Thanksgiving is the day each year when we take a little extra time to realize how fortunate we are and to give thanks.
For those in attendance at Thursday’s “Turkey Night Grand Prix,” the realization quickly came to how thankful we are to have witnessed Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson duking it out against each other for 98 laps in USAC Midgets at Ventura Raceway.
The three official lead changes listed in the box score aren’t indicative of the back-and-forth battle these two titans waged with sliders being exchanged like currency on both ends of the racetrack!
On the 54th lap, Bell ultimately made the winning pass on Larson with a daring outside move on the front straightaway, but would have to endure the relentless persistence of Larson all the way down to turn one of the final lap when he stifled Larson’s slider before it even had time to develop.
Bell, of Norman, Oklahoma, joined the ranks of two-time “Turkey Night” winners just six days after wrapping up his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title at Homestead (Fla.) Speedway. Though he and Larson have reached success in the NASCAR ranks in recent years, their home lies in the dirt tracks, just like old times when they were regulars on the USAC trail.
“Oh my god, it’s so much fun,” Bell exclaimed. “I just told Kyle that if he would’ve beat me, I would’ve been, maybe not just as happy, but still happy because it was just that much fun. That race was one of the most fun races I’ve run in a long time.”
Straight from the outset, polesitter Larson had the upper hand as inside second row starter Bell followed in his wake on the bottom.
As Larson ringed around the berm lining the bottom of the racing surface, Bell became the first in line to venture to the top on the 12th lap, using a big bite off turn four to pull to a dead-heat at the line alongside Larson before nudging into the lead by a sliver into the first turn.
Bell never wavered in his decision to go “high, wide, and handsome”, and it would pay off one lap later when he slipped by Larson off turn four to secure the lead.
“I could tell that the top was going to be good,” Bell theorized. “Watching the sprint car feature, we saw that it got pretty good. They tilled the bottom and I could tell it was going to be really good at the beginning. Once it started going away, I tried the top and it was right there.”
On lap 40, Brayton Lynch got sideways in a shuffle for position at the exit of turn four. Facing oncoming traffic, Chad Boat met front-bumper to front-bumper with Lynch, melding the noses of each car together as Boat attempted to peel away to no avail. Courtney Crone and newly-crowned five-time USAC Light Up the World Beverages Western States Midget champ Ronnie Gardner were also involved, but would restart.
When racing resumed on lap 52, Larson went to the bottom and slid his teammate Bell to snare the lead. One lap later, Bell returned the favor and slithered by Larson with just inches to spare as he tunneled between Larson’s right-side wheels and the front straightaway wall. Larson attacked again into turn one with a slider, but the motion was denied, and Bell cleared away the Tryptophan after the wake-up call and sprinted back into the lead.
Following a lap 57 tangle between the two most recent USAC National Midget feature winners – Brady Bacon and series champion Spencer Bayston – Larson harassed Bell, putting it all on the line in the prestigious race in an attempt to become just the third driver to win the event three times. On lap 66, Larson got on the bike, lifting the left side wheels as he ripped the edge of the turn three cushion in his tireless pursuit.
With three-quarters of the race in the rearview mirror, it was time to turn up the wick! The bottom became just a distant memory as the two were now inside the barrel, riding the wave in turns three and four above the cushion. On lap 80, Larson slid Bell into turn one momentarily. Bell retaliated by crossing underneath Larson off the second turn to recapture the point. In turn three, the second verse played out the same as the first as Larson slid to the lead and Bell, so Allen Iverson-esque, used a killer crossover to bolt back to the front.
“The majority of drivers understand you have to be good at the end of the race to win the race,” Bell said. “At the beginning, you’re just cruising and making sure you make It to the end of the race. That’s the biggest thing. Kyle and I were both rolling around there about quarter-throttle at the beginning, trying to save our tires and kill some laps. It worked out and we were racing our butts off at the end.”
Larson, the five-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup winner, set up another Hail Mary that was denied as Bell wheelied away off the top of turn two to remain in front. Tyler Courtney, the USAC West Coast/VRA Sprint Car feature winner earlier in the night, slowed to a stop in turn one to bring out the yellow and provide a breather for both the drivers and fans alike.
On the ensuing restart, Bell jetted away from Larson and, with ten to go, held a lead of over one second with a full nest of lappers resting in the distance. Just prior to lapped traffic possibly becoming a factor with a mere four laps to go, Holly Shelton and Bacon performed a synchronized spin between turns one and two that brought out the final yellow and one more stanza that Bell had to deal with Larson.
“The track was so technical,” Bell explained. “It was all about hitting your marks and minimizing mistakes because you weren’t going to make a mistake-free lap tonight. You just had to make sure when you made a mistake that you could recover from it. Once I got going on those green flag runs, I could get my momentum built up and make good, competitive laps. But after the yellow flags, it was tough to pick your rhythm back up. I knew I was a sitting duck their leading on the restarts. On the final one, Kyle got one last bomb on me and I was able to get him back.”
Larson’s first lob of a bomb was a success in turn one on the lap 95 restart as he scraped across the surface to snag the race lead from Bell. Bell counter-punched and ripped away the lead back away from Larson with a slider into turn three. Entering turn one with two laps remaining, wheels banged and nerf bars clanged as Larson shot to the lead past Bell once again.
As a uncertain as a game of tug-of-war teetering on a see-saw, Bell launched like a missile on a hell-bound train to slide across the nose of Larson and into the lead between turns three and four to capture the lead for good. Larson threw a haymaker entering turn three coming to the white flag, pulling side-by-side with Bell at the exit of four where it momentarily became three-wide with Shane Golobic arriving seemingly out of the clear blue sky to mount a challenge for the lead.
Larson tried once more on the final lap, but Bell savagely, and wisely, took a lower entrance into turn one, thus preventing a final pull of the pin from Larson. Bell carried on with a 0.193 second lead across the finish line as Larson blasted off the top of the final corner to nip Golobic by a wheel at the line for the runner-up spot. Past “Turkey Night” winner Tanner Thorson was fourth and Don Basile “Rookie of the Race” Zeb Wise was fifth in his second-career USAC National Midget start.
Bell was 4 for 7 in USAC National Midget feature appearances in 2017 for a .571 batting average. His 21st career series victory tied him with Steve Cannon, Jimmy Caruthers, Rex Easton and Ken Schrader for 27th all-time.
The fourth-straight “Turkey Night” win for the Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports team began with Bell’s victory in 2014. Firsts are always special in any circumstance, but this one has even more meaning for the 22-year-old, 2013 USAC National Midget titlist.
“I definitely had to work harder for this one. This one was even more fun and more special.”
Contingency award winners Thursday night at Ventura Raceway were Kyle Larson (ProSource/Woodland Auto Display Fast Qualifier), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Simpson Race Products/Extreme Mufflers 1st Qualifier Winner & Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher), Chad Boat (Competition Suspension, Inc./Brown & Miller Racing Solutions 2nd Qualifier Winner), Zeb Wise (Chalk Stix/Keizer Aluminum Wheels/Saldana Racing Products/Indy Race Parts Last Chance Winner) and Ryan Robinson (KSE Racing Products/Esslinger Engineering Hard Charger).
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!