TULSA, Okla.—“Picture. Perfect.”
That was Christopher Bell’s reply to Kyle Larson’s pre-race tweet which concluded with “55 laps to try and get it done @cbnationals. Our @McDonalds @iRacing car has been good. Need to run some perfect laps.”
Larson was good. For 32 laps, he was great. But coming to the white flag, he slipped in Turns 3 and 4. That was not lost on Bell, who closed quickly like a shark who smells blood in the water. When Larson failed to stick the bottom in Turns 1 and 2, Bell capitalized.
“I ran 53-and-a-half good laps,” Larson said. “Just didn’t hit my marks when it counted.”
Yes, Kyle Larson came a half-lap from winning the Chili Bowl Nationals. And finishing a career-best second was no consolation. Larson was crushed. He stood watching Bell and the Victory Lane celebration knowing his first Golden Driller had slipped out of his hands in the last four corners.
While Morgan Kemenah, Bell’s fiancee had tears of elation streaming down her face as she watched the 71W take the checkers for the third-straight year, Andrea Larson, Kyle’s sister, cried for her little brother. Seeing her sibling come so close to winning what would have been the open-wheel title he covets most was simply heartbreaking.
Katelyn Sweet Larson, Kyle’s wife, gave her husband just enough space after the race. She’s the ideal racer’s wife, having grown up watching her brother Brad win and lose behind the wheel. Sweet finished seventh in the A-Main—his fifth appearance in the feature. It was a solid night for the family, but crushing in the same stroke.
Larson’s engine blew with 13 laps remaining in last year’s Chili Bowl. This year, he was less than 300 yards from the finish line when Bell dived to the inside and seized the lead.
There was no consoling Larson in the immediate aftermath of the close loss. Though the 26-year-old racer is one of the most even-keeled competitors in motorsports, clearly he was gutted.
“You never really feel like it’s your race at a big race like this—especially with Christopher behind you,” Larson said. “I knew my pace had slowed down. I knew he was going to get close and I missed my marks—just a couple of times throughout the race, but when it counted—and he was there to pounce.
“I hate that I gave that one away, but it’s good to race for a win like that. Try not to make mistakes because, obviously, he doesn’t make any.”
Bell was “Picture. Perfect.” One takeaway from his NASCAR experience is the lesson of patience. To win on pavement in the Xfinity Series, Bell knows he has to stay in the game for 250-300 miles. Running a 55-lapper on dirt has become a cakewalk for Bell—unless he’s plagued with a mechanical issue. Although it took the 24-year-old time to adapt to the equipment he had in New Zealand. Larson dominated early in the week but once Bell acclimated to the cars and the conditions, he bounced back and forth between midgets and sprints and won in both types of cars during the five-night competition at Western Springs Speedway in Auckland.
Despite the 20-minutes between his loss and the post-race press conference, Larson still labored under the weight of the defeat. His composure remained professional, but stoic.
Bell bit his lip at times to keep from smiling on the dais. He was respectful of Larson’s feelings, knowing what the race means to each of the drivers. But when asked about his move on the last lap—and Larson’s subsequent attempt of the final two corners to retake the lead—Bell easily recalled the finish.
“If he wouldn’t have missed his mark, if he would have stuck the bottom, then ‘A,’ I’m not going to get there, and I’m not just going to run into the back of him," Bell said. "Whenever he went in there and slid up, I took advantage of it.”
Bell doesn’t believe that Larson would wreck him for the win. They came close in the feature at the Gateway Dirt Nationals in December but ultimately, Larson’s move just hurt himself.
And Larson didn’t blame Bell in the slightest for getting the best of him on the white-flag lap. He accepted responsibility for his own mistake, to the point of chastising himself for his aggression in Turn 3 after Bell made the decisive pass.
“I didn’t think what Chris did was wrong at all,” Larson added. “I knew I missed the bottom, so then I’m trying to squeeze him down. I know there’s contact coming.
“If anything, I’m more upset with what I did into 3, running into the side of him. Because I pride myself in not racing like that. It’s twice now that I’ve done that on the last lap. Just a little desperation out of myself. I just got to not do that in the future.”
When Larson reflected on making a similar move at Gateway, he smiled momentarily. That was the only emotion he exhibited in the press conference.
For the last two years, Bell has owned Larson in the big races. Larson turned his luck around in New Zealand and appeared primed to exact revenge on Bell in Tulsa.
“This is as close as I’ve ever been,” Larson said. “It’s definitely harder to swallow when it’s your mistakes that cost you the win. I’ll be more motivated next year than I’ve ever been. It’s a big race. You’re hungry to win it. You always want to win the big ones. I just have to keep working on my game and getting better.
“Even though Christopher is winning all the time, I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to beating him. I'm getting better. I just have room to get better.”
Once his duties were over, Larson quickly left the room. There was nothing left to say. But if the loss makes him stronger and he continues to zone in on Bell, this competition will only continue to thrive.