KALWASINSKI: Chicago Chips
CHICAGO — It has been the “Boris and Brett Show” over the past five years at Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind., when it comes to the track’s annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 late model stock car race.
Chicago area racers Boris Jurkovic and Brett Sontag have been the only ones to win Illiana’s annual Bettenhausen 100 lapper over the past five years with three-time winner Sontag pretty much sitting out the 2012 racing season.
On the other hand, Jurkovic claimed top honors again, winning this past Saturday’s night’s event at the half-mile paved oval in northwest Indiana, about 20 miles southeast of Chicago’s city limits.
The 42-year-old Manhattan, Ill., speedster repeated his 2010 winning effort by capturing Illiana’s 51st edition of the Bettenhausen classic and collecting more than $3,000 for the night.
Wheeling his black Impala SS No. 53 into the lead with only four laps to go, Jurkovic defeated NASCAR Nationwide Series regular Erik Darnell by 0.242 seconds at the checkered flag. Finishing behind Jurkovic and Darnell in the crash-plagued race were Scott Tomasik, D.J. Weltmeyer, John Nutley, Josh Nelms and Bobby Gash, who all completed 100 laps and who joined Jurkovic and Darnell as the only cars running at the finish from the original starting field of 26.
Jurkovic, who was the fifth fastest qualifier among 34 entries, started seventh in the main event, but tangled with Wisconsin driver Matt Kocourek on lap 17 while battling for fourth place. Both drivers were sent to the back of the field for the restart with 11 cars already out of the race.
“I didn’t think we could,” said Jurkovic when asked if he thought he had a chance to win after his tangle with Kocourek. “The field was getting pretty thin. I thought if we caught a couple of cautions (yellow flags) we might have a chance for a top three (finish). I didn’t think we could come back and win because there were some good race cars up there.”
Fastest qualifier and 2012 Illiana track titlist Eddie Hoffman, a four-time winner of the Bettenhausen 100, was among those knocked out early as he hit the wall hard between turns one and two on lap four after getting together with Robbie Pyle.
Darnell, who competed in the NASCAR Nationwide 200-lap race at Joliet’s Chicagoland Speedway earlier in the day, started 26th (last) in the 100 lapper after his dad, Danny, had qualified the car. Darnell of Beach Park, Ill., came through the field and got to first place on lap 40 and battled with Michigan’s Brian Campbell for the lead during most of the second half of the race.
Darnell was the leader when the race’s final yellow flag flew with only five laps remaining as Campbell and Anthony Danta made contact. Darnell held the top spot on the restart for only a lap with Jurkovic working inside of Darnell as the pair raced through turns one and two on lap 97. Jurkovic got a good run off turn two and was the leader the rest of the way.
“He (Darnell) wasn’t good on restarts and I noticed that,” Jurkovic said. “We did the best we could and he gave me a little lane.”
Darnell was making one of his infrequent appearances at Illiana after winning rookie-of-the-year honors at the local raceway in 2001 and going on to compete in several NASCAR divisions, including Sprint Cup competition.
“His car was better on the short run,” said Darnell about Jurkovic’s pass for the lead. “I went into (turn) one and it (the car) was tight and wouldn’t turn. I couldn’t keep it on the bottom (groove) and he just drove right by me. It would take me five or six laps to get going (after a caution period). We didn’t need the yellow (flag) at the end. I think we would have won it.”
Tomasik, who calls Avon, Ind., home, finished fifth last year in the 100-lap chase and turned in a strong third-place finish this year.
“The motto for this race was just stay together,” Tomasik said. “I was glad to bring the car home in one piece. I have been fortunate to get hooked up with Tony D’Ambrose and T1 Racing. We’ll come back next year and hopefully take Boris off the top and maybe put our name on the list of Bettenhausen (race) winners.”
Winner of Illiana’s 40-lap Season Championship race the previous week, second-generation racer D.J. Weltmeyer came home fourth in his third Bettenhausen 100 start.
“You have to have a little different mindset and keep the car under you as best you can,” said Weltmeyer, whose dad, Dave, was a four-time winner of Illiana’s Bettenhausen 100. “We had a decent finish, but not as good as I would have liked. My corner entry was probably not the preferred line for a long race like this. We’re learning for next time.”
Veteran Larry Schuler was another former winner in the main event lineup, but was among those who dropped out early from the race. Schuler, a three-time race winner, was credited with a 21st-place finish.
A number of former race winners were on hand for the race, including Paul Goldsmith, who won the 1963 United States Auto Club sanctioned race, and Conan “Moose” Myers, who captured top honors in the race in 1965, 1966 and in 1971. Myers mentioned that his longtime car owner, Jim Stovall, suffering from Alzheimer’s, recently passed away.
Other former winners on hand included Buck Hinkle (1968), Tom Jones (1973), Ed Hoffman (1975, 1983 and 1984), Ray Young (1975 and 1976), Dave Weltmeyer (1995, 1996, 2001 and 2004) and Pat Kelly (2002, 2005 and 2006).
Three-time Illiana late model champion Jeff Cannon was shaken up and took a trip to the hospital after crashing Paul Shafer Jr.’s car during an open practice session the night before the Bettenhausen program. Cannon has been mentoring the 15-year-old Shafer all season long with Shafer scoring a feature win during the past season. Shafer felt something was wrong with the car with Cannon taking it out for some laps before crashing hard into the outside wall between turns one and two.
Cannon was in the black Impala No. 4 out of Wayne Govert’s shop for Saturday’s action, but only completed 13 laps for a 18th place finish. Shafer picked up a ride in a “spare” TK Racing Fusion, but was credited with 26th-place in the final rundown, only completing three laps.
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