After finishing fourth in his heat race in Tuesday night’s King of the UMRA Three-Quarter Midget Race at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds, Tony Stewart wasn’t happy with the way his car was handling.
But as luck would have it, Stewart’s fifth-place qualifying run put him on the outside of the front row for the feature race, thanks to an inverted start with the top six.
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Stewart took the lead on the first lap and never let go. The Columbus native led all 25 laps to capture his hometown race for the third consecutive year.
“We had to kind of throw a Hail Mary at it after that heat race,” Stewart said. “We weren’t good enough to win it the way we were. We just had to work at it and try to remember this thing is a three-quarter midget, not a sprint car, and you can’t run it sideways.”
Stewart and his crew were still working on his No. 14 car when drivers began lining up for introductions.
“The reason we were late getting out here is because we were throwing the kitchen sink at it,” Stewart said. “It’s because this race means so much to me. It means every bit as much to win this as it does to win a NASCAR race because it’s home. It’s people that you see every day, and the ones that are here won’t forget it hopefully for awhile.”
The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and Class of 2020 Hall of Fame inductee held on through six yellow caution flags and restarts. He withstood challenges from pole sitter Anthony Lawrence of Jamestown and 14-year-old Emerson Asxom of Franklin through the first 10 laps.
“The hard part is, there’s no scoreboard, so you don’t know who’s second,” Stewart said. “You don’t know if somebody has gained a spot or two and was being held up, and now they’re passing right behind you. So that’s the hard part about the restart. It’s such a big track here that we picked different spots in the corners so that way they didn’t know exactly where I was going to pick it up and win.”
Matt Lux of Manilla moved into second place on Lap 11 and stayed there the rest of the race. Axsom, who was driving the car of Columbus’ Jason Setser, was in third place for the first seven and the final 14 of the 25 laps.
Stewart held off Lux and Axsom on restarts following Laps 14, 19 and 22.
“I love Matt Lux to death. I’ve been around him a long time, and I tricked him in the last restart there,” Stewart said. “He tapped my bumper with his bumper, and as soon as tapped mine, I gassed it. They’re normally trying to get off of yours for a second, but that’s just an old trick I’ve learned over the years.”
Tate Martz of Rushville, a longtime family friend of Stewart, finished fourth. Stewart’s teammate, Ron Combs of Greensburg, finished fifth.
Rick Robinson of Columbus; Lou Cicconi of Aston, Pennsylvania; and Axsom were the heat winners. Axsom, who was the fast qualifier at 17.080 seconds, also won the Trophy Dash.
Tuesday was the first time in three years that the entire racing program was contested at the Bartholomew County Fair. The past two years, the program was condensed because of impending severe weather.
Stewart won both of those races. He was coming off another TQ Midget win June 27 at Rushville.
“It’s a hell of a lot more fun than NASCAR,” Stewart said. “I’d much rather do this. I appreciate the fact that (NASCAR) put me in the Hall of Fame, but I can promise you I’m doing exactly what I love doing right now. I’ve been gone the last three weeks and had two days off and just got home (Monday) night from a road trip, so I’m doing exactly what I’m wanting to do and doing it with people that I love doing it with. I get to race in front of my hometown crowd, and that means more to me than anything, really.”