TULSA, Okla. — The battle for rookie-of-the-year honors at the 35th Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals went down to the final laps of Saturday night’s B Mains at Tulsa Expo Raceway.
While no first-year Chili Bowl competitors cracked the field for the 55-lap grand finale, a trio of 16-year-old hotshoes made it to the 20-lap B Mains during General Tire Championship Day.
Oklahoma’s Daison Pursley raced into the first B Main out of a C Main Saturday, while Ohio’s Jacob Denney and California’s Jesse Love started in the second B Main based off strong preliminary night performances earlier in the week.
All three drivers posted top-10 finishes in their preliminary night features, with Denney leading the way in that category thanks to a sixth-place run in the Monday opener that came one day after his 16th birthday.
On finale day, however, it was Pursley who shined the brightest.
The Locust Grove, Okla., native came from the C Main and finished 10th in his B Main, not advancing into the feature but setting a relatively high bar for his two challengers in the second 20-lapper.
When neither was able to equal or surpass Pursley’s accomplishment — Love ended up 14th and Denney retired early, credited with 20th — Pursley’s place in history was secured and he was named the rookie-of-the-year for the 35th edition of the Super Bowl of Midget Racing.
Pursley outdueled a star-studded lineup of 76 first-time Chili Bowl competitors for the award.
“It’s a pretty cool award to win. Everyone only gets one chance to win it, so it’s cool to add my name to that list,” Pursley said. “I can’t thank Keith (Kunz) and Pete (Willoughby) enough for letting me be a part of this team. (A B Main finish) definitely isn’t what we came here for, because everyone wants to lock it into the feature and we just didn’t do that, but we had a car to be able to do that.
“The driver just made a few mistakes there at the end that cost us a feature starting spot, but to still be the top rookie driver out of everyone that was here is a pretty neat deal.”
Denney looked set to deny Pursley in the rookie battle, floating between eighth and ninth for most of the second B Main. However, a mechanical failure in the front end of his Petry Motorsports No. 35 after contact with another car forced Denney to pull to the infield and stifled his quest for the award.
“I was just trying to get a spot on the inside, but had someone get down in front of me, and when I went to the bottom I got too far up on the berm at the wrong angle and broke the front end,” said Denney. “I knew that I had a good car. I just had to make the right moves at the right times.
“I hate it for my guys that I made a mistake there because it cost us a spot in the A Main but, hopefully, we can come back again in the future and make up for it.”
Reflecting on his week as a whole, Pursley was content with the end result but lamented not being able to perform better in his preliminary-night heat race to position himself better later in the going.
“Overall, things were really good. Like everyone says, that first heat race sets your whole weekend up, and mine put us behind the 8-ball all week long. That’s on me,” said Pursley. “The team gave me a great car, no matter what the track conditions were. A lot of people say the track conditions weren’t great (come Saturday), but if you look at all the features that (Jason) McDougal ran through and even Tucker (Klaasmeyer) ran through a little bit, the track had some passing in it. They proved that.
“We’ll definitely be here next year; this isn’t a one-and-done thing for me. We were just unlucky on the yellow (flag) in our B Main as far as having a shot to transfer,” Pursley added. “You try to make your own luck, but sometimes that’s just what racing is and you have to overcome it as best you can.”
Pursley’s hope for the future is that his rookie-of-the-year performance from the Chili Bowl will propel him to further success with Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports.
“This is one of those moments where we aren’t happy without being in the A Main, but we still beat a lot of great drivers and a lot of great cars this week,” noted Pursley. “We had a lot of good runs at the end of last year to look forward to in the midgets, so I feel like we’ll be contending to win every time we hit the track this year with KKM and I’m eager to get started with that.”
Pursley joins a long list of past Chili Bowl Rookie of the Year honorees and becomes the second straight Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports driver to win the award, joining Buddy Kofoid, who claimed the honor one year ago.
The Chili Bowl’s top rookie club also includes Zeb Wise, Gio Scelzi, 10-time World of Outlaws sprint car champion Donny Schatz and former USAC national midget titlist Spencer Bayston, among others.
The Chili Bowl Rookie of the Year Award has been presented annually since 2004 to the first-year driver that finishes highest in the alphabet soup program which headlines Saturday’s final day of competition.
Of the 18 past recipients, no Chili Bowl Rookie of the Year has finished lower than a B Main on Saturday.
Chili Bowl Rookies of the Year
2021 – Daison Pursley, 10th in B-Main 1
2020 – Buddy Kofoid, seventh in A-Main
2019 – Zeb Wise, ninth in B-Main 2
2018 – Gio Scelzi, 24th in A-Main
2017 – Donny Schatz, seventh in B-Main 1
2016 – Joe B. Miller, 21st in A-Main
2015 – Spencer Bayston, 18th in A-Main
2014 – Parker Price-Miller, 11th in B-Main 2
2013 – D.J. Netto, 17th in B-Main 2
2012 – Richard Vander Weerd, 20th in A-Main
2011 – Tyler Courtney, 16th in B-Main 1
2010 – Brad Mosen, 20th in A-Main
2009 – Shane Hmiel, seventh in B-Main 2
2008 – Brad Sweet, 11th in B-Main 2
2007 – Donnie Ray Crawford, fifth in A-Main
2006 – Mike Goodman, 17th in A-Main
2005 – Michael Pickens, sixth in A-Main
2004 – Danny Stratton, seventh in A-Main