VENTURA, Calif. — NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson made the most of his return to midget racing, winning Thursday night’s 76th running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix.
Larson held off a furious late-race rally from early leader Brady Bacon to win his second career Turkey Night Grand Prix in the 76th running of the prestigious event at California’s Ventura Raceway.
Larson, of Elk Grove, Calif., started from the outside of the front row in his Keith Kunz – Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Bullet/Speedway Toyota alongside Bacon. Larson fought his way to the lead on lap 21 with a turn two outside pass of Bacon. Larson then navigated through numerous bouts with lapped traffic as Bacon rapidly closed to mount a serious challenge on Larson for the victory in the final laps. Larson weathered the storm and sped off to grab the .303-second victory over Bacon, Carson Macedo, Rico Abreu and Damion Gardner.
Larson became the 18th driver to win Turkey Night twice during his career and also joins Mel Kenyon, Ron Shuman, Stan Fox, Billy Boat and Dave Darland as one of six drivers to claim a Turkey Night victory at two different tracks after also winning in 2012 at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway.
“I had a good qualifying run and started second,” Larson said. “I was able to get by Brady (Bacon) fairly early and got through traffic. I tried the bottom early on, but it still felt like the top was better, so I went back to the top. I could see he was closing in on me a little bit more on the bottom and I knew I just had to get around that one lapper. I was running the top and could see Brady running to my inside. I knew eventually I’d have to get down to the bottom and I knew if I could clear him, I could run a better pace around the bottom. As soon as I cleared the lapper, I got down just in time to hold onto the lead. Once I cleared him, I ran the bottom even though I still went to the top a couple times in (turns) three and four and Brady was still right there. The white flag was not too far after that. A 98-lap race is a long time, but it felt pretty short for me.”
A successful NASCAR Sprint Cup season that saw Larson score his first career series victory at Michigan in August concluded with the 14th win of his USAC National Midget career on a playground that he doesn’t get to visit as much any longer, but cherishes every opportunity he gets.
“I enjoy running on the dirt every chance I get since I don’t get to do it a whole lot anymore,” Larson admits. Anytime I can do it, run up front and get wins, it’s a lot of fun. I can’t wait for the rest of the offseason, so I can run some more stuff on the dirt and get some more wins.”
A melting pot of 52 midget drivers from coast-to-coast filled the pit area at Ventura in the event’s largest car count since Larson’s first victory in 2012.
The event was whittled to 29 for the 98-lapper at the fifth-mile dirt oval by the beach, but the action was quickly halted with Gage Walker’s flip on the first corner of the first lap. He walked away unscathed.
Following the complete restart, Bacon and the FMR Racing/Beast/Toyota backed up the speed shown by recording the fastest laps in two of the three sessions in Wednesday night’s practice and Thursday’s ProSource/Woodland Auto Display fastest qualifier, proving to be the strongest combination early on after rocketing away to a half-straightaway lead.
By the 13th lap, Bacon was steadfast on the bottom as Larson made waves up on the cush. After slipstreaming through Bacon’s wake, Larson charges right to the tail of the leader. On lap 21, Larson ripped around the outside of Bacon in turn two for the race lead. As the pair entered turn three, Larson slanted down from the top, cutting in front of the nose of Bacon just before the apex of the turn to take the bottom line, and the race lead, away just prior to meeting the tail-end of lapped traffic.
Meanwhile, the table was set for a heated battle for the USAC National Midget title. Separated by a mere nine markers coming into Turkey Night, point leader Tanner Thorson ran eighth and teammate Spencer Bayston 11th just prior to the midway point.
On lap 42, Bayston and Frankie Guerrini were involved in a turn four tangle. The move was disastrous for Bayston as he lost pivotal track position that relegated him to the 23rd position for the restart.
Larson appeared to establish himself in a class of his own as he built his very own half-straightaway lead. However, multiple yellow flag periods would evaporate those leads. With 26 laps to go, Larson and Bacon, running one-two, were separated by the lapped car of Holly Shelton on the restart. It would take a couple of laps before Bacon would manage to slip by Shelton, using a turn one slide job on lap 74 to put Larson back within a clear view of out of the Broken Arrow, Okla.’s helmet visor.
Larson went topside while Bacon remained on the chalk-lined bottom berm as the two entered the green room of lapped traffic. Bacon steadily reeled in Larson, but swiftly as Larson went high, low, anywhere he could go to find daylight.
With seven laps remaining, Bacon edged ahead of Larson on the bottom for the lead, briefly, off turn two. Yet, Larson found an avenue back to the front moments later by sneaking back down to the bottom in front of the lapped car of Nick Chivello to create separation between he and second-running Bacon.
With three laps remaining, Larson and Bacon swapped lines with Larson now down low and Bacon up top. Bacon appeared to have found the top to his liking soon after, but was unable to get off the corners as strongly as Larson who commandeered the point as Bacon lost precious ground.
Larson withstood a heady drive by Bacon, the two-time USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car champ, to seal the deal in the final laps for his second USAC National Midget win of the year in just his third start.
Geoff Ensign won the companion USAC West Coast Sprint Car Series feature.
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