Christopher Bell celebrated his 23rd birthday in grand style Saturday at the Southern Illinois Center after taking the lead with four laps remaining to win the third annual “Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget Special event at the indoor, one-sixth-mile dirt oval in Du Quoin, Illinois.
After wrapping up a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title in November, Bell has been two for two in the Columbus-based Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Curb Records-TRD/Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota, concluding USAC’s National Midget points season in November with his second career “Turkey Night Grand Prix” victory at Ventura Raceway in California to go along with his win at Du Quoin.
Chase Briscoe of Mitchell finished second to Bell in the 55-lap main event. Shane Golobic was third, with Chad Boat and Justin Grant completing the top-five drivers.
“To be able to win the last race of the year like that is pretty cool,” said Bell, the defending Chili Bowl winner. “I’ve been pretty close and really fast here in the past, but I just haven’t been able to win. The team’s always been really good here, too, but finally, it all came together tonight.”
Bell took the lead for good on Lap 52 from Boat and then had to hold off a hard-charging Briscoe for the win.
“I was pretty much determined to go where he wasn’t,” Bell surmised. “(Boat) was kind of a sitting duck out there. This place, once it gets so far around the top, you can make up time there whenever you can get your momentum built up, but you’re so vulnerable, especially on restarts. The door is wide open and it’s so easy to throw a slider here. Whenever he opened the inside like that, I knew I had to take advantage of it.”
Once Bell was out in front he had to contend with Briscoe as Boat started to fade. The duel was now on between the two dirt-track stars who stood out in NASCAR’s Truck Series this season with Bell, the champion, battling with Briscoe, who was the truck series Rookie of the Year. With two to go, though, Shane Cottle’s loose left rear wheel jettisoned toward the turn four wall, necessitating a yellow and setting up one final restart. Bell then then outraced Briscoe to the checkers.
Bell’s had midget seasons of glory in the past, including a pair of seven-win campaigns in 2013 and 2014, but this year was simply phenomenal with five wins in eight USAC Midget starts, plus 10 out of 13 across all his combined midget starts. It’s a success he attributes to the miles he’s trekked in stock cars and trucks that he’s been able to translate to his time in the driver’s seat of a midget.
“Going to NASCAR has made me a better race car driver, just because it’s taught me things I didn’t learn here on the dirt,” Bell said. “That’s something I’ve been able to find that when you run these really long races, you learn that you don’t have to lead lap five. You don’t have to lead Lap 10. You only have to lead the last lap. That’s something I’ve really tried to apply in midget racing and it seems to have worked.”
Feature: 1. Christopher Bell; 2. Chase Briscoe; 3. Shane Golobic; 4. Chad Boat; 5. Justin Grant; 6. Dillon Welch; 7. Tanner Berryhill; 8. Parker Price-Miller; 9. Tanner Carrick, 10. Tyler Courtney; 11. Tony Bruce Jr.; 12. Daniel Robinson; 13. Tim Crawley; 14. Zeb Wise; 15. Trey Marcham; 16. Tyler Nelson; 17. Shane Cottle; 18. Justin Peck; 19. Tony Roney; 20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.; 21. Jake Neuman.
Kunz preps for Chili Bowl
Keith Kunz Motorsports now prepares for the 32nd annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals set for Dec. 9-13 at the Tulsa Expo Raceway Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So far, nearly 300 drivers have entered the most prestigious event in midget racing.
Bell is the defending race winner, driving a car owned by Kunz. Pete Willoughby of Columbus is the team manager.
Kunz has six cars entered, with drivers Rico Abreu, Spencer Bayston, Kyle Larson, Logan Seavey, Holly Shelton and Ryan Robinson scheduled to drive the KKM entries. Also, dirt late model fans should note that Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series regulars Tim McCreadie and Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville also are entered for next month’s event.
Pierce wins indoor race
Bobby Pierce won the second annual Gateway Dirt Nationals on Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis. The event held indoors at the former home of the St. Louis Rams drew 93 late models and over 100 modifieds for the event before an estimated crowd of 20,000 spectators.
Pierce, who just turned 21, earned $30,000 for the victory. Tyler Carpenter finished in second, followed by Darrell Lanigan, Jason Welshan and Scott Bloomquist, the inaugural event winner in 2016.
Hudson O’Neal, who won a preliminary event on Dec. 15, finished 17th in the finale.
Kent Robinson of Bloomington was 21st and Don O’Neal of Martinsville was credited with a 22nd-place finish. Ray Bollinger won the $10,000-to-win modified main event.
Twin Cities announces banquet date
Twin Cities Raceway Park in Vernon has announced the date for its awards banquet commemorating the 2017 racing season. The banquet will be held on Feb. 24 at the AMVETS in North Vernon.
The top-10 drivers in each class will be honored, along with the Rookies of the Year in each division. The track has announced the 2017 top rookies: Scott Beeler (super stocks), Jacob McRoberts (hornets), Bob Sterrett (crate late models), Dustin Golden (modifieds) and Charles Newby (pure stocks).