TULSA, Okla. — Tanner Thorson won the wildest main event of the week at Tulsa Expo Raceway during Friday’s Vacuworx Qualifying Night program, giving Hayward Motorsports a night to remember.
Thorson topped an absolute slider-fest, which featured six lead changes and four different leaders, to take his first Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals preliminary night victory in a thrilling run to the finish.
While he led for the first time right at the halfway point of the race, Thorson’s final charge came with six laps to go, when he banged the cushion at the top of the track and soared around leader Ryan Bernal.
Once out front, Thorson was not to be denied, holding off a final-turn charge by Bernal to take the win by a scant .166 seconds in the No. 19 OilFire Whiskey Spike/SR11x for Hayward Motorsports.
The victory was Thorson’s second win since returning from multiple injuries sustained in a highway accident last March, as well as his first triumph on a Chili Bowl Nationals preliminary night.
More than anything, however, it was an emotional reminder that the Minden, Nev., native is – in his own words – “back” after a long road to recovery and questions whether he would ever race again.
“It’s not me just saying this; I really didn’t know if I was ever going to race again,” Thorson said. “My parents didn’t tell me until two months after in a doctor’s appointment that they didn’t know if I was ever going to use my left arm again.
“It was definitely one of the hardest times of my life. Hopefully I don’t have to go through anything like that again,” Thorson continued. “I pushed so hard to get better, I got out of my air boot and cast quickly, and it’s definitely breathtaking to swipe through my phone and see the crash photos. I’m kind of speechless about that part of my life, and I don’t really like looking back at it.”
He didn’t have to look back on Friday night, just ahead as he charged to victory in the final test before Saturday’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals finale, featuring the famed ‘alphabet soup’ program that leads up to the 55-lap headliner – which awards the iconic Golden Driller trophy and $10,000 to the winner.
While Thorson worked his way forward from fifth, Chris Windom started on the pole for Tucker-Boat Motorsports and led the first three rotations before giving way to a hungry – and fast – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap four.
Stenhouse, who appeared to have race-winning speed, then led until lap 15, when Thorson slid him for the top spot entering turn three but had to give the spot back when his pass was negated by a caution.
After a brief slowdown for the spun cars of Josh Lakatos and Steven Drevicki, Thorson made his first pass for the lead stick with a huge move in turn four just as Stenhouse got high against the cushion and bounced in the air, barely hanging onto the car as one of the nerf bars was pushed into his left-rear tire.
That tire hang on for a little while, but a flat tire and rear-end issues ultimately spelled Stenhouse’s doom with 13 to go, sending him pitside as Thorson continued to lead out front.
A lap-19 restart saw Windom surge back to the point, but contact between Windom and Thorson in their battle for the lead a circuit later opened the door for Ryan Bernal to pounce on the bottom side.
The flipping No. 82 of Andrew Layser set up a 10-lap shootout to the finish, with Bernal leading the field back to green and Thorson on the charge from third almost instantaneously.
After dispatching Windom for the runner-up spot, Thorson went to work on Bernal, finally using his preferred groove on the top to track down the California traveler and make the winning pass on lap 25.
It was a meaningful win for Thorson, who has become a talented mechanic in addition to a standout driver since joining Hayward Motorsports late last summer.
“I mean I built my car from the ground up, set it up, and it’s a really good feeling to be here,” Thorson said. “It’s something I really enjoy. I don’t think any of us expected this, just because the Chili Bowl has such great competition and it’s so hard. Our night went smooth; I just went back to my notes from last year and realized that I was on the same track as last year, and it all worked out after that.”
Bernal hung on to second to lock in to his third Saturday A-main, with a “disappointed” Windom coming in third and missing the direct transfer by one position.
Tucker Klaasmeyer and Justin Allgaier completed the top five, with three-time defending Friday Chili Bowl winner Justin Grant never posing a real threat all night, starting and finishing in sixth place.
To view complete race results, advance to the next page.
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