DUQUOIN, Ill. – Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but Thomas Meseraull was both on Saturday night during the fourth annual Junior Knepper 55 inside the Southern Illinois Center.
Meseraull took advantage of misfortune for polesitter and early leader Christopher Bell, then came out on top of a slider war with C.J. Leary before pulling away down the stretch to win the season-ending NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series non-points special.
The 37-year-old veteran from San Jose, Calif., led 24 of 55 laps – including the final 15 – en route to victory lane. He capped his impressive performance with a series of celebratory donuts in turn four before embarking on a raucous celebration atop his car and in front of the USAC video cameras.
“How about a scrub like me winning at this place?!” Meseraull exclaimed. “This track was awesome. Leary and I had a heck of a race going there; he got by me and my guys were pointing me back to the bottom and saying, ‘Do your thing, do your thing, do your thing,’ so I went to work and adjusted on all the knobs. I was doing everything I could, man. That was an awesome run we put together tonight.”
Meseraull first took the lead on lap 28, when Bell slowed down the backstretch with a fuel issue that caused his car to lose power.
That in itself was frustrating for Meseraull, who wanted to beat the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular heads-up.
“Man, I hated to see Chris Bell go out the way he did! I want to beat him!” Meseraull noted. “We won this race, but I wanted to beat him the right way. This is still amazing, though. It really is.”
Bell earned the most passing points through the night’s eight heat races and four qualifiers, winning both his heat and his qualifier to start on the pole for the 55-lap feature.
Driving a car for Tucker-Boat Motorsports, Bell took off like a rocket when the green flag waved, opening up nearly a second over Meseraull and the rest of the field before the night’s first caution for a spinning Paul Nienhiser with 15 laps scored.
The yellow did nothing to slow Bell’s momentum, however. He went back to work on the next restart and built a 1.4-second margin over Meseraull, while the latter contended with lapped traffic that kept him from mounting a charge.
Troubles for Dillon Welch and McKenna Haase in turn three brought out the second caution of the race on lap 26, but it was one lap later that Bell’s mechanical gremlins bit him – drawing a collective gasp out of the fans inside the Southern Illinois Center as the defending race winner slowed to a stop, his night over just before the halfway point.
Meseraull took command at that point with Leary on his bumper, but it took another yellow before the intensity ramped up between the pair. On lap 30, Leary dropped a bomb of a slider in turn four but couldn’t make the move stick, with Meseraull edging him by .008 of a second and holding serve.
Two laps later, amid Justin Grant’s move to get back on the lead lap, Leary worked past Meseraull to seize the top spot for the first time. That sparked a back-and-forth tussle between the two, with neither side truly gaining an advantage for nearly 10 laps around the sixth-mile, indoor dirt track.
A caution for a slowing Justin Grant with 22 to go set Leary up out front with clean track ahead, but Meseraull responded with another fierce slider on the next restart to lead lap 34 before Leary grabbed the lead back again the next time around.
Two more lead changes followed before Leary finally slipped, running into the back of Meseraull in turn four with 15 to go when Meseraull slid up in front of him to capture the top spot for good.
The contact sent Leary spinning to a halt, while Meseraull kept going and never looked back.
“Everyone here knows that if you give me a race car, I’m going to drive it to the front,” noted Meseraull, who built a three-second advantage over the final 15 laps. “I may be a chump, but I’m a gassing chump that won this race tonight!”
Jake Neuman crossed the line in a distant second, followed by Derek Hagar, Trey Marcham and Kevin Thomas Jr., who rallied from a hard shunt into the turn two crossover gate during his qualifier to round out the top five.
Leary ended up 11th, one lap down at the checkered flag.
Thomas Meseraull, Jake Neuman, Derek Hagar, Trey Marcham, Kevin Thomas Jr., Tyler Courtney, Joe B. Miller, Ronnie Gardner, Ryan Smith, Justin Grant, C.J. Leary, Howard Moore, Paul Nienhiser, Seth Bergman, Chase Briscoe, Thomas Chandler, Christopher Bell, Brian Shirley, Dillon Welch, McKenna Haase.