AUCKLAND, N.Z.—Kyle Larson drove his midget into the sunset at Western Springs Speedway on Sunday.
The 26-year-old Elk Grove, Calif., native started from the pole and defended his World 30 Lapper win decisively, despite two cautions over the last six laps.
Although the finish appeared to be trending toward another battle with Christopher Bell, Larson held off his rival by .837-seconds to win Night 3 of the United Truck Parts International Midget Series at the quarter-mile dirt track.
“The track was really racy, and my car was good as well,” Larson said. “I’m not really sure where Bell was behind me prior to the (first) caution, but I felt like I had a good pace going and was making good moves in traffic.
“We were able to fight him off over those last two restarts, so I’m happy about that. Happy about how good our car was. Good win.”
Bell started third and finished second. Michael Pickens, who won the first two nights of midget features, finished third.
“Larson, once he got out front, he was good,” Bell said. “If I was out front, I think he would have had a hard time passing me, too.”
After winning the B-Main to transfer to the feature, Zach Daum finished fourth, followed by Brad Mosen, Logan Seavey and Tyler Courtney.
“We were fortunate to get a couple of breaks,” Daum said. “I should have charged a little bit harder earlier than I did, but you never know what’s going to happen. Not a bad run. I’m just waiting for the 40 and 50 (lappers) now.”
Before coming to New Zealand, Bell had topped Larson in their last three midget meetings—The Chili Bowl Nationals, Turkey Night and the Gateway Dirt Nationals. Larson’s knowledge of the Western Springs track, along with a stellar car, provided him with an edge on Sunday.
Larson finished third in Heat 2, second in the International Team Race (leading the United States to its third straight win) and won Heat 4. The track conditions had changed dramatically since the opening round last Wednesday on the quarter-mile oval. That too, played into Larson’s hands.
“Tonight, the track started with a lot more moisture so we were spitting actual dirt and mud up the track. It actually got up really high and close the wall and built a cushion—which was not normal for this place. Normally, it’s just a little grip strip at the top that makes it easy to run. It made it more technical for us tonight.
“Even in the feature there, (turns) one and two the top—the cushion—got pushed up to the wall and that’s when I started moving down on my entry and started shortening the track and make less mistakes running down there. The track was really good tonight. It was nice how it changed throughout the race.”
Larson held a 2.5-second advantage over Bell prior to the first of two cautions triggered by Scott Buckley on Lap 24. Larson led the field to the restart followed by Bell, Mosen, Pickens and Seavey. But the field didn’t complete a lap before Breyton Davison and Scott Farmer made contact.
Bell lined up alongside Larson for the Lap 24 restart. While Bell has had the advantage over Larson of late, the former King of the Springs easily held on for the win.
“Bell’s really good at searching for lines,” Larson said. “So I really didn’t know what to do. I was surprised to see him to my inside a couple of times in one and two. I thought he’d be running the top really hard. I had to stay committed to what I was doing and try not make any mistakes running the cushion in 3 and 4 or the exit of 2 and allow him to get the best of me.”
After being a bridesmaid in a midget—finishing second in Heats 2 and 5 as well as the feature—Bell smoked Pickens on the last lap of the Sprint Car feature to win in consecutive starts.
Pickens appeared to have the race in hand before going low to navigate traffic. Bell went lower and made a pass in the grass coming through Turns 3 and 4 for the lead and the win.
“I still can’t believe that,” Bell said after hearing the officials decision. “I honestly did not expect that one. I knew my car was good. Everyone talked about clean air, but I just couldn’t do anything. The line he was running—he kept sliding across the race track—would dirty up the entire race track so I could never make a run. In 3 and 4, it got wide enough to where I could rip around the track and get a little run on him but he’d get me back in 1 and 2.
“We were pretty even. He got out front and that was it. I feel like the midget race was the same deal.”
Bell used the lapped traffic to his advantage when making the move on Pickens. The former New Zealand midget champ seemed surprised by the steward’s decision long after the crown had dissipated. However, he remained gracious in defeat.
“It was just one of those deals,” Pickens said. “It just wasn’t our race.”
Following the race, the Auckland native asked the officials for an explanation. What he received wasn’t much of a consolation.
“If I run on the grass, I get relegated,” Pickens added. “It’s just the way it goes. You have to suck it up, chin up and get along. It’s disappointed when the decisions go one way and then another for someone else—but that’s not anything personal against Christopher at all.
“We were having a go—and to be honest, I’d probably do the same thing. But he’s a hell of a racer. It’s just unfortunate.”
Pickens doesn’t blame Bell in the least for the move. After hearing Bell’s post-race reaction, Pickens knows the driver was just as surprised by the decision.
“I’ll be really honest with you, that’s one thing that’s really good in the States, there’s no referee,” Bell said. “It’s black-and-white. You win the race, you win the race. It’s not like that here. They have a referee and a ruling on every call. I didn’t think there was any way I would win the race. I thought, for sure, they were going to put me back.
“I was really shocked when they told me that (I won). I’ve run second enough tonight. We got away with one tonight. I’m glad I wasn't second any more.”