Christopher Bell only led one lap Saturday night, but it was the one that counted as he stole a seemingly sure victory from Kyle Larson in the 33rd annual Chili Bowl.
It was the third consecutive Chili Bowl win for talented kid from Norman, Oklahoma, and it was almost as shocking as it was exciting.
Larson started third and grabbed the lead on Lap 22 and opened up a comfortable advantage over Bell and Justin Grant by running the bottom of the dirt track inside Tulsa’s Expo Center. Bell tried to make the high side work but finally gave up after losing ground and went to the bottom.
As they flashed under the white flag to begin the 55th lap, Larson got it wrong, getting into Turn 1 and sliding up just enough to give Bell an opening — which he took as both cars touched. Larson made a valiant effort to get it back going into Turn 3 but harmlessly banged off his friend and rival before clipping the wall coming off Turn 4.
“That’s why we love the Chili Bowl, it never disappoints,” said Bell, whose triumph gave owners Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby a fifth straight Chili Bowl crown in their Spike/Bullet chassis powered by Toyota. “I was struggling on top and didn’t have anything to lose to I headed for the bottom and started making up a little ground.
“Kyle didn’t stick going into Turn 1 and I got inside him. It was a ton of fun from my seat.”
Larson, who has become one of NASCAR’s young stars in its top division, faced the music like a man afterwards in his interview with MAVTV.
“I missed the bottom, and allowed Christopher to get a run, and I can see the big screen and saw he was close,” he declared. “I thought about sliding myself because I didn’t know what he was gonna do. I just figured at the last minute that he was probably gonna try and stick the bottom, and I just missed it a little bit, and allowed him to get by. I ran 53 1/2 good laps and just didn’t close it out.
“Hate it. Just happy I got to race for a win here after the last handful of years for me. It’s just disappointing to be close to winning a race like this, feeling like I did everything I could until the very end. Just gave it away.”
Grant, the only non-Kunz car to score a preliminary feature win this week, came home third with his new team while Brady Bacon came from eighth to fourth and Zach Daum was fifth.
But Indy’s Tyler Courtney put on the show in terms of passing. Starting 22nd, he spun out on Lap 30 and went to the back but charged all the way back to sixth at the checkered flag in his Clauson-Marshall entry.