap race is a long time, but it felt pretty short for me.”
A successful NASCAR Cup season that saw Larson score his first career series victory at Michigan in August concluded with the 14th win of his USAC National Midget career on a playground that he doesn’t get to visit as much any longer, but cherishes every opportunity he gets.
“I enjoy running on the dirt every chance I get since I don’t get to do it a whole lot anymore,” Larson admits. Anytime I can do it, run up front and get wins, it’s a lot of fun. I can’t wait for the rest of the offseason, so I can run some more stuff on the dirt and get some more wins.”
A melting pot of 52 midget drivers from coast-to-coast filled the pit area at Ventura in the event’s largest car count since Larson’s first victory in 2012.
The event was whittled to 29 for the 98-lapper at the one-fifth-mile dirt oval by the beach, but the action was quickly halted with Gage Walker’s flip on the first corner of the first lap. He walked away unscathed.
Following the complete restart, Bacon and the FMR Racing/Beast/Toyota backed up the speed shown by recording the fastest laps in two of the three sessions in Wednesday night’s practice and Thursday’s ProSource/Woodland Auto Display fastest qualifier, proving to be the strongest combination early on after rocketing away to a half-straightaway lead.
By the 13th lap, Bacon was steadfast on the bottom as Larson made waves up on the cush. After slipstreaming through Bacon’s wake, Larson charges right to the tail of the leader. On lap 21, Larson ripped around the outside of Bacon in turn two for the race lead. As the pair entered turn three, Larson slanted down from the top, cutting in front of the nose of Bacon just before the apex of the turn to take the bottom line, and the race lead, away just prior to meeting the tail-end of lapped traffic.
Meanwhile, the table was set for a heated battle for the USAC National Midget title. Separated by a mere nine markers coming into “Turkey Night,” point leader Tanner Thorson ran eighth and teammate Spencer Bayston 11th just prior to the midway point.
On lap 42, Bayston and Frankie Guerrini were involved in a turn four tangle. The move was disastrous for Bayston as he lost pivotal track position that relegated him to the 23rd position for the restart.
Larson appeared to establish himself in a class of his own as he built his very own half-straightaway lead. However, multiple yellow flag periods would evaporate those leads. With 26 laps to go, Larson and Bacon, running one-two, were separated by the lapped car of Holly Shelton on the restart. It would take a couple of laps before Bacon would manage to slip by Shelton, using a turn one slide job on lap 74 to put Larson back within a clear view of out of the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma’s helmet visor.
Larson went topside while Bacon remained on the chalk-lined bottom berm as the two entered the green room of lapped traffic. Bacon steadily reeled in Larson, but swiftly as Larson went high, low, anywhere he could go to find daylight.
With seven laps remaining, Bacon edged ahead of Larson on the bottom for the lead, briefly, off turn two. Yet, Larson found an avenue back to the front moments later by sneaking back down to the bottom in front of the lapped car of Nick Chivello to create separation between he and second-running Bacon.
With three laps remaining, Larson and Bacon swapped lines with Larson now down low and Bacon up top. Bacon appeared to have found the top to his liking soon after, but was unable to get off the corners as strongly as Larson who commandeered the point as Bacon lost precious ground.
Larson withstood a heady drive by Bacon, the two-time USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car champ, to seal the deal in the final laps for his second USAC National Midget win of the year in just his third start.
Minden, Nevada’s Thorson would leave the “Turkey Night Grand Prix” a happy man for the second straight Thanksgiving night after winning last season’s diamond jubilee. By virtue of his sixth-place finish in his Keith Kunz – Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/TRD – JBL Audio/Bullet/Speedway Toyota in Thursday night’s feature, the 20-year-old Thorson was crowned as 2016 USAC National Midget champion.
“I went into this race set on winning,” Thorson assured. “I didn’t think about points all year until this race, so I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal to myself because it can get you worked up and it doesn’t allow you to perform your best. I just went out there to win the race.”
Thorson’s teammate and fellow championship combatant Bayston recovered from a spin just before halfway to finish ninth after restarting from the tail. It was an impressive feat in its own right to respond to adversity, but it would not warrant enough points for Bayston to surpass Thorson who became the first Nevada native to claim the series title.
“I saw Spencer get tangled up and it was really unfortunate,” Thorson recalls. “You never want to see a teammate go out like that. It was unfortunate for him, but it worked in our favor. This whole team and our sponsors are what make this deal what it is. We have two of the best in the business in Keith (Kunz) and Big Al (Scroggins) who always put awesome cars underneath us.”
“I came really close to getting the job done last year, but we came up a little bit short,” Thorson adds. “This year, we were able to get it done even though we didn’t start the season the way we wanted. I remember we were leading the first race during ‘Indiana Midget Week’ at Montpelier and popped a right rear tire. A few races later, we had an issue at ‘The Ditch’ (West Memphis, Ark.) and all that led to a not-so-great stretch. I didn’t think that we were going to be able to get the job done after those issues. Suddenly, though, we just started clicking. Every time I went out onto the track, I had an awesome car which allowed me to win a lot of races this year. That’s really the only thing that saved me this year. We got wins and stayed consistent after ‘Midget Week’ and it allowed us to get the job done. It’s pretty incredible to be the champion. I’m speechless!”
Thirteenth-place finisher Ronnie Gardner would be the first to tell you that his ‘Turkey Night’ didn’t go as well as he had hoped, but despite that one aberration, it was yet another banner season for the Corona, California native who became the first driver in the history of the USAC Western States Midget series to win four consecutive series championships in his Six8 Motorsports/Baldozier Racing – Esslinger Engineering/Stewart/Esslinger.
“My mom and Sleepy Tripp’s wife are really good friends,” Gardner explains. “I grew up idolizing Sleepy with what he accomplished on the west coast and across the United States in a midget. It’s a pretty big deal to actually beat one of his records.”
“I was a little disappointed,” Gardner laments about Thursday night’s race. “I thought we’d stack up a little better, but we kind of went outside the box tonight just trying to be better than we were, but we missed a little bit. I messed up qualifying and that put us mid-pack at the start and that hurt us in the race. Starting from the middle of the field against this competition makes it hard to get up to the front.”
Award winners Thursday night at Ventura Raceway included Brady Bacon (ProSource/Woodland Auto Display/Jason Leffler Memorial Fast Qualifier), Jake Swanson (KSE Racing Products/Keizer Wheels/Rod End Supply Hard Charger), Kyle Larson (Light Up the World Beverages Feature Winner) and Carson Macedo (Don Basile Rookie of the Race).
-USAC Media Release
-Photo Credit: Rich Forman