Chili Bowl ‘Bell’ rings for team

Christopher Bell celebrates after winning the Chili Bowl Nationals last week. He drives for the Columbus-based team of Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby.
Christopher Bell celebrates after winning the Chili Bowl Nationals last week. He drives for the Columbus-based team of Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby.

By James Essex

In 1994, Andy Hillenburg became the first Oklahoman to win the Chili Bowl Nationals.

Twenty-three years later, the Golden Driller has made its way home. Christopher Bell, from Norman, Oklahoma, made his mark in the history books on Jan. 14 as the champion of the 31st annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire.

The event drew a record 365 entries to the Tulsa Expo Speedway indoor facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bell earned the victory for the Columbus-based team of Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby, marking the third year in a row that Kunz and Willoughby have gone to Victory Lane in the annual event. Bell’s win puts Kunz with six overall Chili Bowl titles as a car owner since 1994 when Hillenburg wheeled the Keith and Rusty Kunz owned entry to Victory Lane.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Daryn Pittman, a fellow Oklahoma native, finished second to Bell, with Justin Grant, Tanner Thorson and Jake Swanson rounding out the top five.

One of the pre-race favorites, Rico Abreu, was trying to win the prestigious event for the third year in a row for the Kunz/Willoughby team and came home in 11th. Abreu had to take a provisional and started 25th.

Besides wins with now Bell, and Abreu the two previous years and Hillenburg 23 years ago, Keith Kunz has gone to Victory Lane with Jay Drake in 2001 and Tony Stewart in 2002.

Willoughby claimed victory as a solo car owner with Sammy Swindell in 1998.

“I’m speechless right now. I’ve been coming to this building for so long trying to win one of these things, and I thought I was close to one at the Shootout a couple weeks ago, but we had a lot of bad luck but I’ll trade all that bad luck in for this Driller right here. This means the world to me,” a very emotional Bell said in Victory Lane.

“Most of my bad luck in this race has been self-inflicted. You know, I’ve been in this position before. I think this is the third time I’ve started on the front row and I would run into trouble because I was pushing too hard. Every time I’ve come here, it’s been attack, attack, attack and in this 55-lap race, you don’t need to do that, so I just ran as hard as I needed too.”

In his fourth feature appearance, the DC Solar/Kun/Toyota combination gridded the 55-lap championship A-Main outside the front row with Bell playing the role of hunter the first 25 rounds. Indiana’s Justin Grant paced the field in the Clauson-Marshall entry.

With the high side of the racing surface coming into play near the 15th circuit, Bell began reeling in Grant with a high-line pass off the second turn. Followed soon after by Pittman, the Owasso, Oklahoma, native trailed by a half-straight as the pair approached traffic.

Moving back in on Bell’s bumper as slower cars were about to come into play, a caution brought the field single file.

Through a few more cautions, Pittman could build momentum. With a run in the closing laps that brought the threat of a slide job into play, Pittman found the cushion just wrong to nearly sending his car into the fence, giving Bell a clear path to victory.

Fighting engine woes, the runner-up by Pittman was quite the achievement.

“We don’t have a spare engine, so we weren’t able to change it. Luckily, we have a good engine builder. I’ve got to thank Esslinger and their crew. They rebuilt this engine last year when we had issues, and when we realized we could fix it today, it lasted for 54 and three-quarter laps,” said Pittman who recorded his first career Chili Bowl podium finish in seven starts.

Having led the first 25 laps, Justin Grant ended up crossing third in his second Chili Bowl A-Feature appearance.

“It’s just a thrill to be driving for Clauson-Marshall Racing, and obviously, I wanted to win for (Bryan Clauson) really bad. But I’m on the podium at Chili Bowl, so I should be happy about that,” commented Grant on the third-place finish.

Tyler Courtney came home sixth, with Zach Daum from 11th to seventh. Making his 14th consecutive and 18th overall A-Feature start, Arizona’s Jerry Coons Jr. came from a B-Main to finish eighth. Ronnie Gardner was ninth, followed by Damion Gardner in 10th from the 16th starting spot.

The biggest moving through the Alphabet was Thomas Meseraull. Despite a DNF in the A-Feature, he passed 24 cars starting in the D-Feature to race in the big show. The 2017 Chili Bowl Rookie of the Year is Donny Schatz, who finished seventh in the first B-Feature.

The dates for the 32nd Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire will be Jan. 9-13, 2018, in Tulsa. Tickets go on sale in March. More details will be released in the coming month.

A-Feature Finish: 1. Christopher Bell; 2. Daryn Pittman; 3. Justin Grant; 4. Tanner Thorson; 5. Jake Swanson; 6. Tyler Courtney; 7. Zach Daum; 8. Jerry Coons Jr.; 9. Ronnie Gardner; 10. Damion Gardner; 11. Rico Abreu; 12. Travis Berryhill; 13. Larry Wight; 14. C.J. Leary; 15. Shane Golobic; 16. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.; 17. Tyler Thomas; 18. Michael Faccinto; 19. Colby Copeland; 20. Jonathan Beason; 21. Danny Stratton; 22. Chase Briscoe; 23. Thomas Meseraull, 24. Justin Peck; 25. Gary Taylor.

Stewart works Chili Bowl

For the fourth year in a row, the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals hired Tony Stewart to help with their track prep. As far as getting back behind the wheel next year for the race, Stewart was uncommitted as far as that question was concerned.

Last week, Stewart announced that he will be racing approximately 70 times in 2017. He will be participating in late models, sprint cars and midgets. Stewart owns a World of Outlaws Sprint Car driven by reigning series champion, Donny Schatz. He also just recently bought a new Rocket Chassis late model. His 2017 schedule will be released soon.

One of the races the Columbus native is competing in this year is the Pay Less Little 500 sprint-car race at Anderson Motor Speedway on May 27, the night before the Indianapolis 500, according to a news release from Hoffman Auto Racing.

Stewart, 45, was the U.S. Auto Club’s first Triple Crown champion, winning three national short-track racing titles in 1995. He went to win an IndyCar title and three NASCAR Cup titles.

“I’m thrilled to make my Little 500 debut with Hoffman Auto Racing,” Stewart said in the news release. “It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to compete in such a historic race with this team.”

The Hoffman team, which is out of the Cincinnati area, won last year’s Little 500 with Kody Swanson driving.

James Essex writes a motorsports notebook for The Republic. Send comments to sports@therepublic.com