KUTZTOWN, Pa. — Zeb Wise is becoming accustomed to logging his most memorable USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget moments in the state of Pennsylvania.
After bagging his first career series win after a two-month layoff due to injury and becoming the youngest winner in series history to boot, last August at Lanco, Wise might’ve one-upped himself in his second act in Wednesday’s series debut at Action Track USA for round two of Pennsylvania Midget Week.
In this one, the 16-year-old Angola, Ind., native looked the part of a savvy, seasoned veteran having to hold off a relentless attack from Kyle Larson.
“I told (Kyle) I literally closed my eyes about halfway through it when we were side-by-side because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Wise admitted. “As I drove it into three, I saw him on the bottom throwing a slider. I knew it was coming regardless. He just kept going and I got to the middle and I’m like, ‘I’m going to win or we’re going to junk a race car here.’ I just put my foot to the floor and prayed to God that he stayed down and left me an inch or two up top and he gave me just enough room.”
An inch or two was all Wise needed to fend off the hard-charging Larson on the final corner, bouncing off the outside concrete to break free on the outside and beat Larson to the line by a half-car length at the finish line.
Wise started fourth but occupied the third position from the opening lap for the first nine laps as he watched outside front row starter Logan Seavey lead the first seven circuits, then polesitter Chad Boat take over up front on the eighth lap. Wise ripped his way to the second spot past Seavey on the tenth go-around.
On the 11th lap, Larson began his charge toward the front, clearing teammates Tanner Thorson and Seavey in turn three to move from fifth to third.
“Those guys got to sliding each other early and I was able to sneak by a couple on the bottom,” Larson said. “People just kept committing coming off two, then they’d fall off the shelf and I was able to get by. I was hoping Zeb would do that eventually.”
The following lap, Wise utilized the high line off turn four as leader Boat took the middle road down the front straight. Wise crossed over from the top of turn four to the bottom of turn one where he slid by for the race lead with 18 to go.
After riding by Boat at the midway point for the runner-up spot, Larson made gains on Wise as he rolled the bottom in turns one and two while taking the high road in turns three and four. As the laps ticked away around the tight fifth-mile dirt oval, Larson inched closer to Wise just as traffic began to factor in.
As the white streak of Larson ducked underneath Wise time-after-time off turn two, Wise’s attention was piqued, and he decided to put his fate into his own hands. With eight laps remaining, Wise switched lanes and locked up the bottom line in turns one and two.
With traffic occupying the bottom line on the following lap, Wise was forced back to the top of one and two. Larson tried the middle in one and two with three to go, pulling even with Wise at the exit of turn two as the lapped car of Karsyn Elledge clung to the bottom, briefly making it three-wide.
Wise stuck to the top in three and four while Larson rode through the middle wheel-to-wheel through the exit of four.
Moments later, Boat spun to a stop in turn two while battling for fourth with Thorson, forcing a yellow flag and a restart with Wise leading and Larson right on his tail in second.
On the restart, Wise knew he had to throw a changeup in order to prevent Larson from continuing his continuous lurch toward him on the bottom of turns one and two, so he went with his intuition.
“Through lapped traffic, I was running the top in one and two and I could see Kyle on the bottom peeking,” Wise recalled. “I felt like I held my speed through three and four really well, so I didn’t want to change anything there. I made the decision to stick to the bottom in one and two and still run the top in three and four.”
When racing resumed, Larson fired another slider toward Wise in turn three, only to pull even at the exit of four with Wise holding on. Wise shot to the bottom of one and two, but Larson decided not to follow, instead, moving up a lane to the middle which briefly allowed Wise to gain a car length on his lead.
Coming to the white flag, entering turn three, Larson successfully slid past the nose of Wise for the race lead. However, Wise was prepared, and immediately crossed over downhill off turn four to beat Larson to the line by a single-car length.
On the final lap, Larson had Wise lined up to make one last final slider attempt on Wise. Larson slid his car in deep from the bottom of three to the top of four. Instead of crossing over, Wise kept his foot in it, with no room to spare on either side, bouncing his right rear tire off the outside wall, but keeping the car straight as they raced to the line with Wise emerging as the victor by less than a half a car length.
Chris Windom, finished third after starting 12th to earn KSE Racing Products Hard Charger honors. Tanner Thorson was fourth ahead of series point leader Tyler Courtney to round out the top five.
Larson finished second on his 27th birthday.
“On that restart, he did a good job changing his lane,” a complimentary Larson said. “I thought he would stay running it all the way up there, but he shut it down and ran the bottom in one and two and I had to try to roll a lane up just do everything I could to try to throw something at him in three and four. (On the last lap) I left him about a quarter of a lane off of four and he somehow squeezed through it.”
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