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SOMETIME between Tony Stewart’s USAC Triple Crown win and his sparkling performance in the inaugural IRL race, the search was on for the “next Tony Stewart.”
Last season, the next Tony Stewart may have been introduced to the nation’s race fans at the Tulsa Expo Center in the cockpit of the Keith Kunz Motorsports Bullet/Toyota.
Kunz and Pete Willoughby returned from Tulsa, Okla., singing the praises of their talented new driver, Kyle Larson.
For obvious reasons they generally are optimistic about the prospects of their newly selected drivers. However, last year there was a degree of enthusiasm beyond that normally seen.
As the season wore on Larson continued to improve. As a West Coast driver, most of his upper-level experience came in winged sprint cars in California. Of course, his ride with Kunz and Willoughby didn’t involve racing with wings. However, he quickly got up to speed in the midgets, and he became known for winning on tracks the first time that he saw them. This was almost certainly due to the fact that he had a remarkable feel for racetracks and the cars that ran on them.
When Kunz and Willoughby had a little more experience with Larson, they decided that he could probably run well enough in a USAC Silver Crown car to keep the financial drain within acceptable limits. Whatever the final outcome, they had a solid Silver Crown car, and they prepared it for competition for the balance of the season.
Larson continued to exceed expectations, including winning all three USAC features at the Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway in September. He won the midget and Silver Crown features in Kunz cars; and he took the USAC National Sprint Car in the famed Hoffman Racing No. 69.
Hoffman Racing is, without question, one of the best sprint car teams ever to compete in USAC.
Their drivers included such talents as Rich Vogler, Robbie Stanley, Kenny Irwin Jr., Kasey Kahne, etc. In addition, local drivers such as Stewart, Alan Barr, and Dave and Kerry Norris have occupied their cockpit.
By the time that the season was over, Larson missed taking the USAC National Driving Championship by a handful of points. Bryan Clauson was the repeat winner of the NDC title, but Larson had made his point. He was the kind of driver most sought after by car owners. He was likely to be a star. About all that remained was for him to sort the opportunities.
He has now started racing stockcars, primarily in the NASCAR K&N Series, driving for a Chip Ganassi development team. Like Stewart, a good part of his negotiations for his stockcar ride involved being permitted to race sprints and midgets on the dirt. In his first pavement stockcar race, he won. Again, it was the first time that he saw the car and the track.
Larson seems to share another trait with Stewart. He would rather race than do anything else. He schedules all of the races that he can possibly attend.
During the past week, Larson won the Front Row Challenge and the Ultimate Challenge at Southern Iowa Speedway.
He then went 25 miles west to compete in the 52nd annual running of the Knoxville Nationals — the granddaddy of all sprints races. He drove to an impressive win in his first appearance in the Knoxville Nationals.
Although the passing point system used to align the field assessed a penalty against Larson on Saturday night, many of his fans felt that he was fully capable of driving to a championship win.
Unfortunately, he got caught in another driver’s mess, and he would be denied the championship for at least another year.
Martz wins TQ race
Defending Midwest TQ Racing League champion Tate Martz has been playing catch-up most of the year.
His win Aug. 11 at Jefferson County Fairgrounds brought him within 12 points of current points leader Brett Hankins.
Martz set a quick time, finished second in the dash and finished second in his heat race.
In the feature, Bobby Walton took the lead at the drop of the green flag and held it for the first nine circuits.
Nick Speidel then led briefly but lost the point to Tate on the 11th circuit. Martz then led the rest of the way to the checkered flag.
Nick Speidel hung on to finish second and was trailed by (3) Brett Hankins, (4) Rick Robinson of Columbus, (5) Walton, (6) Cody Kiewitt, (7) Brandon Ladyman, (8) Dustin Wheeldon, (9) Chris Mann, and (10) Cory Richie.
Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic.
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