TULSA, Okla. – Though Hard Rock Casino Qualifying Night didn’t start the way Indiana’s Emerson Axsom wanted it to, a furious charge in the preliminary feature may have saved his entire Chili Bowl.
Axsom, driving for Keith Kunz Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian during the 38th Chili Bowl Nationals powered by NOS Energy Drink, ran into a technical, one-groove racetrack during his Team Toyota Qualifier Friday that eventually caused him to stall out on track, severely hampering his efforts.
That relegated the talented teenager to a B-Feature and put his hopes of positioning himself to make his second career championship feature at the Super Bowl of Midget Racing in serious jeopardy.
But a determined Axsom was scary for the rest of the competition. He won his B-Feature going away and then, after starting 18th in the 30-lap nightcap, carved his way through the field to fifth in a wild race.
Not only did the drive net Axsom hard charger honors for the night, it also kept him from being potentially as deep as a J-Feature in Saturday’s alphabet soup program.
Instead, the 19-year-old from Franklin, Ind., will roll off sixth in the first B-Feature Saturday night. With 20 laps ahead and seven drivers moving into the grand finale, it puts Axsom in prime position to advance and he knows it.
“We just have to be smart,” he said of the mindset he’ll take into Saturday night. “We can get in from there. It’s not that things change all that much, because you have more time to get where you want to go on Saturday night. I started 18th for the prelim feature, and if I go and win the B to transfer on [to the championship feature], I start 11th with 55 laps to go out and try to win the Chili Bowl.
“Obviously, the B [Features] here are tough, but if you can position yourself well in them, you’re still in decent shape for the big race. If you can’t win from 11th in 55 laps, you weren’t going to win it anyway.”
In reflecting on his prelim night, however, Axsom admitted to some personal frustration because he felt like the chance to win his first weeknight feature at the Chili Bowl – and the third of the week for owner Keith Kunz – was his for the taking before his issues in the qualifier.
“It’s easy to be upset at myself, just because I feel like this is my best shot at winning a Chili Bowl [so far],” Axsom said. “I’ve run midgets a decent amount this year and I’m with a great team in KKM and Toyota Racing that I ran with outdoors, so we have the confidence in what we’re capable of.
“We came out of the qualifier that I stalled in and found the right-front shock was broken,” Axsom explained. “We’re assuming that’s why my car was so ill handling at that point. I hadn’t hit anything that I know of … so we don’t know how it happened, but either way, it sucks because we had a really fast car to be able to come all the way from 18th to finish fifth in the A.
“I feel like with a couple more laps, we could have gotten maybe to third, but with as crazy as the racing was out there it was tough to make clean laps. If you could just be clean and smooth, you could pick off spots pretty easily.
“It sucks from that aspect, but I’ve been in worse spots here and I know we’re not out of it yet.”
What gives Axsom confidence in his chances are runs like Tanner Thorson has had in the past, where the Minden, Nev., veteran would transfer from a B-Feature and end up in the top five after all was said and done in the grand finale.
“I’ve seen some monster runs from the B before – Tanner has had a few of them over the years, for sure – but the way these guys race, it makes it easier to gain ground when people are pushing hard and end up making mistakes,” Axsom tipped. “That’s when, as a driver, you have to be ready to capitalize.
“Like I said, it’s easy to be disappointed in myself because this car was capable of locking in, but now we have to go out and race it into the big show.”
Every lap of every feature during Driller Day at the Chili Bowl Nationals powered by NOS Energy Drink, including the efforts of Axsom and his Keith Kunz Motorsports team, can be streamed on FloRacing.
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