AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Long live the King.
Kyle Larson successfully defended his King of the Springs title at Western Springs Speedway on Thursday night.
Larson, who started from the pole, edged out Christopher Bell by .27-seconds in the 39-lap Bryan Clauson Memorial.
“Once I got into the rhythm—when I stopped racing Tyler (Courtney)—the top was getting a little easier to run,” Larson said. “I was catching traffic, but the entry of (turn) 1 was getting pretty wide so I could slide people and clear them. The lappers weren’t racing me to hard, which was nice, so I could get back in a rhythm quickly and try and go lap the next guy.
“So, long green flag runs I felt good. The track has been so racy that once you get bunched up It’s easy for them to throw sliders at you. Then you’ve got to race and your pace slows down. It makes it difficult, but it puts on a good race for the fans.”
Michael Pickens, Tyler Courtney and Hayden Williams rounded out the top five.
Pickens and Bell, came from eighth and 12th, respectively to finish first and second in the B-Main. Pickens was wrecked in Heat 3. Bell flipped after Hamish Dobbyn stalled in Turn 2 during Heat 4. Both drivers transferred along with Taylor Clarke and Logan Seavey to the feature. Pickens started 17th, Bell 18th.
Shaun Insley piloted the No. 39USA midget as a tribute to Clauson and paced the field leading into a four-wide salute prior to the green flag.
Larson appeared to be the class of the field throughout the first nine laps. He had extended his lead to more than four-seconds over Courtney when Bell made contact with Pickens and flipped in Turn 2 while running 10th.
Bell dropped to the rear of the field once again—but still set his sights on Larson.
“I’m glad he spotted us some laps there where he turned over,” Larson said with a laugh. “He spotted us a good amount of time. Seven more laps with him in second, it could have been a different deal.
“I had to fight off Tyler (Courtney) there for a while, then we started racing and I couldn’t get my momentum up. I’d go to the top—and he’d slide me again. Once I could start running the top, I felt like I ran some good laps and could pull away.”
Brad Mosen passed Courtney for second and Pickens climbed to fifth. Ten laps later, Larson was unchallenged at the point by Mosen but Bell cruised by Pickens and was zeroing on Courtney.
“I knew that I was fine, it was a matter of being patient,” Bell said. “If you’re good, you can win from anywhere.”
Larson was in the groove but aware that Bell had raced up to fourth place.
“Obviously knew he was really fast,” Larson said. “Then I saw he got to second on the big screen and I was just hoping it would stay green cause I had a good rhythm going on that little run.”
Larson’s march was slowed again when Hayden Guptill spun in Turn 4 to ignite the second caution on Lap 34. Bell passed Courtney and then for second Mosen before Clarke spun on Lap 37.
“I was able to start single-file on that restart which really helped,” Larson said. “I think if it was a double-file restart it would have been much more difficult to hold Bell off. But I got a good restart. I knew he would throw some sliders at me. So I had to keep him guessing behind me, make could decisions and we were barely able to stay ahead of him at the start-finish line.”
With three laps remaining, the cars lined up for a single-file restart and once again, Larson watched his lead disappear as Bell closed in. Although Bell was able to sniff the lead momentarily, Larson held him off for the win.
“That was a lot of fun,” Bell added. “You have good races and bad races where it doesn’t matter where you finish but that was a pretty good race. I ran second—which I was really frustrated about at Huntly (Speedway, site of Round 4 of the United Trucks International Midget Series)—but I felt pretty good about it because I thought I got everything out of it.
“Kyle ran perfect those last couple of laps. It didn’t matter what I did, he had the move to hold me off. It was a lot of fun.”
Bell returned to New Zealand following a five-year absence. Over that time, Larson has gained a tremendous amount of experience at Western Springs, and that played in his favor. Bell has struggled with the setup of his car and the feeling that it is on the edge of tipping over.
“I think I was faster than him and better than him at the end of the race,” Bell said. “The team has been working really hard to get me comfortable with the car. I can’t get comfortable with the car because I feel I’m going to turn over in every corner.
“We finally go the feeling I was looking for halfway through the night, so hopefully I can be good for the 50-lapper on Saturday.”
Earlier in the day, Bell won the International Team Race with the USA drivers of Courtney and Larson sweeping the podium. In his Sprint Car rematch with Pickens, Bell had to settle for second.
“My Sprint race, that was an awful second,” Bell said. “I did a horrible job. I ran sloppy the first couple of laps, but my car was fast at the very end. I came on really strong. I think if the driver didn’t screw that one up, I would have won the Sprint Car race.”
Instead, that honor went to Pickens, who got a great jump on Bell after the initial start was called back to the line.
“It’s a better outcome than we had two night ago for sure,” said multi-time Western Springs track champion. “It’s pretty special to beat someone like Christopher Bell. He’s one of the best open-wheel drivers there is, period.
“Great night—and almost as good of a night in the Midgets. We’ve had a good series so far and have one more race to go—the 50-lapper—the one everyone wants to win. We’ll bring our best game to that one.”
Although Larson has earned the King of the Springs title in the past, winning the 39-lap feature honoring his friend Clauson made the victory unique.
“Last year I got lucky and won this race—Tyler (Courtney) was easily going to win and he got collected in the race,” Larson said. “So it was kind of bittersweet last year. Then to come this year and really earn it, it makes it feel really special.
“Bryan was a hard racer—and I’ve had a lot of races with him like that—like me and Bell. It’s cool to win it and have Lauren (Stewart, Clauson’s fiancee) here. We’re really close to her and she was really close to Bryan. So to win anything in Bryan’s honor means a lot.”