FORT WAYNE, Ind. – With his aw-shucks demeanor and ready smile, Justin Peck might be the last guy you’d expect to start trash-talking in victory lane.
But the precocious 16-year-old couldn’t help himself after winning Saturday night’s 50-lap midget feature in the 17th annual Rumble in Fort Wayne, suggesting that Tony Stewart might want to hurry back before someone – in this case, himself – breaks the NASCAR star’s record of nine victories here.
“Tony is a good guy,” Peck said later, almost apologetically. “I was just being a funny guy. If he does come back – or if he doesn’t – hopefully we can have a little bit of a challenge.”
Peck continued his remarkable run at the Memorial Coliseum Expo Center, darting inside Jim Anderson in the second turn on lap 32 to wrest the lead, then pulling away for his second victory in two years at the 1/6-mile concrete track. Billy Wease passed Anderson for second on the final lap, with Friday winner Anthony Nocella and David Gough rounding out the top five in the caution-filled race.
Peck and Nocella are tied for the newly created points championship going into Sunday afternoon’s finale of the three-day event.
In six starts over three years here, Peck has two victories, a second, a third, a fourth and an engine-related 16th. Only one other driver, Derek Bischak, has even qualified for each of those six features.
“It’s pretty cool,” the high school sophomore said, assessing his streak. “It really helps having such a good car. (Owner) Steve Clay gives me a good Beast every time. But a lot of people really help me.”
Stewart, who has competed here on and off since 1999, is sitting out the Rumble for a second straight year after undergoing a fourth operation on the right leg he broke in 2013.
Anderson seemed headed toward a repeat of his 2010 victory here until his car developed a push just past the halfway point. When he couldn’t hold the bottom entering the second turn on lap 32, Peck shot underneath.
“I was trying all I could to whoa the thing down to get through the corner,” Anderson said. “The more I did that, I could feel him at the back bumper.”
“Honestly, we were a little better than him,” Peck said, “but the only way I got him, he got tight and then got loose (when he accelerated), and I got under him.”
Peck, driving the No. 5x Duracoat Beast-Autocraft Volkswagen, was unchallenged the rest of the way despite a succession of restarts.
Each driver’s (and car owner’s) three feature finishes will determine the overall title, with 1 point awarded for a win, 2 points for second, 3 for third and so on. Peck and Nocella each have a win and a fourth, giving them five points. Bryan Nuckles, with nine points, is the only other realistic contender for the $1,000 bonus, which will be split between the champion driver and car owner. In case of a tie, the higher finisher on Sunday will win the title.
Ben Quinones, youngest of three racing siblings, won the winged outlaw modified feature for his family’s first victory here in more than a decade of trying. Erick Rudolph captured the non-winged dirt modified midget feature, becoming the first driver to win in both of the 600cc classes. The non-winged division was added last year.
“Never been for lack of effort,” said Quinones, 22, who three years ago escaped injury in a wild crash in which he flew into the backstretch fencing. “This was all about patience and being consistent and keeping my nose clean. I knew the car was fast.”
The aptly-named Rudolph picked up a Christmas-time win here for the third straight year.
“We do a lot of homework at the shop,” he said of his Jim Lafler-owned team. “But a lot of the time we bring new equipment, and you’re not really sure what to expect.”
Korbyn Hayslett won twice in karts, with Zach Axlen, Patrick Clark, Brandon Dunn, Dustin Heath, Shawn Kluck and Philip Schneider picking up single victories.
Veteran John Ivy, who has competed in midgets, winged outlaw midgets and karts at the Rumble, received the inaugural David Lesiecki Award, presented in memory of the quarter midget race coordinator who died last March at age 47. The award, voted on by series officials, will be presented annually to the “driver who best exemplifies the spirit and dedication to racing that was (Lesiecki’s) trademark.”
“John is our all-time feature winner,” Rumble Series president Tony Barhorst said, “but this award is for his sportsmanship and willingness to help others. He very much deserves it.”
-Ron Ware, RumbleSeries.com.
-Photo Credit: Chris Seelman