By James Essex
Oklahoma’s Christopher Bell raced to his second straight Chili Bowl Nationals Presented by General Tire main event finale on Jan. 13 at the Tulsa Expo Raceway in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The win for the reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion was for Keith Kunz of Columbus, who took his seventh win as a car owner and fourth consecutive since 2015. The weekend included three preliminary night wins and a Saturday night podium sweep for the team managed by Columbus’ Pete Willoughby.
Kunz’s brother, Rusty, was the last non-KKM team owner to win the prestigious race when he did that with the late Bryan Clauson in 2014.
“Once in a lifetime. This week was once in a lifetime,” Keith Kunz said about his team’s achievement.
Despite the win, Bell, 23, from Norman, Oklahoma, felt a sense of disappointment after he regained the lead in the closing laps when Kyle Larson’s night ended with mechanical failure under the hood of his car.
“It’s special to win the Chili Bowl. With over 300-something cars, it’s always going to be special, but I’m disappointed. I feel like Kyle got robbed, I got robbed, and the fans got robbed. I wanted to race it out, and I know the fans wanted us to race it out, too, so I’m disappointed we didn’t get to do that, but I’d rather be lucky than good any day,” said Bell, who was the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion.
Chasing Larson through the first 10 laps as the freshly tilled clay of the track began to evolve, a restart on Lap 11 saw Bell charge the cushion for the lead off the fourth turn.
A caution on Lap 17, Larson held off the charge of Bell, with the two pulling away from the field. Running down the back of the field, it was a high-speed chess match, with Larson making the right move on Lap 26 to reclaim the top spot. Steadily pulling away as Bell found himself mired behind slower cars, the race came under caution on Lap 34.
Back to green with Bell unable to keep pace, Larson was well ahead before his pace began to slow a few laps later. With Bell closing, the reason for the drop-in speed made itself known as the engine gave out a massive cloud of smoke on Lap 41. Ducking into the infield, the iRacing No. 01 came to a rest well away from the racing surface.
With a straightaway advantage and slower cars around, Bell was pursed by Rico Abreu, but the traffic was not enough to slow the No. 71w enough for Abreu to challenge as the checkered flag fell with Bell winning by 3.162 seconds and lapping past 10th place.
Abreu finished in second, and the third member of the Kunz camp on the podium was Spencer Bayston.
Tanner Thorson raced through the field from 17th. His day began in the first C-Feature before ending with a fourth-place run in the A-Feature. Earning the final transfer from the first B-Feature, California’s Ryan Bernal stormed through the field to fifth after starting 23rd.
Despite an issue with the engine, Brad Sweet held on to finish sixth, with Justin Grant in tow. Chase Johnson’s first appearance in the Saturday finale ended in eighth with Kevin Thomas Jr. ninth. Rolling from 24th, Chad Boat made rounded out the top ten.
Bell is one of NASCAR’s upcoming stars and used his Chili Bowl victory last season to launch a career year. His Chili Bowl victory in 2017 was the first in a season in which he won five races and the championship in NASCAR’s Truck Series. He also won a race in the Xfinity Series and earned a promotion to Joe Gibbs Racing for a full-time ride in NASCAR this year.
The Chili Bowl is an annual dirt midget race that has been held since 1987 and always draws interest from some of auto racing’s most talented drivers. The week-long event boasts five days of practice and qualifying events to set the 24-car field for the main event.
The week-long Fastenal Flip Count reached a total of 70 among 60 drivers. All were able to walk away, with Simpson also in on the mix at flips 25 and 50. For the 25th flip, a HANS Device was awarded to Brady Bacon, with the 50th flip getting Seatbelts, which went to Shane Pace.
The 33rd Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire will take place Jan. 14-19, 2019. Information on the event will be released in the next few weeks.
A total of 345 cars competed during the week in Tulsa. In preliminary feature action on Jan. 10, Abreu won the main event over Tyler Thomas, Kevin Thomas Jr., Sammy Swindell and Chris Windom; and on Jan. 11, Bell won the main event over Shane Golobic, Chase Johnson, Tracy Hines and Caleb Armstrong. On Jan. 12, Chad Boat took the feature victory, followed by Justin Grant, Damion Gardner, Sam Hafertepe and Thomas Meseraull.
Chili Bowl Finale Feature finish (55 Laps): 1. Christopher Bell; 2. Rico Abreu; 3. Spencer Bayston; 4. Tanner Thorson; 5. Ryan Bernal; 6. Brad Sweet; 7. Justin Grant; 8. Chase Johnson; 9. Kevin Thomas Jr.; 10. Chad Boat; 11. Ryan Robinson; 12. Tyler Courtney; 13. Chris Windom; 14. Logan Seavey; 15. Shane Golobic; 16. Tom Harris; 17. Caleb Armstrong; 18. Billy Pauch Jr.; 19. Kyle Larson; 20. Andrew Felker; 21. Tyler Thomas; 22. Tracy Hines; 23. Sammy Swindell; 24. Giovanni Scelzi.
New inductees named to hall
The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa, has announced the names of its eight inductees for 2018.
They are drivers Bryan Clauson, Lance Dewease and David Steele; mechanic Scott Gerkin; builder Emmett J. Malloy; owner/promoter Steve Beitler; media member Bob Mays; and Oscar Dwain “Red” Garnant from the pre-1945 category.
The Class of 2018 will be inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame during the 29th annual ceremony on June 2 at Knoxville Raceway.
Bloomington Speedway sets opener
Bloomington Speedway has announced its 2018 season opener will be April 13, featuring 410 non-wing sprints, RaceSaver sprint cars, modifieds and street stocks. The complete 2018 schedule has been posted at bloomingtonspeedway.com.
James Essex writes a motorsports notebook for The Republic. Send comments to email@example.com.