A month after capturing the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, Christopher Bell celebrated his 23rd birthday Saturday night by winning the third annual “Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget Special in Du Quoin, Illinois.
Bell passed fellow Toyota driver Chad Boat with four laps remaining to win the event on the indoor, one-sixth-mile dirt oval.
It was the final race of the year for Bell – and what a year it has been.
It started with his first triumph in January’s Chili Bowl in Tulsa and continued with the Truck championship on Nov. 16. Then, less than a week later, there was a win in the Turkey Night Grand Prix on Thanksgiving night at California’s Ventura Raceway, which along with the Chili Bowl are the two biggest races in midget car racing.
And after starting his overall racing season with a win in Tulsa, Bell bookended checkered flags at the front and back end of the year with his win in Du Quoin.
The 2013 USAC National Midget champ qualified third for Saturday’s race. He moved into second when Boat took the lead from pole sitter Trey Marcham on Lap 18.
A final caution came out on Lap 50. On the ensuing restart, Bell took the lead on Lap 52 and would hold off fellow NASCAR driver Chase Briscoe by .295 of a second for the win, followed by Shane Golobic, Boat and Justin Grant in fifth.
It was Bell’s 10th win in 13 Midget starts this season, a 77 percent winning percentage and the most wins he’s ever earned in a season (his previous best was seven wins in the 2013 and 2014 seasons).
“To be able to win the last race of the year like that is pretty cool,” the Norman, Oklahoma native said in a media release. “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.
“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.”
Also, Camping World Truck star Matt Crafton made his first career Midget start, advancing to the B Main where he finished 13th, not high enough to advance to the night’s big feature.
There will be little rest for Bell and others: he will attempt to defend his Chili Bowl championship in just over three weeks – January 9-13 at the Tulsa Expo Center.
And just over a month after that, Bell will embark upon his first full season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.