TULSA, Okla. – Christopher Bell came one spot short of equaling history on Saturday night during the 34th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals, enduring defeat after dominating at Tulsa Expo Raceway.
Bell, the three-time defending Chili Bowl champion who was seeking to tie Kevin Swindell’s mark of four victories in a row, started from the outside of the front row and appeared to be in command all night.
Really, he’d been in command all week long, after dominating Tuesday’s Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions, winning his heat race, qualifier and the feature on his preliminary night, and then leading the first 38 laps of Saturday’s headlining 55-lap feature virtually uncontested.
It all pointed toward a record-tying fourth straight Golden Driller for the prodigy from Norman, Okla., but his longtime contemporary and rival Kyle Larson had other ideas.
With a diving maneuver similar to the one Bell put on him on the final lap of the 2019 Chili Bowl, Larson blasted to the inside of Bell’s No. 84x iRacing.com/PristineAuction.com Spike-Toyota in turn three on the 39th trip around Tulsa’s fifth-mile temporary indoor dirt track and never looked back after that.
Despite two late caution flags that, in theory, should have allowed Bell a chance to counter, this time his rival was simply too strong. Larson drove away on a 10-lap sprint to the finish, in the process snapping Bell’s three-year winning streak inside the River Spirit Expo Center and keeping Swindell’s record intact.
Bell finished second, his worst result in the Saturday A-main since a 12th-place finish in 2015.
Though Bell didn’t plan on leading from the drop of the green flag, he took what he was given to work with and hoped to deliver a maiden Chili Bowl triumph for Tucker-Boat Motorsports and his best friend, Chad Boat, after leaving Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports late last season.
Unfortunately for Bell, this year’s Chili Bowl just wasn’t meant to be his.
“I didn’t really want to lead the entire race, but it just worked out on the start where I was able to get out front,” Bell said. “I don’t know whether our tires bled down, or he was just better than us in that little 10-lap stint from about (lap) 35 to 45, but in the last stint, I was able to stay with him and it was just a matter of who made mistakes. He just didn’t make any mistakes this year.
“The track was really treacherous, but I’m really proud that me and my buddy Chad (Boat) got to come over here and run second,” Bell continued. “Running second at the Chili Bowl sucks, but I’m really proud for all of our partners at iRacing, Pristine Auction and Toyota. These guys give me and Chad the tools we need to perform, and this was a blast.
“We learned a lot this year, and we’ll be back next year.”
Bell’s appearance in the Saturday A-main was his seventh in a row in the week-capping “big show,” and came after arguably his most dominant Chili Bowl Nationals to-date.
Virtually running the table all week long, Bell was viewed as the unbridled favorite entering the finale, something that made eventual winner Larson admittedly uneasy going into the main event.
“My confidence was not very high coming into tonight,” he admitted. “I mean, we won our prelim (night) but watching the video, I didn’t think we looked good,” Larson said. “Paul Silva just worked his magic and figured it out; without great people I wouldn’t be Kyle Larson and winning big races like this.”
Winning big races is all Bell had done for the last three years in Tulsa, capturing one of dirt racing’s biggest prizes so continuously he had almost made it look effortless since winning his first Chili Bowl back in 2016.
It wasn’t that easy in the buildup to this Chili Bowl, but Bell still carried plenty of pride after the race.
“This whole week was outstanding,” Bell said. “This whole process of joining a different team has been a huge learning curve, and I knew it was going to be when I signed up for it. We had moments when we were really good … but then there were struggles, too. November and December, we were pretty bad in a couple of those races, and it was a big learning curve that did challenge us, for sure.
“Chad did an outstanding job preparing for this event, though, and we definitely hit it right on, so we know that we have the package now to be successful here,” he added. “We know we’ll need to fine-tune it to be a little bit better for next year, but we didn’t get beat by much and I’m really proud of that.”
Even though he didn’t leave Tulsa with the Golden Driller this time around, Bell was quick to note that this year’s near-miss won’t change his approach for next year’s race, when he returns for another shot at a fourth Chili Bowl title.
His passion for what he calls “the greatest race in the world” already drives him toward that goal as it is.
“I don’t know if losing is going to drive me any harder, just because my love for this race is so big, but it’s been a while since I haven’t sat in the middle chair … so it does sting a little bit,” Bell said. “I’m just proud of the effort though, man. Chad and I have come a long way from where we were Dec. 18 in St. Louis, and the fact that we were right there at the end of that feature speaks to that.
“We learned a lot this year and we’ll be back next year.”
How to Watch the Chili Bowl:
Mobil 1 Road To The Golden Driller – Story Index Page
News, analysis, interviews, behind-the-scenes and more – updated throughout each day.
LIVE PPV Streaming Broadcast – Racinboys.com
Monday – Saturday coverage
LIVE Television Broadcast – MAVTV.com
Saturday, Jan. 18th at 8:30pm EST
Toyota Racing Development has won five consecutive Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals features. Thanks to Mobil 1, Sprint Car & Midget is providing exclusive coverage of the multi-car organization, led by three-time winner and current champ Christopher Bell and two-time Chili Bowl winner Rico Abreu, and other Toyota-equipped organizations and drivers as they prepare for and compete in the Chili Bowl. The Mobil 1 Road To The Driller program is in addition to SPEED SPORT and Sprint Car & Midget’s traditional “Live from the Chili Bowl presented by MyRacePass” coverage that surrounds the event.