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Tonight Could Be the Night for Kahne

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If, as scholars say, history repeats itself, Kasey Kahne is destined to win tonight’s 61st running of the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix at Irwindale Speedway.

For the last three races, the winner has been the second-place finisher from the previous year. Kahne finished second to Tony Stewart last year.

Stewart had finished second to Jason Leffler in 1999, Leffler had been runner-up to Jay Drake in 1998 and Drake had been second to Billy Boat in 1997.

“If that’s a good omen, I’ll take it,” said Kahne, an apple-cheeked youngster from the apple country of Enumclaw, Wash., who would be a likely favorite under any circumstances. Kahne, last year’s U.S. Auto Club midget car champion, has already won two of USAC’s major midget events, the Belleville Nationals in Kansas and the Night Before the 500 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

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Oddly, in the previous 57 Turkey Nights before 1998, only once had a runner-up won the next year. That was 1987, when Ron Shuman won after having lost to Warren Mockler in ’86.

Last month, Kahne won USAC sprint car and midget main events on the same night at Irwindale, and while many drivers and teams are struggling to find sponsors, Kahne is sorting offers from NASCAR, CART and IRL for next year. Consensus is that he is the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.

Tonight he will be part of a powerful four-car team entered by Steve Lewis of Laguna Beach. Also driving for Lewis are Dave Darland, who clinched this year’s USAC midget crown last week; J.J. Yeley, newly crowned USAC sprint car champion; and PJ Jones, filling in for defending champion Stewart.

Jones will be in the No. 19 Ford-powered “Beast” that Stewart won in last year.

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All of Lewis’ cars are built in Bob East’s Indianapolis shop, assembled in Laguna Beach and powered by Ed Pink engines built in Van Nuys.

East’s son, Bobby, is another favorite. Only 16, he became USAC’s youngest national event winner last July when he won a 30-lap midget race at Illiana Speedway in Indiana.

He also won the Old Pueblo Classic last Saturday in Tucson, finishing ahead of Kahne, Josh Wise, A.J. Davis and Darland.

It was Darland’s first race after sustaining serious head injuries in an accident Sept. 22 at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. His fifth-place finish was enough to clinch his third USAC championship, first in midgets. In 1997 he won the Silver Bullet title and in 1999 the sprint car crown.

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Stewart, whose main job is driving a Winston Cup stock car for Joe Gibbs, had said all along that he would return to Irwindale to defend his title, but logistical problems brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will keep him away.

NASCAR, after postponing the New Hampshire 300 in Loudon, N.H., on Sept. 16, rescheduled it for Friday, making it impossible for him to compete tonight, fly all night and race Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

“I tried every way I could to make it, but there’s no way,” said a disappointed Stewart. “Turkey Night’s an important race for me because of Cary Agajanian and his family’s involvement in the race.”

Agajanian, whose family runs the race in partnership with Irwindale Speedway, has been one of Stewart’s advisors since he was a teenager.

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Coincidentally, Agajanian’s newest Indy car driver, Billy Boat, will be returning to Turkey Night after a two-year absence.

Boat has won the race three times, in 1995 at Oildale, in 1996 at Perris and in 1997 at Ventura, all dirt tracks. Irwindale is a paved half-mile oval.

“I haven’t raced a midget for a couple of years, but it’s kind of like riding a bike, you never forget how,” Boat said. “I’d like to make it winning on four different tracks.”

Boat will drive for John Lawson of Fresno, his owner in the three Turkey Night races he has won. Boat, fourth in IRL standings this year, has announced that he will race his own Indy car, a Dallara-Chevy he co-owns with Agajanian and Mike Curb, next season.

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Turkey Night qualifying will start at 3 p.m., followed by a 40-lap USAC Western sprint car race at 7, then the 100-lap midget car race.


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