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Kyle Larson has eventful night dirt racing

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After being disqualified in an Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car race Saturday night at the Dirt Oval at Route 66, Kyle Larson came back to win the USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Series “Summer Slash” feature.

In the All Star Circuit of Champions race, Larson started from the pole and led the first 13 laps. He was disqualified during a red flag break on Lap 14 for a work area violation when one of his crew members left the designated work area to speak with Larson under the caution. Aaron Reutzel went on to win the race.

In the USAC National Midget race, Larson set a track record in his first visit to the 3/8-mile dirt oval and started the feature sixth. He was contending for the lead by the first lap and took the lead on the third circuit. His lead grew until Lap 10 when JJ Yeley flipped down the frontstretch. He was uninjured.

Larson and Logan Seavey then dueled for the lead after the race resumed.

“I felt like I was running good laps,” Larson told usacracing.com.  “Then, Logan threw a slider on me.  I guess I was running 90 percent.  I was like, ‘crap, I got to step it up,’ and that’s when I started making mistakes.”

Larson withstood the challenge and went on to win. Tyler Courtney was second. Tanner Carrick placed third.

The victory was the first this year for Larson and the 16th of his career in the National Midget Series.

Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Ryan Newman set for USAC Silver Crown race on eve of Brickyard 400

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The night before a race he must win to make the Cup playoffs, Ryan Newman will go back to his roots.

The Richard Childress Racing driver is set to compete in a USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series race Saturday night, hours before the Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

The race will take place at Lucas Oil Raceway, just six miles from west of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Newman is 17th in points entering the Brickyard 400.

Newman, the 1999 USAC Silver Crown champion, will drive the Johnny Vance/Aristocrat Products No. 2 in the Rich Vogler Classic.

Newman’s car is a tribute to Vance. Newman raced to Vance’s final USAC National Sprint Car victory at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway in 2000. Vance died in June 2017.

The .686-mile track was the site of Newman’s first USAC National Midget victory in 1997 and his title in 1999.

Qualifying for the 100-lap event is set for 6 p.m. ET Saturday night, 15 minutes before Brickyard 400 qualifying is scheduled to start.

The Rich Vogler Classic is set to start at 7 p.m. ET.

‘Old dog’ Matt Crafton preparing to make USAC Midget debut Saturday night

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Matt Crafton is proving it’s never too late for to try new things in auto racing.

Crafton, the 41-year-old driver for ThorSport Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, will break new ground Saturday night.

It all started a few months ago over dinner with Jack Irving, the director of team and support services at Toyota Racing Development.

“We were just sitting down, having dinner one night a couple of months ago and thought it would be a great idea for me to drive a midget,” Crafton said last Saturday during the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series awards banquet.

“I didn’t think it was too crazy when (Irving) brought it up,” Crafton said. “At that point, it was just casual conversation. I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’ and he texted (Keith) Kunz to see if it was okay. Two days later, he told me, ‘Okay, pick where you want to go.’”

Crafton chose Saturday night’s USAC Indoor Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois, as the place to make his midget debut.

He will make it in a car owned by Keith Kunz Motorsports.

On Dec. 6, the two-time Truck Series champion found himself sitting in a midget for the first time, getting fitted for the dirt car.

“About to find out if you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Crafton later tweeted.

But Crafton has already been fine tuning his dirt racing skills over the last five years. Since 2013, the Truck Series has visited Eldora Speedway, the Tony Stewart-owned dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.

Crafton has been in every Eldora race, but before 2017 his best finish was eighth in the inaugural event.

Before this season, Crafton decided to really figure out dirt racing.

He and his father worked together to rebuild a Modified dirt car and in the downtime between Truck races, Crafton took it racing.

It worked out quickly, with Crafton coming in second in an event at Volusia Speedway Park in February.

Then in July, Crafton triumphed over Stewart Friesen to win the fifth Eldora Dirt Derby.

“It helped a lot,” Crafton said after the race. “Just learning what the track does. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at to be totally honest. Just kept studying and kept studying.”

That Eldora win was the only victory for the No. 88 ThorSport Racing team in 2017, but it put Crafton in the Truck playoffs.

When the prospect of a midget race was raised to him by Irving, the pursuit of a third Truck title kept Crafton from it until the offseason.

“I wouldn’t say the Eldora win propelled any of this … but it’s definitely opened up some more doors,” Crafton said last weekend. “Now, everyone realizes how much I enjoy it and how much of a racer I am and that I love to race.

“I’ll say it again: I’m a racer. There’s a reason why I race dirt races and do everything that I do, and it’s because I want to go out and race anything and everything I possibly can. That’s why I got my own dirt modified, that’s why I got a go-kart … to be able to perfect road courses and that style of racing as well.”

One of Crafton’s teammates in Saturday’s race will be the defending Truck Series champion and dirt veteran Christopher Bell. Crafton’s also received advice from Chase Briscoe, who drove for Brad Keselowski Racing this season.

“(Briscoe) won’t be my teammate, but he sent me some in-car footage of him racing at DuQuoin and I’ve watched it 10 times, just to see what I can learn,” Crafton said. “I mean, you get about four laps, and then you try to race your way into the main event. There’s gonna be a lot of cars there, so it won’t be easy.”

“I talked to Bell this week, and he has a simulator with the midget on it, so I may go over to his house and run the simulator a little bit and see if I can figure out anything there.”

Crafton said he keeps getting pressured to take his dirt experience one step further and compete in January’s Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But Saturday’s 55-lap race comes first.

“I’d love to give (the Chili Bowl) a shot in the future. But we’ll see,” Crafton said. “I’m going out to DuQuoin to have fun; that’s the main goal.”

USAC’s national quarter midget series added to Daytona Speedweeks schedule

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Daytona’s International Speedway’s 2018 Speedweeks just got a little busier and little younger.

The track announced Monday that USAC’s national quarter midgets series, USAC .25, will begin its season there, marking the first time the series has raced at the track. The series is for kids ages 5 – 13.

The event will be held Feb. 9-11 on a temporary 1/20-mile tri-oval inside the track.

“One of our primary goals for our USAC .25 series is that we offer the kids an experience unfound anywhere else in motorsports,” USAC President Kevin Miller said in a press release. “We want to assure that the investment in time and money the families are making will provide experiences and memories that last a lifetime. What better way to give our competitors and their families the incredible opportunity to race where nearly all of the greats have than beginning our national season at Daytona.”

In 2017, the series’ schedule included Phoenix Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Eldora Speedway.

The 2018 edition of Speedweeks will culminate with the 60th Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.