SALEM, Ind. – On a night where many expected three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart to collect a victory in his return to three-quarter midget racing, it was a 14-year-old racer who earned his first victory.
Rylan Gray led most of Friday’s 25-lap feature and survived a restart with three laps left to earn his first All Star Circuit of Champions TQ Midget feature Friday evening at Thunder Valley Raceway.
“I thought he was going to freaking pass me like I was standing still,” Gray said of Stewart, the owner of the All Star Circuit of Champions TQ Midget series.
Gray started second and jumped into the lead on the opening circuit over polesitter Matthew Hedrick. Gray led the first three laps before the first caution of the night waved for two cars stopped in turns three and four at the fifth-mile dirt oval.
During the caution period Stewart, who started eighth after winning his heat race in dominant fashion earlier in the evening, retired from the race with a mechanical problem.
Gray maintained the lead on the restart, but the caution waved immediately for a car turned around in turn one. The second attempt to restart the race was more successful, with Gray continuing to lead.
On lap five Hedrick saw an opening, sneaking to the inside of Gray to snatch the lead away. Hedrick continued to lead until a caution for a flip by Matt Lux in turn two brought the action to a stop with 18 laps to go.
Hedrick would hold serve on the restart as Gray gave chase, but Hedrick’s time at the front would prove to be short. Just after completing the 10th lap Hedrick spun his car in turn two, leading to a multi-car melee that saw Tate Martz flip wildly to bring out the caution flag.
The race was over for Hedrick and Martz, with the incident also collecting then third-place runner Joey Paxson.
That handed the lead back to Gray, who would go on to lead the remainder of the feature unchallenged. He did have to survive a restart with three laps left, but he pulled away cleanly and led the final three laps comfortably.
“This is my first time starting up at the front, so I knew I had a better change of winning,” Gray said. “They told me to get a good start on Hedrick and obviously I knew it was going to be on the top the entire race, so I just went up there.
“I hit a rut halfway through the race, which gave him the spot. It’s unfortunate that he spun out.”
Ashlea Albertson finished second after starting third, with Addison True coming from 14th to finish third. Robbie Roland and Johnny Goff completed the top-five.
Rylan Gray, Ashlea Albertson, Addison True, Robbie Roland, Johnny Goff, Oogie Goff, Cory Clay, Gabriel Gilbert, Ethan Strain, Mark Baxter, Dylan Powell, Matthew Hedrick, Joey Paxson, Tate Martz, Matt Lux, Travis Welpott, Stephen Davis, Tony Stewart, Adam Bolyard, Ron Combs, Parker Leisure.