By RICHIE MURRAY
LINCOLN, IL – It had been three years since a driver had won consecutive USAC Midget National Championship features at two different Illinois tracks.
That driver was Christopher Bell, who captured a pair of victories at Tri-City Speedway (Granite City) and Belle-Clair Speedway (Belleville) during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
It was a rare case of déjà vu Sunday night in the series’ return to the Logan County Fairgrounds’ Lincoln Speedway for the first time since 1959. Norman, Oklahoma’s Bell staked his claim of Illinois by writing the deed that turned the Land of Lincoln into the Land of Bell for the time being, racing to the front on the same, exact lap (25) as he did the night before in his victory at Macon Speedway to lead the same two drivers, Spencer Bayston and Tyler Courtney, across the line for the second time in as many nights.
In front of an electric, standing room only crowd, Bell began the race from the third position, but it wasn’t an immediate charge to the front, as he stayed put for much of the first half of the 30-lapper, wavering back-and-forth between third and fourth as Tyler Thomas, then Tyler Courtney, took turns heading the field early in the going.
On lap six, the scariest incident of the season occurred when Brayton Lynch and Chad Boat made contact entering turn one. Lynch’s car launched into the fence, snapping one of the fence posts in half and taking down a large section of catch-fencing and the safety light with him. Meanwhile, Boat’s car launched over the wall and fencing at Mach-10 speed, flipping nose-to-tail roughly 15 times before, eventually, landing near a parking lot a football field-distance away from where the incident began. Fortunately, both drivers were able to walk away from the scene.
On the ensuing restart, the top-three of Courtney, Bayston and Thomas tussled for position before Courtney found a foothold and pulled out to a ten-car-length margin advantage.
Back in third and fourth, Bell was starting to find his rhythm as he muscled the curb on the bottom of turn two to maneuver into the top-three. As he began to close on Bayston for second on the 10th lap, the fourth stoppage in the first third of the event came out when Kyle Schuett came to a rest in turn three.
The back-and-forth grapple between speeding to the front under green flag conditions and idling under yellow can bring about agitation. The starts and stops had become persistent early on as, every time Bell began to make a charge, his momentum would be required to cease for the moment and he would have to recover his equilibrium when action resumed.
“At the beginning of the race, we weren’t able to find a rhythm due to the yellows,” Bell recalls. “There was no flow. We get a lap here, a lap there, then a yellow would fly. My car was really good, though. I knew early I was good. I just needed laps to get going. It’s tough when there’s a bunch of yellows. The longer the green flag runs are, the better I typically am.”
However, that would allow a number of anxious drivers to regroup and find their groove. Yet, when the green flag flew on the lap 10 restart, every driver’s groove was initially on the bottom. Bayston was able to work his way under Courtney on the back straight to grab the lead as the two darted toward turn three.
“I was able to work the bottom of turns one and two pretty well and was all the way down on the berm,” Bayston explains. “I got a good drive off, and got to the lead and run. But my line started to go away midrace, so I had to figure something else out.”
Near mid-race, Bell had caught up to Courtney in a tug-of-war for second. The two swapped the position multiple times, exchanging sliders and altering back-and-forth between the high-and-low lines on laps 14 and 15. As Courtney and Bell crossed the line and crossed sticks were presented for the halfway mark, the two banged wheels, impeding Bell’s progress as he fell to fourth and Shane Golobic took advantage on the bottom to rope in the third spot.
Bell saw the proverbial writing on the wall at that point and knew if he was going to win the thing, the top was going to be the place to do it.
“I knew the top was my only option if I wanted to win the race,” Bell admits. “I really couldn’t get anything going anywhere else. I was able to get the top going and I think I was the first guy up there. The biggest thing was just getting the top cleaned off, keeping it clean and maintaining my momentum.”
On lap 19, Bell disposed of Golobic for third and, two laps later, he was back in the thick of the hunt for second as he worked the high line with Courtney occupying the middle groove. Bell put his right rear rubber right up against the wall in turn two with nine to go, possibly brushing it as he closed the ever-shrinking gap. In turn four, however, Courtney slid up in front of Bell momentarily. Bell crossed over underneath Courtney and rocketed to second at the line.
Bell had the high-line working to perfection and, in almost no time, Bayston’s one-second lead had ceased to exist. Bell took his first swing in turn three on lap 24, diving to the bottom and springing to the top to briefly hold the position. Bayston never wavered from the middle, kept the wheels straight and retook the position by a car length at the stripe.
Bell immediately aimed low once again to repeat the move, but Bayston anticipated the move and snatched the bottom line first entering turn one as Bell shot back up to the razor-thin cushion and surfed it exquisitely around Bayston to retake the point.
“Christopher showed me his nose and I tried to nail my line in one and two to get in front of him up top,” Bayston details. “He was able to squeak by. It seemed like he was up there the whole race and had it figured out. It took me too long to get going before I was able to get back to him.”
Bell started to pull away and appeared destined for Lincoln glory, but a caution a lap later for a D.J. Raw spin on lap 26 bunched up the field and provided Bayston another opportunity, something that Bell was not too fond of.
“I felt like the last yellow hurt me pretty badly because I was getting going on the fence when it came out,” Bell said. “You really have to pay attention to hit your marks and, thankfully, I was able to pick my marks back up.”
Bell’s marks were superb, no doubt, but Bayston was hoping to throw a bit of dissonance into the situation as he fired a slider into the first turn on the final restart. Bell, whose midget racing roots were planted at this venue earlier in the decade, was forced to come off the comfort of the cushion and duck his nose toward the middle. Bell made slight contact with Bayston’s tail tank with his right front wheel as he entered the middle of a three-car sandwich off turn two that witnessed the reemergence of Courtney. Courtney held the advantage by a half-car length before Bell’s momentum pushed him past to a race lead he would ultimately tie up, stamp and deliver.
Courtney and Bayston exchanged the second and third spots multiple times in the final laps with Bayston having to slide job Courtney in turn three on both the 27th and 28th circuits before securing the position for good.
After a race-long sparring match with Courtney, then Bayston, Bell would cruise to a relatively comfortable 2.173-second margin of victory over Bayston and Courtney, who all finished in the same order for the second consecutive night. Golobic and Jerry Coons, Jr. rounded out the top-five.
It was Bell’s 19th career USAC National Midget victory in the Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/DeWalt – TRD/Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota, tying him with Coons, Stan Fox and Jason Leffler for 32nd on the all-time list.
Lebanon, Indiana’s Spencer Bayston led 15 laps and was in position to win for the second time in three races, but had to settle for his second 2nd place finish in as many nights in his Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Curb Records – TRD/Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota. In the process, Bayston emerged with the series point lead by 21 markers over Brady Bacon.
“Last year, I raced all season thinking about points. This year, I’m trying not to do that,” Bayston explains. “Obviously, coming home second tonight, (crewman) Big Al (Scroggins) has given me good cars these last couple nights. I thought we kind of had it there early on. I was able to get to the lead, but I was a sitting duck when the line I was running started to go away in turns one and two. Christopher went to work up top, but once I got up there, it took a couple laps for me to get it figured out and that’s when he walked away from me. The crew’s been working really hard and the results are really starting to show, but I admit I’m starting to get tired of finishing second.”
Bayston refused to disappear when he lost the lead to his teammate with five to go, utilizing one final slider on the last restart for a shot at victory.
“Looking back, I think it might’ve been a smarter decision to stay in line and figure it out before I pursued him,” Bayston believes. “I was worried he’d get away from me and that was going to be my one and only shot. I felt like I had a good enough restart, but he had the momentum and was able to get right back around me. It’s another second-place run, but we’re happy. We’ll move on to the next one and learn from this.”
Tyler Courtney of Indianapolis, Indiana raced to a sixth-consecutive top-five finish, finishing third in his Clauson-Marshall Racing/Driven 2 Save Lives – Indiana Donor Network/Spike/Stanton SR-11.
“It’s not exactly the night we wanted,” Courtney lamented. “Obviously, you always want to win, but we were just a little off tonight. We got third again, which doesn’t feel all the great right now, but for big picture purposes, we’re doing what we need to do. We just got to keep running up front and knocking down podium finishes.”
Contingency award winners Sunday night at Lincoln Speedway include Tanner Thorson (ProSource Fast Qualifier & Simpson Race Products 1st Heat Winner), Justin Grant (Competition Suspension, Inc. 2nd Heat Winner), Spencer Bayston (Chalk Stix 3rd Heat Winner), Christopher Bell (Indy Race Parts 4th Heat Winner), Ryan Robinson (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Tanner Carrick (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
USAC MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: July 2, 2017 – Lincoln, Illinois – Lincoln Speedway
PROSOURCE QUALIFYING: 1. Tanner Thorson, 67, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-13.616; 2. Justin Grant, 39BC, Clauson/Marshall-13.652; 3. Spencer Bayston, 97, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-13.754; 4. Christopher Bell, 21, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-13.765; 5. Tyler Courtney, 7BC, Clauson/Marshall-13.765; 6. Tyler Thomas, 91T, Thomas-13.781; 7. Brady Bacon, 76m, FMR-13.793; 8. Gage Walker, 57, RAB-13.797; 9. Shane Golobic, 17w, Clauson-Marshall/Wood-13.833; 10. Holly Shelton, 67K, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-13.856; 11. Tanner Carrick, 71K, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-13.867; 12. Brayton Lynch, 1K, RKR-13.963; 13. Jake Neuman, 3N, Neuman-13.964; 14. Jerry Coons Jr., 25, Petry/Goff-13.968; 15. Chad Boat, 84, Tucker/Boat-14.087; 16. Kyle Schuett, 9K, Schuett-14.120; 17. Chase Jones, 22, Petry/Goff-14.196; 18. Shelby Bosie, 3B, Bosie-14.216; 19. Dave Darland, 11, Gray-14.284; 20. Daniel Robinson, 57D, McCreery-14.288; 21. Tyler Nelson, 91, Harris-14.297; 22. Dalton Camfield, 87c, Camfield-14.423; 23. Ryan Robinson, 71, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-14.429; 24. Ray Seach, 2, Seach-14.475; 25. Mike Hess, 82, Johnson-14.478; 26. Mark Chisholm, 56x, Fifty6x-14.604; 27. Devin Camfield, 17c, Camfield-15.050; 28. D.J. Raw, 33, Team RAYPRO-16.231; 29. Zach Daum, 5D, Daum-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Thorson, 2. Neuman, 3. Courtney, 4. Golobic, 5. Daum, 6. Jones, 7. Nelson, 8. Hess. 2:34.35
COMPETITION SUSPENSION, INC. (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Grant, 2. Coons, 3. Thomas, 4. Shelton, 5. Chisholm, 6. Bosie, 7. Da. Camfield. 2:38.77
CHALK STIX THIRD HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Bayston, 2. R. Robinson, 3. Darland, 4. Boat, 5. Carrick, 6. De. Camfield, 7. Bacon. NT 2:34.54
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH HEAT: (10 laps) 1. Bell, 2. Schuett, 3. Lynch, 4. D. Robinson, 5. Seach, 6. Raw, 7. Walker. NT
SEMI: (12 laps) 1. Bacon, 2. Daum, 3. Carrick, 4. Nelson, 5. Bosie, 6. Seach, 7. Raw, 8. De. Camfield, 9. Jones, 10. Chisholm, 11. Hess, 12. Walker. NT
FEATURE: (30 laps) 1. Christopher Bell, 2. Spencer Bayston, 3. Tyler Courtney, 4. Shane Golobic, 5. Jerry Coons, Jr., 6. Justin Grant, 7. Tanner Thorson, 8. Ryan Robinson, 9. Brady Bacon, 10. Tyler Thomas, 11. Zach Daum, 12. Holly Shelton, 13. Tanner Carrick, 14. Dave Darland, 15. Daniel Robinson, 16. Kyle Schuett, 17. Jake Neuman, 18. Tyler Nelson, 19. D.J. Raw, 20. Shelby Bosie, 21. Ray Seach, 22. Brayton Lynch, 23. Chad Boat. NT
**Bacon flipped during the third heat. Boat and Lynch flipped on lap 6 of the feature; Boat exited the track over the turn one wall.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-4 Thomas, Laps 5-9 Courtney, Laps 10-24 Bayston, Laps 25-30 Bell.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Ryan Robinson (20th to 8th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Tanner Carrick
NEW USAC MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Bayston-713, 2-Bacon-692, 3-Golobic-683, 4-Grant-675, 5-Courtney-648, 6-Thorson-596, 7-Coons-534, 8-Boat-508, 9-R. Robinson-455, 10-Thomas-442.
NEXT USAC MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: July 3 – Springfield, Illinois – Illinois State Fairgrounds Multi-Purpose Arena – Adam Lopez “Illinois Midget Nationals”