Jason Leffler rode the cushion past Aaron Fike on the ninth circuit, then held off Scott Hatton in the closing rounds to top Thursday night's Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores 25-lap qualifying feature for the 18th Annual O'Reilly Chili Bowl Midget Nationals at Tulsa Expo Raceway.
Former Chili Bowl champion Hatton pressured Leffler over the final rounds, but was unable to mount a charge and settled for a close second place finish. Tracy Hines and Tony Stewart both advanced several positions over the last half of the race to snare the third and fourth transfer positions to Saturday night's finale, close behind the lead duo.
While Leffler lined up eighth in the 22-car starting grid after racing from eighth to third in the second of ten heat races, it was two-time National Midget Driver of the Year Aaron Fike and 1995 Chili Bowl champion Donnie Beechler who led the feature field to the green flag.
Fike, who blasted from sixth to win the fifth heat race, outgunned Beechler for the early lead, with David Camfield, Jr., quickly moving from third to take second from Beechler on the opening round. When the race's first caution flew after five rounds for debris on the track, Fike held the point in front of Camfield, Beechler, Hatton and Leffler.
After the ensuing restart was waved off for Travis Berryhill's third turn tumble, Leffler took to the cushion and quickly disposed of Hatton and Beechler to take over third on the sixth round. Leffler raced past Camfield for second the next time around then took command from Fike in turns three and four on the ninth round.
Leffler paced the field until the caution flew on the 13th lap for Brandon Waelti's frontstretch gymnastics. Leffler led Fike, Hatton, Beechler, Hines and Camfield on the restart, while 2002 Chili Bowl winner Stewart had moved into seventh after starting eleventh.
After a brief stoppage a lap later, Leffler set the pace the rest of the way. Leffler slipped over the cushion twice, and Hatton, who overtook Fike for second on the 17th round, applied heavy pressure to the leader over the final rounds with Beechler, Fike, Hines and Stewart in tow.
Leffler was not to be denied though and raced to the checkered flag aboard Dino Tomassi's Finish Line Towing/Engler/Red Line Oil Wirth-powered Beast with a two car-length advantage over Hatton's Mopar-powered Miller Lite Stealth at the line. Hines took over third with a nasty slide on Beechler in the final rounds, then held off Stewart to claim the show position.
Beechler settled for fifth in front of Fike, 15th-starter Gary Wright and 14th-starter Troy Rutherford. Jeff Flesher turned in the evening's best passing performance by racing from 19th to ninth, with Chad DeSelle completing the top ten.
Cameron Dodson, Waelti, Rutherford, Wright, Fike, Hatton, Beechler, Brandon Petty, Bryan Clauson and Stewart claimed heat race victories for Thursday night's 69-car field.
After breaking a steering gear in an early heat race tangle, J.J. Yeley charged from 11th to win the first C Main, with Buddy Luebke winning the second C Main. Yeley's attempt to charge through the first B Main came to an early end when he flipped after contact on the second round.
Jimmy Sills went on to hold off Flesher for the win in the first B Main, while DeSelle topped the second B Main.
Jerry Hammock took an easy roll in the fifth heat race, while Clauson got some altitude while running fourth in the latter stages of the second B Main. All flip victims escaped uninjured.
By: Lonnie Wheatley