Christopher Bell passed fellow Toyota driver Chad Boat with just four laps remaining and went on to win the third annual “Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget Special event at the indoor, one-sixth-mile dirt oval in Du Quoin, Illinois, Saturday night as Bell celebrated his 23rd birthday.
The win topped off a magical 2017 campaign for Bell after previously winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, as well as the two biggest events in midget car racing, the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals and the Turkey Night Grand Prix.
Bell started third in the feature with Boat in second and the two Toyota drivers occupied those spots on the high side for much of the early going behind leader Trey Marcham. Boat would eventually use the higher line to move around Marcham coming off turn four on lap 18.
Boat opened up a comfortable lead through the middle of the race and then had to deal with lapped traffic as the laps started to wind down, nearly getting caught up in a spin that occurred right in front of him with less than 15 laps to go in the 55-lap feature.
On the restart with 13 laps remaining, Bell began his charge up from third. The 2013 USAC champion traded the second spot with Justin Grant on lap 44 before finally taking the position as he dove to the bottom of the track into turn three with just 10 laps left.
A final caution came out with just five laps remaining and Bell would use it to his advantage. Boat continued to run high, while Bell went to the bottom of the track. The Toyotas crossed the start/finish line side-by-side. Finally, Bell would take the top spot exiting turn two on lap 52. One last caution would bunch the field, but Bell was in command as he went on to earn his tenth win in 13 Midget starts in 2017.
“To be able to win the last race of the year like that is pretty cool,” relayed Bell. “At the beginning of the race, I was really good, but was kind of biding my time. Once Chad got the lead, I was really struggling. I was just trying to figure out what I could do to make something happen. I was pretty much determined to go where he wasn’t. He was kind of a sitting duck out there (on the lap 51 re-start). This place, once it gets so far around the top, you can make up time there whenever you can get your momentum built up, but you’re so vulnerable, especially on restarts. The door is wide open and it’s so easy to throw a slider here. Whenever he opened up the inside like that, I knew I had to take advantage of it.
“Going to NASCAR has made me a better racecar driver just because it’s taught me things I didn’t learn here on the dirt,” Bell said. “That’s something I’ve been able to find that when you run these really long races, you learn that you don’t have to lead lap five. You don’t have to lead lap 10. You only have to lead the last lap. That’s something I’ve really tried to apply in midget racing and it seems to have worked.”
Boat would eventually finish fourth. Toyota NASCAR Truck Series champion Matt Crafton made his midget debut at Du Quoin, advancing to the B Main.
The 2018 midget season kicks off in just 23 days as Bell will look to defend his Chili Bowl Midget Nationals title January 9-13 at the Tulsa Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Toyota Racing PR