TULSA, Okla. – The Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals saved its best preliminary night racing for last, as Tanner Thorson edged Ryan Bernal by .166 seconds on Friday night at Tulsa Expo Raceway to lock into the Saturday night’s main event.
The victory was Thorson’s first in a Chili Bowl preliminary, as both he and Bernal earned spots in both the Saturday A Feature and pole shuffle.
Driving the No. 19 Hayward Motorsports car, Thorson led the final six laps after passing Bernal for the top spot, but Bernal, who started seventh (two spots behind Thorson) made it close on the final circuit, darting to the inside as Thorson ripped the top lane of the fifth-mile dirt track.
The race featured six lead changes between four drivers, as eventual third-place finisher Chris Windom started from the pole and surrendered the point to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Lap 4. Stenhouse’s run was short-lived, however, as the NASCAR Cup veteran hit the outside wall after Thorson passed him for the lead on Lap 15 and left the track with a flat left rear tire two laps later.
Windom and Thorson traded the lead on Laps 18 and 19 before Bernal surged to the front on Lap 20. On that same lap, Andrew Layser’s flip caused the final caution and Thorson made the winning pass five laps later.
Thorson notched his most important victory since recovering from serious injuries he sustained in an early-morning highway wreck on the way home from a race in May. At the time, doctors told Thorson he might lose the use of his left arm, but the 23-year-old driver from Minden, Nevada, overcame that pessimistic prognosis.
“I’m back,” Thorson said emphatically after the race. “I’m back tonight, and hopefully I’m back tomorrow.”
Thorson drew the No. 1 pill for the pole dash, guaranteeing he will start no worse than fourth in Saturday’s main event.
But on Friday night, he was savoring victory after a wild race among friends.
“Ryan—I have mad respect for that kid,” Thorson said. “You know, I’ve raced a lot with him out on the West Coast and kind of grew up with the same group of people. We became pretty close. It was pretty awesome to be able to dice it out with him and Windom.
“You don’t get too many guys that will race you pretty clean like that.”
Bernal, who went from sixth to first in a scramble in traffic to take the lead on Lap 20, had tears in his eyes after the narrow loss, but he was elated to advance to Saturday’s A Main.
“I’m really excited,” Bernal said. “I’m really happy with the way things worked out tonight… The car’s really good, and we were able to run right there with ‘em.”
Though he raced against close friends Thorson and Bernal, Windom was frustrated by his inability to convert a start from the pole into a preliminary victory.
“It was fun, but I’m pretty disappointed,” Windom said. “We started on the pole and had the lead, and I think I just jumped to the top a couple laps early there and lost a few spots. That kind of put us in position to have to race those guys the rest of the run.
“I still thought we were the best car on the long runs, but it was tough to get there, ‘cause everybody was throwing haymakers on everybody the whole race. It’s a good spot for (Saturday), but it’s pretty disappointing with all the speed these Tucker-Boat cars have had. I wish we could have capitalized, but we’ll take a podium.”
Tucker Klaasmeyer ran fourth, followed by NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier. Justin Grant, winner of the previous three Friday night prelims, was sixth, followed by Daryn Pittman, Donny Schatz, Chad Boespflug and Justin Peck.