NASCAR stars head to Chili Bowl Nationals

By Alex Andrejev
The Charlotte Observer/TNS
Kyle Larson, the driver of the (42) McDonald's Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 7, 2020 in Avondale, Ariz.

Kyle Larson won his first Chili Bowl Nationals title last year to achieve a feat that he said felt bigger than winning the Daytona 500.

“I’m sorry NASCAR. I’m sorry Daytona. But this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won,” Larson said. “I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks, but this is bad ass.”

Larson’s victory had been close, but elusive before then. The year prior, Larson lost to another dirt-track-turned-NASCAR-driver Christopher Bell on the final lap of the race. So when Larson led Bell, the three-time defending champion, through the final 17 laps for his first Golden Driller last January, it was a big deal.

Both Bell and Larson entered this year’s lineup for the indoor midget car event described as “racing’s winter answer to football’s Super Bowl,” along with other faces from the NASCAR world, including Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chase Briscoe, Justin Allgaier, J.J. Yeley, Brett Moffitt, Kasey Kahne and Santino Ferrucci, among others.

Larson will advance to Saturday’s lineup after winning his preliminary race Tuesday night. Bell, who’s preliminary race is Thursday, won the Invitational Race of Champions against Larson and other past winners Tuesday night, setting the stage for another likely matchup between the drivers this weekend.

Defending NASCAR Cup champion Chase Elliott is also set to make his debut in this year’s race, starting with his preliminary round Wednesday night. He is among the 320 total drivers entered from various racing disciplines, such as NASCAR, IndyCar, World of Outlaws, USAC and NHRA, competing in qualifying sessions throughout the week for a spot in the final, 24-driver feature event on Saturday night. Schedules and lineups for each night of Chili Bowl Nationals can be found here.

“It’s good to get these drivers from the higher ranks to come back and run the Chili Bowl and run the (Tulsa) Shootout,” Chili Bowl director Matt Ward said. “I feel like it gives the other drivers a little benefit. They’re driving against some of the best drivers in the world, so I think it’s a win for everybody.”

The Chili Bowl Nationals, an event co-founded by Ward’s grandfather Emmett Hahn in 1987, has long been a stomping ground for racing’s biggest names. Four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon entered his first Chili Bowl in 1990 prior to his NASCAR start. Tony Stewart, another NASCAR Hall of Famer and three-time Cup champion, entered the race a few years after Gordon and went on to win Golden Driller titles at the Tulsa, Okla., track in 2002 and 2007.

Elliott told the Loud Pedal Podcast last week that he didn’t receive any push-back from NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick on his entry this year. He said he thinks it helps to have Gordon, a Hendrick Motorsports executive, know the first-hand benefit of racing during the NASCAR offseason.

“I think he really understands the importance of racing more and how that can help you on-track on Sundays,” Elliott said.

The driver also entered this year’s super late model Snowball Derby race and the Carolina Showdown at Millbridge, won by Briscoe, ahead of the Chili Bowl. He is set to compete in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona for Action Express Racing, highlighting a packed offseason for the defending Cup champion ahead of a NASCAR season with limited practice and qualifying.

Briscoe, who made his Chili Bowl debut in 2015 and started his career racing sprint cars, described the differences between stock-car and midget car racing as “day and night,” but he said he still sees time at the track as helpful to tuning up before the NASCAR season.

“There aren’t a lot of things that are similar,” Briscoe said. “But just getting to race helps more than anything.”

Jacob Seelman, a reporter for Speed Sport who covers NASCAR and the Chili Bowl, attributed recent receptiveness of the coveted dirt track event by NASCAR teams and drivers to the limited racing opportunities during the pandemic, but Seelman said there was another reason for the growing interest: “The Larson Effect.”

“Everybody sees what Kyle did last year and the attention that brought,” Seelman said, referencing the 46-win tear Larson achieved racing at various dirt and short tracks during his suspension from NASCAR last season. “And I think you want to challenge yourself against the best of the best, and there is no other event that I can think of in any discipline in racing that pulls together all the different types of motorsport in the same way that the Chili Bowl does.”

The fanfare will be slightly muted at the indoor track this year, as the pandemic and state and local regulations have put a 25% capacity cap on fan attendance. The grandstands at the Tulsa River Expo Center, where the track is located, seat 10,000 people and are typically sold out.

Bryan Hulbert, a longtime publicist for the Chili Bowl Nationals, said that tickets for limited seating were sold out as of Wednesday and event staff has already had to remove a few rowdy fans and individuals failing to comply with the masking mandate.

He said the race this year definitely has a “different feel” with the limited attendance. (Fans can also live stream the event on Flo Racing during the week and on MAVTV Saturday.) But Hulbert and drivers alike said that the achievement of advancing to the top-24 of 300-plus entries for a victory Saturday won’t be muted.

“Everybody wants that Golden Driller,” Hulbert said. “They want that little trophy. They want to walk out of here knowing that they beat the best.”

“The best example I can give you was Kyle Larson in Victory Lane,” Hulbert said, quoting Larson’s apology to NASCAR from memory: “‘I’m sorry NASCAR. I’m sorry Daytona...