Breaking News Bar

AUTO RACING: Stenhouse, Jr. wins USAC midget race at Du Quoin

 
USAC Racing
updated: 12/20/2015 11:14 PM

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. conjured memories of his breakout 2007 USAC season, as the Olive Branch, Mississippi driver returned to midget racing on Saturday night and passed Bryan Clauson with three laps to go for the win in the inaugural "Junior Knepper 55" USAC Midget special event at the Southern Illinois Center.
Stenhouse was caught up in a lap-one logjam but recovered after restarting the event in the 20th and last position before making his way forward to the $3,000 payday.
After heat races and qualifying races accumulated finish and passing points to set feature lineups, Bryan Clauson earned the pole, but fellow front-row starter Tyler Thomas looped his mount in turn-one to set off the six-car stack-up. All six cars were able to restart.
Clauson led early and encountered the tail of the field on lap six, but that was no deterrent. Behind him, Joey Saldana worked to the inside of Chase Briscoe on lap nine to take the second spot. The pace was fast at the front, with the first half of the race clicking off with just one caution.
On lap 34, third-running Spencer Bayston looped in turn-one but was able to keep going, drawing a caution flag but assuming his position in the field as it was deemed an inadvertent yellow. Thomas, who was putting on a show with his drive back through the field without the aid of cautions, benefitted from that to take the third spot.
Saldana shadowed Clauson after flashing just behind on lap 27. He finally tried a slider for the lead on lap 44, but Clauson was able to hold him back. As Saldana slid up in turn-four, Thomas took his shot at second and had a head of steam into turn-one, riding up and over Saldana as both cars went spinning to bring a caution with eleven laps to go.
On the restart, Stenhouse went after his teammate Bayston for the second spot as Clauson pulled away. He started to smoke at the head of the field with less than ten laps to go, though, and Stenhouse started to close. One final caution with four laps to go gave Stenhouse his chance at Clauson for the win.
On the restart, Stenhouse ran high through turns one and two, hitting turn-three with a head of steam as he slid up in front with the lead in turn-four. Clauson didn't give in, though, and he countered with a slider of his own that Stenhouse was able to hold off. Over the final two laps, Stenhouse covered the bottom by sliding across each set of corners, winning by .657-seconds in the Bryan Clauson Racing - Priority Aviation #17 Spike/Esslinger.
"I ran it in as hard as I could on that restart and knew that if I could get a good run off of two, I could slide him. I thought I would clear him, but he just hung right there with me. I had to go back in my head and think what I would do back in 2007 running USAC. It was eventful, and it was such a blast. I passed some cars top and bottom, but I was shocked when I saw Thomas and Saldana crash, and knew then we had a shot. Winning for Tim (Clauson) as a car owner is special after all he has done to help me race midgets still and for Richard & Jennifer Marshall at Priority Aviation. It was so much fun racing with Bryan, and being able to beat him makes you feel really good about racing a midget again," Stenhouse said.
Clauson held on for the second spot in the Rusty Kunz/Joe Dooling Racing - B&H Contractors #63 Spike/Stanton Mopar.
"We were just trying to get it home - we weren't quite good enough and the engine started to give a little at the end, but we still probably had enough if I didn't make a couple wrong decisions late. I left the door open, and he took it. I saw the 17 coming on the board and knew he'd go big, and this is a huge win for him. It's great for our team, as well, and it shows what great people we have even with our leader down a little and needing bed rest," Clauson said.
Bayston held off Andrew Felker by .045-seconds to finish third in the Bryan Clauson Racing - Priority Aviation Services #39 Spike/Esslinger.
Felker finished fourth in the 66 Truck & Salvage - MelMark #11A Boss/Stanton Mopar, and Briscoe rounded out the top-five in the Jeff & Jill Davis - Quick Racing Products #33D Triple X/Honda.
Saturday night's "Junior Knepper 55" was only the 7th indoor dirt midget race in USAC's history and the first since 1990. Previous winners on the dirt include Gary Bettenhausen (3/8/69) & (3/11/72), Lee Kunzman (3/9/69) and A.J. Foyt (3/14/70) who each won at the Houston (TX) Astrodome. Sleepy Tripp won a pair of features at the Reno (Nev.) Livestock Events Center on 3/12/88 and 2/10/90.
After Saturday night's race in Du Quoin, the winners of the last two USAC Midget indoor races are Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (Southern Illinois Center) and Tony Stewart (Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center). Ironically, Stenhouse's last USAC win prior to Saturday night was in a Tony Stewart-owned midget in the "4-Crown Nationals" at Eldora Speedway in 2007.
Stenhouse's victory marked the first time the Bryan Clauson Racing team won a USAC feature without Bryan Clauson behind the wheel. It's also the first win for the Clauson team since November 16, 2013 in a USAC Midget feature at Canyon Speedway Park in Peoria, Arizona.
Stenhouse's win also marked the first indoor USAC Midget victory by a driver in the state of Illinois since Michael Lang won at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago on January 5, 1991.
The 62 cars entered in the "Junior Knepper 55" provided the largest car count for a USAC Midget race since 64 cars appeared in the 2008 "Turkey Night Grand Prix" at Irwindale Speedway.
Saturday night's race was the first USAC Midget event held in Du Quoin, Illinois since Sleepy Tripp won a 50-lap race on the dirt mile at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds in 1979.
This was the third USAC-sanctioned event to take place at the Southern Illinois Center. The two previous USAC events were Ford Focus Midget Series races held in 2005 won by Robbie Ray and Brad Loyet.
The 13 flips at Du Quoin were the most ever in a USAC event, breaking the record of 12 flips in the "Oval Nationals" USAC National Sprint Car event at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway on November 2, 2006.
The USAC midgets return to Du Quoin's Southern Illinois Center on March 19, 2016.