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Ryan Blaney’s tire changer Ryan Flores wins Rumble 25 Opener

Ryan Flores, who recently added a NASCAR Cup Series championship ring to his resume as a tire changer for Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, reminded the world Friday night that he hasn’t forgotten how to drive a race car either.

Flores pulled away from perennial opening night king Russ Gamester down the stretch to capture his first national midget win during the kickoff to the 25th Rumble in Fort Wayne presented by Jason Dietsch Trailer Sales.

After inheriting the lead with 22 laps to go, when trouble befell both race-long dominator Joey Payne and past Rumble winner Kyle Hamilton, Flores never looked back en route to a 1.757-second victory in the 50-lap feature.

The New Jersey native was perfect through both late restarts and slower traffic, capturing top honors in the No. 15 Volkswagen-powered Hawk/Munchkin owned by open-wheel veteran Lou Cicconi Jr.

“I hate that Joey had his issues; he was the car to beat for a lot of that race and I think it would have been a good fight between us and Kyle (Hamilton),” noted Flores in victory lane. “That oil made for a tough moment for all of us, but thankful we could hold on and get the job done after that.”

It was an emotional victory for Flores, who spends most of his year changing tires for Blaney with Team Penske and rarely gets to showcase his driving talents due to his busy schedule.

“Man, this is special,” Flores said. “Lou Cicconi is the reason I do this; he’s why I fell in love with indoor racing, and to come here and do this … it’s such a great feeling.

“Racing here ain’t easy, and to do this in our third year here … it’s a bigger deal than people realize,” he added. “It’s such a learning curve and I give these guys so much credit. Indoor racing is its own discipline, and to win you have to master it just like anything else. It’s a style of racing I’ve always enjoyed and to leave here with a (Rumble) champion’s belt is something I’ll treasure for a long time, that’s for sure.”

Though a four-inversion placed surprise polesitter and Rumble rookie Curtis Setser II out front for the initial start, it was supermodified ace Joey Payne – driving Tony Stewart’s familiar No. 2 – who dominated the first half of the feature.

Payne slipped past Setser on the opening lap and brought Cap Henry with him, leading the first 17 circuits unopposed before a short scuffle at the front of the field with Henry and the Joe Liguori-owned No. 41.

Following a lap-16 caution for the spun machine of Setser in turn four, Henry edged ahead of Payne to lead the 18th lap before spinning in turn one moments after taking the top spot.

It was a shocking twist to an otherwise calm start to the main event, allowing Payne to retake the lead for the ensuing restart. He held serve through the halfway point, despite consistent pressure from Flores and a fast-closing Hamilton.

Hamilton grabbed second from Flores a lap after halfway, then rose to the lead on lap 28 when heartbreak befell Payne, who slid through a swath of fluid on the backstretch and slapped the wall with the right side of his black Munchkin midget.

Payne’s issues led to a red flag period for track cleanup and fume mitigation, while Flores narrowly escaped disaster himself at that point.

“I was running third when Joey hit the wall,” Flores noted. “I slid in that fluid myself, and we were lucky to escape without hitting anything.”

From there, Flores lined up for the lap-29 restart right behind Hamilton, who lost the handle on his Randy Burrow-owned No. 99 entering turn one and spun out to end his shot at the victory.

Subsequent spins by Hamilton on laps 30 and 36 put his car out of the race prior to the checkered flag.

Those restarts were no problem for Flores, who easily gapped Gamester over the final 14 laps. Gamester admitted afterward that Flores’ car was simply better than his as the laps went on.

“We didn’t have enough to stay with him (at the end),” Gamester said. “Still a good night for us, though.”

Last year’s opening night winner, Mario Clouser, filled out the podium finishers ahead of Travis Welpott and 600cc micro sprint veteran John Ivy, who piloted the second Randy Burrow entry and was in a national midget for the first time at the Rumble.

Notably, Welpott took one of Fedorcak’s famed Munchkins to fast qualifying honors, putting his Ernie Gorman-owned No. 18 atop the charts with a lap of 7.630 seconds (78.637 mph).

Welpott became the 15th different driver in Rumble history to top a national midget time trial session.

Nick Hamilton, Bryan Nuckles, Setser, Mike Fedorcak and Charlie Schultz closed the top 10.

Ivy added to his strong night with a flag-to-flag win in the non-winged 600cc micro sprint feature, leading all 25 laps despite an inspired runner-up effort from 18-year-old Grant Valkner.

Valkner finished second in the wingless class ahead of Tyler Lindsay, Dylan Woodling and Tyler Gunn.

Lindsay was recognized during pre-race ceremonies as one of the winners of the karaoke night competition held during the Rumble Kickoff Party on Thursday evening.

Cap Henry denied Tyler Shullick a victory in the winged 600cc micro sprint main event, taking the lead on lap 8 of 25 after then-leader Chase Ridenour spun in the No. 01.

Henry held off his teammate the rest of the way, despite a caution and subsequent restart with 11 to go for a spin by the No. 5 of Brian Busz. Nate Franklin, Kelsey Ivy and Colin Parker closed the top five.

Go-kart feature winners from day one included Erik Wolleson (Clone 400), Joey Pendergrass (Clone 360), Shawn Kluck (Clone 330), Devin Hammond (Senior Predator), Missy Bootes (Senior Champ), Kear Mills (Junior Champ), Landen Francis (Junior 3), and Weston Thunberg (Kid Karts).

Cruze Everage (Senior) and Zachary Kline (Junior) split the two mini wedge victories Friday, while Memarie Ashcraft (Animal Combined), Matthew Dennany (Heavy Honda), Grayson Hathaway (Senior Honda), Weston Kudner (Junior Honda), Chase Conrad (Heavy 160) and Lukas Waber (Light 160) all topped quarter midget mains.

An on-demand replay of day one from the 25th Rumble in Fort Wayne presented by Jason Dietsch Trailer Sales is available through Pit Row TV, a member of the SPEED SPORT Network and the Rumble’s exclusive broadcast partner.

— Rumble Media —