Heading into Saturday night’s Chili Bowl Nationals championship race, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson are heavy favorites, but they know there will be other stiff competition.
Both Bell and Larson are locked into the 55-lap A-Main event at the indoor Tulsa Expo Raceway. Although they are expected to dominate, there are other fast drivers who are threats for victory on the team, including former Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Rico Abreu and dirt-racing ace Logan Seavey, both of whom won their respective qualifying nights earlier in the week to make the big show, as well.
“Larson is one of the most talented race-car drivers of all time, so you know he’s going to be up there,” Bell told NASCAR.com. “But there’s a lot of other great race cars and in the Race of Champions (held earlier in the week), Larson didn’t win it. There’s just a lot of people here that could step up to the plate and become favorites or be hard to beat.”
Bell, winner of the past two Chili Bowl championships, is looking to become the third driver to win three or more and only the second driver to earn three consecutive triumphs in the prestigious race.
The 24-year-old Norman, Oklahoma native won Thursday night’s preliminary round. Despite making it look easy, Bell said the speed in his No. 71W Keith Kunz Motorsports midget was a bit of a cause for concern after seeing his teammates — including Larson — win a little more easily during their qualifying nights.
“We don’t really know who was good and who was bad because of all the yellow flags,” Bell said about Thursday’s preliminary race. “We never really got to race it out. Especially Thursday night kind of left us wondering a little bit, but we know from watching the other prelim nights, Larson is good.
“Rico looks like he’s back and hungry again,” he added. “It’s just tough and there’s a lot of great race-car drivers and fortunately, a lot of them are in my same camp.”
Bell says he will need to rely on his past experience to put up a fight against a fleet of talented drivers with extensive dirt-racing prowess.
“Just being in the event in the past, knowing how the track changes and stuff like that, it should help me,” Bell said. “We kind of have an idea of what’s going to happen. Normally they do a full track re-work, so the track starts really wet and it goes really slick by the end of the race.”
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For Larson, the Chili Bowl has been bittersweet for him in the past. Last year, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular was leading inside 10 laps to go when engine issues forced him to retire — paving the way for Bell to win again.
Larson said if he wants to earn his first Chili Bowl victory and take home the Golden Driller, he’ll need to beat out his own teammates.
“Logan (Seavey) was really impressive on Monday,” Larson told NASCAR.com. “He was really smooth and had a lot of speed. Honestly, I really don’t look to anybody else besides Christopher Bell, really. He’s the guy you’re going to have to beat if you’re going to win the Chili Bowl.”
Although it’s a unique dynamic for Bell and Larson to compete for the same 11-car Keith Kunz Motorsports camp, both feel the combination gives them the highest chances for success.
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“I would say Keith has had a pretty good package the past few years,” Larson said. “I think the cars have been equally as good the past three years ago or so. I know I’m with the best team in the building, so that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Bell echoed Larson’s sentiments for the Keith Kunz-led organization that has been dominant year-in and year-out.
“It’s completely up to them and I have all the faith in the world that they’re going to make the right adjustments, but our cars are really good,” Bell said.
Along with Bell and Larson, there are NASCAR stars and affiliations looking to make the it to the main event through Saturday’s last-chance qualifiers.
NASCAR Next’s Tanner Thorson transferred into Saturday night’s A-Main after finishing second in Friday night’s preliminary feature, while Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won a heat race during Friday’s final qualifying night and finished fourth in the feature, and will roll off fifth in the first B-Main.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman, Obaika Racing’s Tanner Berryhill, StarCom Raciong’s Landon Cassill, former full-time driver Kasey Kahne, Xfinity drivers Justin Allgaier, J.J. Yeley and Chase Briscoe will also be on track throughout the day.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s niece, 18-year-old Karsyn Elledge, is also in the mix after winning her heat race on Thursday.
Cool to have 2 @NosEnergyDrink cars on the front row tonight. Bummed we couldn’t finish 1,2 but congrats to @JustinGrant40 we finished 4th and roll off 5th in the first B main tomorrow night. #ChilIBowl2019
— Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (@StenhouseJr) January 19, 2019
Follow @Speed_Media_ for all my updates thoughout the day!
— Karsyn Elledge (@KarsynElledge3) January 19, 2019
Below is the full schedule for Saturday’s last-chance qualifying races and main event:
— Chili Bowl Nationals (@cbnationals) January 19, 2019