PONTOON BEACH, Fla. — What was already billed as one of the top races in the country got another feather in its cap on Saturday night as Kyle Larson tested a demanding cushion to taste victory in the fourth Gold Crown Midget Nationals at Tri-City Speedway.
The young driver finished upside down a year ago in his battle up against the wall, but he came out on top of the 50-lapper, making his eighth career National Midget win worth $10,000.
Darren Hagen used the bottom to steal the lead from row-two on the first lap, but Larson was quickly calling for the lead. Just after Larson took it from Hagen, a caution appeared for Bryan Clauson. He was done for the event. On the restart, Hagen clipped an infield tire and when Brenden Bright flipped on the front-stretch, Hagen had to give up the lead to visit the work area for repairs.
Larson assumed the lead, on the restart, but another caution for Hagen on lap nine slowed the pace, as top-five runner Tracy Hines had to visit the work area for his own problems. Larson led Brad Sweet for the restart, but it was Larson’s teammate and dash winner Rico Abreu who had the crowd stirring.
With the leaders sticking to the bottom, Abreu took on a tricky cushion and reeled in his Keith Kunz Motorsports teammate, and the two traded slide jobs as the field crossed over 20 laps complete.
When Abreu scraped the wall just after halfway, Sweet and Jerry Coons, Jr. were there to take advantage. Coons had been coming on the top, but he switched to the bottom after he swept by Sweet and went after the leader. Coons was smooth on the bottom as he crept up on Larson, who saw Coons poke a nose in front on lap 37 to take the lead.
Larson would not go down without a fight, however, and he attacked the top with even more vigor. With less than ten laps to go, he finally found his momentum on the outside and pulled back in front to complete lap 43. Just as Larson appeared headed for victory, barring a bout with the concrete, the final caution flew for Thomas Meseraull with four laps remaining.
Over the final few circuits, Coons would not go away and appeared he would have a shot over the final two corners, but Larson got a run off the top of turn-two on the final lap and pointed to the bottom, hitting two perfect corners to take a .070-second victory in the Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports — Toyota TRD No. 71 Bullet/Speedway Toyota.
“This track is the best midget track we go to. They do a great job with track prep. To have a track this good tonight shows how much dedication they have to this event. I had to keep making sure I hit my marks to get back by Jerry. I just tried to keep my wheel-spin down early in the race, and I had a great race with Rico through the middle of the race, and I think I got to the top just in time. Being patient on the bottom is just not my style, so I had to rip the top. It’s good to get this win tonight and win one for Pete Willoughby’s birthday,” Larson said.
Coons’ charge from ninth was not quite enough to take the win, but the winner of the inaugural Gold Crown came home a strong second in the Dooling Machine Products – Impact No. 63 Spike/Esslinger.
“I want to thank Joe Dooling and Rusty Kunz for giving me a great race car. It was a fun race; fifty laps is a long race, and a lot of stuff changes. I faded for a minute, and went back to the bottom towards the end. We led for a while, but Kyle drove a heck of a race. He stepped it up another notch up there, and he made a good move to get back to the bottom on the last corner. It was a great run for us,” Coons said.
Sweet held on for third in what was an impressive first weekend aboard a midget in 2012, taking back-to-back third-place finishes in the Three Wide Life – Fatheadz Eyewear No. 56 Beast/Esslinger.
“It was a fun weekend coming out here and racing with these guys again. I was kind of protecting there at the end, but I have to thank Shane Hmiel and Scott Benic for letting me run for them. Those two out front were good, and I was just kinda battling behind them. Hopefully, I can come back again next year,” Sweet said.