Instant Replay: 22nd Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1999 by Paul Haase BELLEVILLE, Kan. (July 31, 2001) - Car owner Steve Lewis has brought the best equipment and drivers to the Belleville Midget Nationals going away with several wins. But...
Instant Replay: 22nd Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1999
by Paul Haase
BELLEVILLE, Kan. (July 31, 2001) - Car owner Steve Lewis has brought the best equipment and drivers to the Belleville Midget Nationals going away with several wins. But the big one has eluded him for 20 years -- ever since the Stan Fox days.
That all changed in 1999 after the third time turned out to be lucky for Indiana driver Dave Darland.
Lewis has been known and respected at the Midget Nationals for years. Stan Fox was his steady and winning driver for years at the beginning of the Nationals. Over the years his drivers have read like a "who's who" of race drivers. But the elusive winning cups have come up short lately. Without maybe a little help from a teammate this year, it just might have been another year.
Last year's champion Steve Knepper kicked out into the lead at the drop of the flag and went for 21 laps with Darland just not being able to get up within striking distance to get around him. A little advise from past winner and Lewis teammate Jason Leffler did the trick.
With the cars coming in for a red flag accident, teammate Leffler told Darland to dive down into the middle of the track going into turn one and use the moisture to get around Knepper. Darland had been running conservatively all night making it hard to get around the smooth driving of Knepper. The cushion in turn one had been made just inches from the guardrail with most of the cars and virtually all the leaders running the cushion.
The advise worked as on the 21st lap, Darland ducked down low into turn one and got around Knepper, who had been leading the race up until then, to lead the rest of the 40 lap championship. Darland ended up out pacing Knepper by the checkered flag by about a quarter of a lap.
In outstanding driving performances, Jerry Coons Jr. and A. J. Fike started side by side in the 9th row but moved up by the end of the race to finish third and fourth.
Another outstanding driving performance was turned in by Leffler during his heat race. Leffler flew in for the Saturday show after competing in the NASCAR Busch Grand National show in Indianapolis Friday. Car owner Steve Lewis had driver Michael Lewis qualify the car on Friday so he could at least get in placed in the back of a heat. In the third heat, Leffler went from ninth to first with impressive driving and passing in the 8 lap heat. Leffler's luck didn't hold out as he ended up 21st in the championship.
The championship race also featured a couple rarities since the introduction of the double high guardrail. Two cars exited the track between turns one and two.
On the ninth lap, Alex Harris got sideways coming out of turn one. It appeared as Harris might be able to save it when the car caught and started flipping sideways exiting the track right at the signal light, knocking it down as he went over. Harris' car came to rest down the embankment outside of the track on its side. Harris quickly exited the car and was tipping it back onto its wheels when the first emergency responder got there. Harris was not injured and walked back to the pit area frustrated that his night was over.
The second accident happened on the 21st lap when Clay Klepper caught the guardrail in the middle of turn one sending him flipping wildly, nose to tail, exiting the track. Klepper's car cleared the double high guardrail when it went over and flipped down the embankment. Klepper was able to exit the car on his own but was later transferred to the hospital and held overnight for observations for a slight concussion and bruises.
Klepper had received the Hard Charger Award earlier along with the Hard Luck Award going to the Farmer Family Racing who had brought three cars and drivers but fought engine problems and failed to reach the championship.
Dave Darland, in one of the popular Steve Lewis cars, and Scott Hatton, in one of the also popular Wilke/PAK cars, put on a classic Belleville Midget Nationals battle to open the first night of preliminaries Thursday.
With the biggest field of cars entering this year's Nationals, 60 in all, the field was split between the two nights of preliminaries. Half the field on Thursday, half on Friday. A draw of pills during the Thursday afternoon check in determined who ran what night. With the field flooded with outstanding drivers, neither night really mattered.
And for Darland, it just happened to be Hatton that got his chance for the preliminary.
At the drop of the green flag for the feature, the duel went into turn one and never let up until lap 13. Darland and Hatton exchanged leads several times around the big oval with Hatton edging Darland out on the small patch of straightaway at the flagstand.
On lap 12, Hatton slipped a bit out of his groove going into turn one allowing Darland to slid around him just enough to take the lead and keep it. With an open track, Darland was able to eventually open up a half a straightway cushion upon taking the checkered flag.
Hatton served notice in the trophy dash of the top finishers in the heats and qualifying, by winning it with Darland finishing in the fourth position.
The win guaranteed Darland a top eight spot in the championship Saturday night along with Hatton and third and fourth place finishers Clay Klepper and last year's champion Steve Knepper.
Dave Strickland Jr. in the Klatt powered car finished fifth, just out of the guaranteed spot despite turning in the fastest qualifying time for the night.
J.J. Yeley in the Martz/Boles midget, wasn't planning on being in this year's Nationals. Yeley has been concentrating on his Indy car racing. But a call got him back to the High Banks once again for his second year as a driver. As a fan, he's been here several times before when has father, Jack Yeley used to be a regular at the Nationals.
Yeley got a call from car owner Larry Martz after his regular driver, Ricky Shelton, received a neck injury in an accident about a month ago. Shelton would be on hand but only as a spectator in a neck brace. Yeley said he would step in.
Yeley started out the night just the way he wanted taking the top qualifying time trial spot and winning the first heat race.
But come trophy dash time, Yeley dropped back to third place with past champion Kevin Doty taking the win followed by Tracy Hines. Was Yeley holding something back or just couldn't get the muscle he needed or did Doty and Hines find what they were needing? Yeley came back and answered the question.
At the drop of the green flag for the feature, Yeley started his move and by the second lap had taken over the lead from Doty and never looked back, getting the win handily.
Doty would eventually get a guaranteed top starting spot for the Championship after finishing fourth behind Hines and Jay Drake in one of the popular and often winning John Lawson cars.
An interesting note was Michael Lewis in one of the Steve Lewis cars finishing second fastest in qualifying but pulling off the track in each race. The reason? He was qualifying the car for past champion Jason Leffler to take over in for the Championship night. A change of drivers wouldn't penalize the Lewis car as much as a total scratch start.
The third heat brought out the first red flag of the Nationals when Cappy Mason got upside down in the back stretch after mixing it up with another car doing a slow roll over. Mason exited the car on his own and was okay.
A tip from his teammate helped Dave Darland grab the lead after a mid-race caution, Saturday, but it was all Darland for the final 19 laps as the Walton, Ind., driver ran away and hid from the field to capture the victory in the prestigious Belleville Midget Nationals.
For Darland, it was his first win in just his third try, but it ended a 20-year wait for car owner Steve Lewis at the famed Belleville Highbanks.
"I'm glad to win this for Steve Lewis," said a jubilant Darland during the victory lane celebration. "His last win here was with Stan Fox 20 years ago!"
Darland becomes the 19th winner in the event's 22-year history, joining an elite group of champions who had the equipment, the talent and the nerves of steel to tame the 23-degree bankings of the 1/2-mile clay oval.
"There have been a lot of big-time winners here and it's nice to join that list," Darland added. "It's only my third time to run here. I ran conservative but Jason (Leffler, his teammate) told me before the last restart to dive into turn one and use the moisture in the middle of the track. I guess it worked, because I was able to get by Knepper (Steve, the defending race champion)."
Knepper, one of only three two-time winners of the Belleville Midget Nationals (Stan Fox and Ron "Sleepy" Tripp are the two), grabbed the lead at the start of the race the outside of the front row. By the second lap, Darland, who started fifth in the 25-car field, was running second with Jay Drake joining the front-runners in a nose-to-tail tour, just a few feet from the top-side guardrail.
The first red flag of the race flew on lap eight when Alex Harris flipped over the guardrail in turn two on the ninth lap. Harris was unhurt.
The next twelve laps saw several of the top favorites fall from contention, including Friday's feature winner, J.J. Yeley, who pulled to the low side of the track while battling with the top-five, as well as Drake and Leffler.
Knepper continued to pace Darland, and appeared headed for an unprecedented third Belleville Midget Nationals crown, when the red flag flew again just past the mid-way point, this time for Clay Klepper, who flipped wildly over the guardrail between turns one and two. Klepper walked away from the incident without injury.
When the race resumed, Darland shot past Knepper in the first turn and led the final 19 caution-free laps to finish with a quarter of a lap cushion in his red and white no. 9 Ford-powered Beast. The win was worth $10,000.
Knepper finished second - his fourth runner-up finish since winning in 1988, followed by Jerry Coons Jr., A.J. Fike and polesitter Kevin Doty, the 1994 champion.
Leffler, who flew into Belleville to compete on Saturday night only after his maiden start with the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series at Indianapolis Raceway Park, started last in his heat and thrilled the capacity Belleville crowd with a final lap victory. Other heat race winners for the night were Dave Strickland Jr., Steve Barth and Rick Treadway.
Doty captured the 10-lap pole dash while Bobby Boone took home the semi-feature checkers, then raced to an eighth-place finish in the 40-lap main event.
Darland's victory was his third in five nights in the USAC MCI WorldCom National Midget Car Series, having won Thursday night's preliminary feature at Belleville and at Eagle (Neb.) Raceway on Tuesday night.
22nd Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1999
Top 5 finishers:
1. Dave Darland ($10,000)
2. Steve Knepper ($4,500)
3. Jerry Coons Jr. ($3,500)
4. A.J. Fike ($3,000)
5. Kevin Doty ($2,500)
Reserved tickets for the 24th Annual Belleville Midget Nationals presented by WhoWon.com are available by calling (785) 527-5179, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, or by logging onto the Belleville High Banks Web site.