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After a Year's Wait, Stewart Gets His Wish

Auto racing: NASCAR superstar, a disappointed loser last year, wins Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix.


Tony Stewart, who believed he should have won the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix last year, made sure of it this time, winning the 100-lap U.S. Auto Club season finale Thursday night at Irwindale Speedway over one of the strongest fields ever in the traditional event.

The NASCAR Winston Cup superstar, only three days removed from crashing in a stock car race in Atlanta, defeated Kasey Kahne, the newly crowned USAC midget car champion, by three car lengths. Kahne, 20, clinched the season series two races ago.

"I've been waiting 354 days for this," said Stewart. "Losing last year has bothered me ever since that night. I really had to work hard tonight, harder than I do in some Winston Cup races. Kasey definitely had the faster car, but when the track got slippery I was able to get by him and take off."

Tracy Hines finished third, depriving Laguna Beach car owner Steve Lewis of a second consecutive 1-2-3 finish. Lewis' third driver, Jason Leffler, finished fourth after dropping back to 13th in a mid-race spin.

Wally Pankratz, 55, became the oldest Western States midget champion by edging Bobby Boone, 19, who would have been the youngest had he won. Pankratz finished 16th and Boone, who started 14th, made a dramatic run to finish sixth--two points behind Pankratz.

Leffler, who won last year when Stewart's car had an oil pump belt break while he was leading two laps from the finish, was challenging for the lead after 55 laps when he spun completely around at the start-finish line and dropped from third to 13th. The little redhead from Long Beach gave the capacity crowd of about 7,500 its money's worth as he worked his car through the field and almost caught Hines.

"When Jason spun, I couldn't believe we didn't get a yellow [caution flag]," Stewart said. "I don't have any idea how he saved it."

The Western States duel between Pankratz, of Orange, and Boone, of Palmdale, was almost like a family feud.

Pankratz, who didn't take up racing until he was 27, has known Boone since the youngster was born. In 1989, Pankratz drove for his late father, Jim, and later worked with him.

"There'll be plenty of times for Bobby to feel like I feel right now," said the new Western States champion. "This is great. I've waited a long time for this, 28 years to be exact."

Unlike the late-blooming Pankratz, Boone began racing when he was 4 1/2, driving quarter-midgets around his home in Van Nuys. His parents made him take a couple of years off when he was 11 or 12 to see if racing was what he really wanted, or if it was just because his family was around it.

"After a couple of years, I convinced them that was what I wanted and I started racing karts, and moved up from there. This is my third year in full midgets."

Boone, who lives in Palmdale, finished third in points last year and this year won his only main event at Irwindale. When he's not racing, he works in a go kart shop in Canoga Park.

In the pits before qualifying, Pankratz was showing around a picture of him in the winner's circle with little Bobby, about 5, sitting on his lap.

Jay Drake, a two-time former three-quarter midget champion from Val Verde, moved into a tie with A. J. Foyt and Sleepy Tripp as USAC's all-time single-season winners with a wire-to-wire victory in the 20-lap TQ support race. It was his 19th feature victory this year.

In the same race, J.J. Ersce of Lakewood finished third to win his second TQ championship, 804-802, over Walt Johnson of Sun Valley, who was second. Ersce's other victory was in 1993.

Drake's hopes of breaking the record in the midget feature ended on lap 45 when he hit the wall in the second turn.

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