Former O'Reilly Chili Bowl Midget Nationals champion Jay Drake made his way back to victory lane at the Tulsa Expo Raceway by scoring the win in Thursday night's 25-lap Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores qualifying feature.
Drake took command at the outset after polesitter J.J. Yeley lost a bout with the frontstretch retaining wall, then fought off a lap 18 bid from Garrett Hansen en route to victory lane to conclude the second night of the 20th Annual O'Reilly Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.
Jon Stanbrough battled past Hansen in the latter stages to snare the runner-up slot. Hansen settled for the show position, with Steve Buckwalter fending off Justin Allgaier for the fourth and final transfer to Saturday's championship main event.
After the original feature start was waved off for a minor tangle, it was third-starter Hansen blasting past both Yeley and Drake in the opening two corners. Yeley’s car drifted too high exiting turn four as he battled wheel-to-wheel for third with Jon Stanbrough near the completion of the first lap. Yeley’s car caught the retaining wall and launched into the catch fence at the start-finish line. Although uninjured, the unique Bondio No. 47x was done for the night.
On the restart, Drake beat Hansen to the cushion in the first corner to take a lead he would never relinquish in the frantic non-stop 25-lap affair. But until the final five rounds, there was little breathing room for Drake in the Fontana-powered Keith Kunz Motorsports No. 67k Advanced Racing/Kwik Change Bullet-chassis.
Hansen and Stanbrough shadowed Drake’s every move, even after lapped traffic came into play on the eighth round. Working adeptly through lapped traffic, Drake finally became mired behind a pair of lapped machines on the 16th circuit.
Hansen, the 20-year-old California upstart, dove underneath Drake entering turn one on the 18th lap in a bold move to take the lead. The former USAC Sprint Car champion was up to the challenge however, fending off the bid and quickly disposing of the lapped cars in response.
Drake stretched his lead to a half straightaway over the final five rounds to secure the victory and an assured top-three starting position for Saturday night’s prestigious 20th Annual O’Reilly Chili Bowl Midget Nationals finale.
“It was fun,” Drake commented afterward. “We haven’t made the show the last two years and I wasn’t even expecting him (car owner Keith Kunz) to invite me back this year, but he always sticks with me and always welcomes me back and tells me I have a car waiting anytime I want it and that’s a good feeling to have.”
Set to contend for NASCAR Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, Yeley was the star of the show throughout qualifying action. The Arizona native made a dramatic last-corner pass of Jason Leffler to top his heat race, then secured the pole position for the 25-lap feature by outdueling Leffler once again in classic style in qualifying race action, this after an opening lap tangle that sent Yeley to the rear of the 12-car qualifier.
But, matching Yeley step-for-step, 2001 Chili Bowl champion Drake topped both his heat race and qualifier to earn the outside front row starting berth for the main event.
Indiana’s Stanbrough slid past Hansen for second on the 20th lap and kept Hans Lein’s Esslinger-powered No. 2x Midstate Acres Spike in the runner-up slot the rest of the way.
“I just got hooked up with Hans probably two or three weeks ago and didn’t know if I was gonna get to run for him or not and I’m really pleased that I got to run with him,” Stanbrough stated at the post-race press conference. “I want to thank these two guys (Hansen and Buckwalter), I don’t even know ‘em and they ran real clean and I’m real proud to run with ‘em and really excited to be in for Saturday night.”
Hansen’s breakout performance aboard the Fontana-powered Hansen Racing Products No. 70 Stealth netted third place and a spot in Saturday’s feature.
“This is by far the best we’ve ever done, I’m pretty impressed with the way the car was, anything I wanted to do I could pretty much do,” Hansen explained. “To run up front with these guys was pretty cool.”
ARDC Midget contender Steve Buckwalter of Royersford, PA, fought off young Illinois shoe Justin Allgaier to take the fourth spot to Saturday’s main event, the second time in the last three years that Buckwalter has locked into the finale through his preliminary feature.
“This is all I really wanted, just to come out here and run with these guys is great, I basically just run the whole ARDC deal and try to scrape enough money together to get out there and run with everybody,” Buckwalter explained.
Allgaier rounded out the top five, while Leffler charged from 13th to sixth. Kevin Swindell turned in the top Chili Bowl rookie performance of the opening two nights by claiming seventh, besting Brent Beauchamp’s eleventh place showing on Wednesday night. Defending Chili Bowl champion Tracy Hines was eighth, with 2005 National Midget Driver of the Year Brad Kuhn and 16th-starter Michael Trimble completing the top ten. Heat race winners for Thursday night’s 85-car field included Kenny Brown, Critter Malone, Swindell, Chris Rahe, Stanbrough, Yeley, Darren Hagen, Chad Kemenah, Drake and Allgaier.
Thomas Meseraull, John Wolfe, Gary Wright and John Sarna each scored Last Chance Race wins, with Allgaier, Yeley, Buckwalter and Drake acing the Qualifying Races. Wright outlasted Kemenah to win the first 15-lap B Main, with youngster Cole Whitt topping the second B Main.
Jay Jordan and Eric Schrock flipped during heat race action, with Russ Harper getting upside down during Last Chance competition. Malone and Matt Mitchell were involved in a wild double-flip during Qualifying Race action, with Mitchell later flipping into the turn two fencing during the B Mains. Other B Main flips included John Wolfe, Jonathan Beason and Kenny Brown. There were no injuries.
Jay Drake topped Thursday night's Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores Qualifying feature at the 20th Annual O'Reilly Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. (Lonnie Wheatley photo)
There are eight female drivers in this year's Chili Bowl events. They are (L-R): Tracy Miller, Tiffany Wyzard, Ashley Swanson, Shannon McQueen, Kathy Kurtz, Michelle Decker and Michele Miller. Not pictured is Audra Sasselli.