PERRIS, Calif. — official release — Doug Allen photo —
Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports had much to celebrate on Thursday night after a dominant season ended with Christopher Bell winning the 74th Turkey Night Grand Prix at Perris Auto Speedway and Rico Abreu clinched his first Honda Midget Series National Championship.
Ronnie Gardner closed out his second-straight Honda Western Midget title.
“We hit some bad luck and some bad runs to put us into a position where we had to be smart tonight and make sure we got it done,” Abreu said of his 10-point championship over Bell. “I knew my car would get better as the race went on, and it did, but I had to be careful around lapped cars. It’s been such an honor to drive for this team and race with great guys — we’ve had a great year and won a bunch of races and it’s just an incredible ending to add the championship on top of that.”
Tanner Thorson, who won the Jason Leffler Fast Time Award saluting Grand Marshal Parnelli Jones, led the field to green and stayed out front early, as Chad Boat and Brad Sweet raced for second. Despite an early caution, neither pressured Thorson.
Ricky Shelton got upside-down on lap 19 but the red flag put Bell on Thorson’s back bumper for the restart. In a near dead-heat at the line, Bell led lap 22 after running the top all the way around. Thorson got him back on lap 23, though, and opened up another cushion.
As the duo hit lapped traffic, Thorson stuck to the bottom and was hemmed in as Bell ran the cushion to the top spot on lap 29. Sweet came along too as a couple green-flag runs around the race’s mid-point got the leaders into heavy traffic. Darren Hagen was on the move after starting eighth and he went by Sweet for the runner-up spot.
After a restart with 33 to go, Sweet slowed off turn-two and pulled in as Hagen was closing on Bell. Hagen looked ready to throw a slider just as sixth-running Kyle Larson got into a lapped car and left Damion Gardner with nowhere to go. Gardner spun and collected Chad Boat, who flipped through turns three and four. The red flag left the race with 23 laps left, all to be run under green.
Bell pulled away from Hagen on the restart, as eyes shifted back in the pack with Larson and Gardner coming through the pack. Also on the move was Kevin Thomas Jr., as he moved to sixth just before getting into the wall and bringing out the final caution on lap 78.
Out front, Bell was untouchable, but behind him were cars going everywhere. Larson dive bombed his way from the back into the top five, going by Abreu with less than 10 laps remaining. Gardner was on the move too, moving up to the sixth spot in the closing laps. Larson cleared Zach Daum for third with a few laps remaining but found himself a straightaway behind Hagen.
Bell took his series-leading seventh win of the year and became the 50th different Turkey Night winner in the Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports – Toyota TRD No. 71 Bullet/Speedway Toyota, as Gardner flipped in turn four shortly after Bell took the checkered.
“This place was not really my favorite in my first couple trips here, but tonight the track came to me and was definitely to my liking,” Bell said. “Once it got up pretty high and slick underneath it, I really got into a rhythm. It’s great to add this race to our list and get my name on there with all the great guys who have won it before me. We had a shot at the championship tonight, but Rico got the job done. It’s a great accomplishment for our team and caps off an amazing year.”
Hagen came home second, narrowly missing the big win at his home track, just miles from his Riverside hometown in the Great Clips Racing – Fatheadz Eyewear No. 56 Triple X/Esslinger.
“I was definitely ready for a slide-job war with him for the lead before that red. After that, either he was way better or we just weren’t as good. I love racing here when it’s like that and you can really run high and try to carry a lot of speed. It’s tough to beat the Keith Kunz bunch but we brought our new Triple X car out here and have a win and a second, so it’s been a great end to the season,” Hagen said.
Larson’s run ended in the third spot, marking his first USAC start since midway through the 2013 season. The 2012 Turkey Night winner charged from 11th on the lap-75 restart to the podium in the Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports – Target Cartwheel No. 71k Bullet/Speedway Toyota.
“I had a lot of fun tonight. I felt OK through the race, but we were all so even; after I got into the lapped car and went to the work area, it just was so much better,” Larson said. “They said they didn’t even really do anything, but we were really good. I would have loved a caution once I got to third, but I was so happy to get a podium. I thought I was gonna stall out about sixth. I had a blast, and I’m glad I was fast – I caught Rico and saw he was being smart. I was glad I could diamond under him and didn’t have to slide him. He ran a really smart race, so he earned that championship.”
Daum finished fourth in the Daum Crop Insurance – Weld Wheels No. 5d Eagle/Stanton Toyota, and Abreu’s championship was finished off with a fine fifth-place run in his Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports – Toyota TRD No. 97 Bullet/Speedway Toyota.
Isaac Chapple earned the Don Basile Rookie of the Race Award.