TULSA, Okla.—Kyle Larson couldn’t sleep following his first Chili Bowl Nationals win.
But with Golden Driller in hand, Larson’s cause for insomnia was dramatically different from one year ago when he was despondent after losing the Super Bowl of midget racing to Christopher Bell on the last lap.
For more than half of his life, the 27-year-old Elk Grove, California, racer had been striving to win the finale at Tulsa Expo Raceway and on Saturday night, Larson finally experienced the breakthrough victory.
“It’s a totally different feeling than I had last year,” Larson said. “After all the bad luck I’ve had and the times I’ve left this building upset, I guess that makes me want it more than everyone else.
“It’s been crazy that I’ve been trying to get this little guy (holding the Golden Driller) for the last 13 years. Everyone thinks 13 is unlucky, but it was lucky for me this year.”
Larson doesn’t discount Bell’s desire in the least. After all, Bell was attempting to equal Kevin Swindell’s four-consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals record. But following Larson’s last two Tulsa heartbreaks, the California driver was determined to change the outcome.
Before 2020, Larson had enjoyed tremendous Chili Bowl Nationals success under the Keith Kunz Motorsports banner. Kunz operates the Toyota-backed juggernaut that had won five-straight Golden Drillers entering last week’s event. Since 2012, Larson collected five preliminary night wins with KKM, but success on Saturday escaped the affable driver. Larson had led laps in the past, but last year was just his second podium finish.
Larson had opportunities. In 2013, he battled Sammy and Kevin Swindell. After trading slide jobs with Kevin, Larson spun and handed the younger Swindell the lead and his fourth consecutive driller. The first epic Chili Bowl battle between Bell and Larson unfolded in 2018. Larson started from the pole. Bell seized the point on Lap 10 but as traffic built, Larson regained the lead on Lap 26. He set sail until his engine blew on Lap 41, handing over the lead and the win to Bell.
Last year, his last with Kunz before forming his own team, Larson took the lead from polesitter Logan Seavey on Lap 21. Once again, he appeared in command of the race until traffic slowed Larson’s pace. On Lap 54 of the 55-lapper, Larson miscalculated the first corner and Bell, who was running second, pounced. The two made contact through the first two corners on the last lap, Larson slipped and Bell gained the point, coming to the line .350-second ahead for his third-straight Chili Bowl Nationals win.
“I wish I could have led that last half-of-a-lap last year, and I could have celebrated with (Kunz) and then gone and done my own deal and then celebrated like we are tonight,” Larson said. “It would have been nice to have the satisfaction of winning with Keith, but everything happens for a reason—and maybe I lost that race last year for a reason. It was just fate, I guess. So yeah, it was bittersweet that I didn’t get it done for him.”
After watching his Driller dreams slip away over the last two years, the driver known as Yung Money left the KKM fold. He recruited his sprint car crew chief Paul Silva to oversee the Kyle Larson Racing midget operation.
The team’s success was immediate. In November, Larson pulled off the California sweep. He won the Hangtown 100 at Placerville Speedway and became the first driver since J.J. Yeley in 2003 to win consecutive USAC midget races in the Golden State with his Bakersfield Speedway victory. The following week, Larson picked up his third Turkey Night Grand Prix trophy at Ventura Raceway. Last month at the Gateway Dirt Nationals in St. Louis, Larson won the prelim night and the feature.
On Tuesday at Tulsa Expo Raceway, Larson won his heat, his qualifier and the feature. When he watched Bell dominate the Race of Champions and Thursday night’s feature, he knew the No. 84x Tucker-Boat midget would be tough to top. But under Silva’s direction, Larson capped off their run with the greatest midget trophy of all—the Golden Driller.
“I’ve got to tell you, my confidence wasn’t very high leading into today really,” Larson said after Saturday’s win. “I know we won Tuesday, and I felt like we were good in the feature, but after watching the feature (on video), I didn’t think we looked very good. After the pole shuffle, I didn’t feel very good at all.
“But Paul Silva, like he always does, figured it out, and we were good when it counted—and probably the best car when it mattered. I’m just very fortunate to have raced for good people. Without great people, I wouldn’t be Kyle Larson winning big races. Just very, very fortunate. It’s a great little start to our midget team.”
Silva joined KLR in 2018 as the general manager. When Larson drove sprint cars for Silva the previous year, the pair won eight of 16 races. In their first foray into midgets, Larson and Silva have won seven of the nine races attempted.
“It’s definitely been pretty special,” Silva said. “Kyle believed in me and provided the tools for me to do my job and let me do my job. There’s been a learning curve—definitely a learning curve in this building this week. I’m not going to say we were alright, but he did a great job as always and pretty special for me to be a part of him finding success at this race since he’s dreamed of since he was a kid.
“Trophy Cup (Thunderbowl Raceway, Tulare, Calif.) was one that he really wanted seven years ago. We were able to cross that one off together and to cross this one off together is pretty cool. All the races out West, that was pretty rewarding. It’s all been rewarding. He’s extremely talented across all disciplines of motorsports. Every car he drives, he succeeds. He always finds a way.”
And Larson had to be perfect to hold off Bell on Saturday. As he learned in 2019, if Bell sees an opening, he’ll take it.
Bell, who left KKM to join Tucker-Boat, headed by close friend Chad Boat, led the first 38 laps before a caution bunched the field.
“It was just a matter of making a mistake, and he didn’t make a big enough mistake this time,” Bell said after finishing second. “This whole process of joining a different team has been a huge learning curve. I obviously knew it would be when I signed up for this.
“Chad did an outstanding job of preparing for this event. We definitely hit it. We know we have the package to be successful here. We know we can fine tune it to make it a little better for next year. We didn’t get beat by much, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Larson attempted to console Bell on Saturday. He reminded Bell to smile for photos because he knows losing “sucks”. The last two years had been brutal for Larson, but to finally win the Chili Bowl Nationals was a bit overwhelming.
“It’s a range of emotions, 365 days later,” Larson said. “I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest effing race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks, but this is badass.”
Larson joked that he might get reprimanded—again—from the NASCAR brass for his statement. But when it comes to the spark he derives from running the Chili Bowl and now winning his first Golden Driller, Larson believes management will be understanding.
“Obviously, the Daytona 500 and NASCAR is bigger than the Chili Bowl,” Larson said. “But to me, personally, it’s not about the money. It’s not about anything else other than winning. For whatever reason, the Chili Bowl and Knoxville, the Bristol Night Race, they mean the most to me. That’s not me saying that I don’t care about Daytona or NASCAR. It’s just I’ve been trying to win these races a lot longer than the Daytona 500—and I’ve been closer to winning these races than the Daytona 500.
“So that just eats at you and you want to just get it done. You want to win all of them. I want to go to Daytona in a few weeks and win. I wanted to win in 2017 when I was leading on the last lap and ran out of fuel. But the atmosphere here, the energy that it brings, my friends and the friends that I’ve made here in this building have made me want to win this race more than any other.”
Since transitioning to NASCAR is 2013, Larson has endured his fair share of criticism for still competing on dirt—particularly in a case where his midget flips violently as it did at Western Springs in Auckland, New Zealand, last month. In fact, Larson was still sporting a bloodshot left eye from the incident.
But with the momentum he has gained over the last three months, along with his Chili Bowl win, Larson’s confidence couldn’t be higher.
“It helps, it for sure helps,” Larson said. “I was reading an old article on myself where it talked about dirt racing. I think it was after Dover, where I won after like a 70-something winless streak, and I said the dirt racing helps because when I go off and race dirt, I win. I have never been in a 75-race drought (in dirt).
“I don’t look at it like that. When I go to dirt, I can win. I know I’m a capable driver anywhere I go. So when I do win on a dirt track, it helps my confidence when I go run NASCAR. I think that’s why you see me run better in the summer months in Cup, because I’m off racing two-three-four times a week before I’m in Cup, and I might pick up a couple of wins. And that helps confidence before first practice, I can tell you that.
“I’m just fortunate that Chip Ganassi lets me do it. He believes it helps me. Obviously, there’s a risk that comes with it—my eye (points to the aftermath from his Western Springs flip)--but it helps."
Will the freedom Ganassi allows Larson with his schedule weigh on his decision to remain in the No. 42 Cup car after 2020?
“I just won the Chili Bowl, I’m not thinking about my next contract,” Larson said. “But yeah, I think it’s pretty apparent that dirt racing is important to me. I hope whatever I end up doing, they know it because it’s what I love to do.
“I’m not saying that I don't love NASCAR but if I’m not racing 70-80 times a year, the year seems too long.”