TULSA, Okla. – Tuesday’s preliminary night in the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals was all about Kyle Larson—until his nemesis, Christopher Bell, reminded him he would also be a factor in Saturday night’s main event.
Larson won the 30-lap A Feature wire-to-wire, taking the checkered flag 2.822 seconds ahead of second-place Jonathan Beason, as the top two drivers locked into Saturday’s A Main.
But in his first appearance in competition in this year’s Chili Bowl, Bell captured the revamped Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions, putting everyone on notice that, despite changing teams, he will be a factor as he tries for his record-tying fourth straight Golden Driller trophy.
In the late going in the A Feature, Beason got close to Larson in heavy traffic before Jake Bubak, a qualifier from the B Main, flipped into the fence with six laps left and caromed into the path of Nick Drake, who was battling Bubak for fourth at the time.
Free from traffic on the final restart, Larson pulled away for the convincing win, his third straight on his respective preliminary night and sixth overall.
After the Race of Champions, Larson loosened up his No. 01 car for the A Feature, and the handling change paid off. But, as Larson cautioned, there are three preliminaries left.
“There’s still a lot of racing left to go, but we’ll see how the track changes and what happens on Saturday,” Larson said.
Michael Faccinto, Dillon Welch and Larry Wight completed the top five in the A Feature.
Bell made a statement with his VIROC win, after suffering through a California swing in November at the close of the USAC National Midget Series in which Larson beat him decisively, after both drivers started fielding their own cars.
But Larson scoffed at the notion that Bell might be off his game. On the other hand, he wasn’t surprised or worried about Bell’s performance in the VIROC.
“I’ve never heard anybody use ‘washed up’ and ‘Christopher Bell’ in the same sentence,” Larson said. “He must be hearing some strange voices in his head.
“He’s going to be a factor wherever he goes, so it wasn’t that concerning to me.”
The VIROC event, shortened from 25 to 20 laps because of impending curfew, featured an elite field that could closely resemble Saturday night’s main event.
“I feel freakin’ fantastic,” an elated Bell said in Victory Lane. “This race has eluded me for quite a while.”
In six previous VIROC starts, Bell had posted a best finish of third, in 2014 and 2019. Rico Abreu, who won back-to-back Golden Drillers in 2015 and 2016, finished second from his 14th starting position after his No. 97 Keith Kunz Motorsports car flew into the fence during hot laps.
Abreu edged Sam Hafertepe Jr. at the finish line for the second spot. Larson ran fourth in the Race of Champions, but that was his only hiccup on an otherwise impeccable night of racing.
Larson was nearly a half-second per lap faster than his closest competitor in Heat 2, his first event of the night. The bad news for the rest of the competition? After dominating the eight-lap event, Larson felt there was still considerable room for improvement in the No. 01 car.
With his handling improved, Larson was even stronger in Qualifying Race 2, quickly charging to the lead from the third starting position to win going away.
Asked whether he was making an effort to intimidate the competition, Larson replied, “I’m 5-foot-6, 135 pounds. No matter how my eyeballs look, I’m not very intimidating.”
The “eyeball” comment was a reference to a bone-jarring flip Larson suffered in the Boxing Day Bash during a December trip to New Zealand. Larson still has remnants of the “shiner” he got during the wreck but says he feels 100-percent healthy.
Notes: In the category of “You can’t make this up:” Kyle Hammer won Tuesday night’s first C Main. Finishing last among the 13 drivers who started the race: Jake Nail.