Instant Replay: 21st Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1998 by Paul Haase BELLEVILLE, Kan. (July 30, 2001) - Steve Knepper of Belleville, Ill., came to the 21st Annual Belleville Midget Nationals with one Championship already under his belt...
Instant Replay: 21st Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1998
by Paul Haase
BELLEVILLE, Kan. (July 30, 2001) - Steve Knepper of Belleville, Ill., came to the 21st Annual Belleville Midget Nationals with one Championship already under his belt and looked to be only the third repeat champion. Knepper wanted to make this 10-year anniversary of his first Championship another memorable one.
But this year was different from others. This year he was in one of the Nationals veteran cars, a John Lawson ride, instead of his own.
That didn't matter.
Knepper earned one of the top eight starting positions on Thursday night, just making it by finishing fourth. The top four finishers in each preliminary on Thursday and Friday night earned the top starting spots for the Championship.
The lineup for the Championship would be decided by a finals positioning dash following the heat races. Knepper finished that race on the bumper of last year's champion Jason Leffler in another Nationals veteran owner's car, Steve Lewis. That placed Leffler on the inside front row with Knepper beside him.
But an eye also had to be looked over at the Leffler pits as Indy Racing League leader Tony Stewart came in for the Saturday show to drive another Lewis car. But Stewart would have to start in the last chance heats from the back and work his way up, with a ninth place starting position being the best he could possibly get. What was keeping an eye on him from everyone was the fact he did the same thing last year and finished right behind Leffler in the championship. Adding to people looking Stewart's way was his very easy win in his heat race, pulling way out ahead right off the bat.
Before the Championship night, people were wondering if Leffler would get back that thing he had going when he set the track record on Thursday night. And what about Ricky Shelton who cruised to the win in Thursday's feature after setting two track records. And don't count Jerry Coons Jr. out as he led from flag to flag on Friday. And the factor of Stewart coming in, knowing what he did last year and is in one of the Lewis cars again.
While all this thinking and guessing about those guys were going on, Knepper just sat back and let others try to figure them out and just stayed focused on what he had to do. Knepper is known as a very smart, smooth driver that is hard to beat if in the lead. And he knew he had to get that lead early because of the cars he'd be running against.
In the Championship positioning dash, Leffler jumped out in the lead with Knepper behind him. Dave Darland in another Lewis car was right behind Knepper the whole time with Ronnie Day in the other Lawson car behind Darland. And that's how the finish was, the two Lewis cars on the two inside positions and the Lawson cars in the outside positions on the front two rows.
Coons took the fifth starting position with Shelton beside him for the third row. The final positions in the fourth row would have Robby Flock in the HotShooz Motorsports car on the inside with USAC National points leader Jay Drake on his outside. The positioning was set.
On the start of the Championship, Knepper knew he had to get out in the lead to have a better chance of holding Leffler off. And that he did by jumping out at the green coming into turn one just ahead of Leffler. Knepper noted that he was a bit concerned about the start as he had been having trouble with the car taking off at the starts. Also worrying Knepper is he saw how Leffler walked away from him during the positioning dash.
"I knew if I could beat him to the turn I'd be in pretty good shape," Knepper said. And once he got that lead, nervousness changed to excitement. "I thought I'd be nervous, but when I did get the lead, I was trying to talk to myself and saying, 'Steve, just calm down.' It was just awesome".
Leffler stayed on Knepper most of the race except for a few laps that Coons got by him to challenge Knepper.
"I don't think we had anything for Knepper," Coons said. "I think we were a little faster, we just couldn't get by him."
Coons eventually fell back to third after getting mud packed in one of his wheels for about the last 10 laps.
While Knepper and Leffler were battling it out up front, Stewart was picking off cars and moving to the front in great fashion. That is until the fourth lap. Stewart came into turn 1 hard and backed the car in a bit too hard, spinning up into the cushion at the very top of the track. That brought the yellow out and he had to restart at the back of the pack. Stewart was wanting to win this race worse than ever as he told race officials that this was going to be his last race in a midget as his Indy car owner didn't want him racing them anymore. Despite having to start at the back of the pack, Stewart ended up finishing fourth and wondering if he hadn't spun, would he have gotten up to, and by, Knepper.
Between all three nights of racing, Leffler caught up and tied Drake for the USAC National Series points due to his better finishes than Drake.
21st Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1998
Top 5 finishers:
1. Steve Knepper
2. Jason Leffler
3. Jerry Coons Jr.
4. Tony Stewart
5. Ricky Shelton
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.