Kyle Larson said he couldn’t make a mistake in his quest to unseat three-time Chili Bowl winner Christopher Bell at the most prestigious dirt Midget race of the year. On Saturday night, Larson was perfect when it mattered most.
A flawless restart on Lap 39 of the 55-lap event that included a precise, bold dart up the track — one that the daring Larson also is known for in the NASCAR Cup Series — allowed the 27-year-old to slip by Bell, and he made the lead hold.
There would be no repeat of 2019, when Larson made a mental error on the final lap, giving up the lead and win to Bell in the final corner.
On this night, Kyle Larson was Chili Bowl champion.
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You can’t even fully dream of moments like this. I thought I might know what it’d feel like to finally win this thing but after what I experienced tonight I had no clue! I’m so blessed to be with great people. Loved celebrating with my family, friends, crew, and partners! I hope this is only the beginning to a great 2020 season! Let’s F’ing GOOO!!!
Bell finished second, ending one of the most remarkable streaks in the history of the fabled race. The Leavine Family Racing driver, who will be a rookie in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020, started the 55-lap main event second, took the lead out of the opening lap and appeared to be sailing away to his fourth consecutive win. A series of late cautions bunched the field back up, setting the stage for Larson’s heroics.
Bell was attempting to become the second driver in Chili Bowl history to win four straight, which Kevin Swindell did from 2010-13. But Bell’s heartache was jubilation for Larson, who won for the first time in his 13 attempts at Chili Bowl fame.
Cannon McIntosh finished third, followed by Logan Seavey and Rico Abreu, who was a menace in the final laps and drove up to second place before dropping back late.
The Chili Bowl is an annual dirt Midget race that has been held since 1987 and always draws interest from some of auto racing’s most talented drivers. Preliminary heat races began Monday and lasted through Saturday. Each day included a series of heat races and qualifiers, followed by a 25-lap feature event. The top-two finishers in each qualifying night feature event locked themselves into the 24-car A-Feature event on Saturday night.
Larson locked in his spot Tuesday by winning the A-Feature event and an automatic spot in Saturday’s showdown. The talented Abreu, who has 26 career Gander Trucks starts on his resume, joined him in the finale with an A-Feature win the following night. Bell already was locked into the finale, but won his A-Feature on Thursday anyway.
With 10 spots locked in, drivers spent the entirety of Saturday attempting to qualify through a prolonged series of races known as “Alphabet Soup” as drivers who had not previously qualified for the championship race had to drive their way in through a series of transfers, starting with two O-Feature races. The top six finishers advanced upward to the corresponding N-Feature races., in which there were already several drivers who had qualified based off their performance earlier in the week. Then the top six finishers from each N-Feature race advanced into the M-Feature races, where other drivers were also waiting.
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The format was used all the way up to the A-Main finale, although the number of drivers advancing upward dropped to five starting at the G-Feature, then jumped to seven for the B-Feature races.
Justin Allgaier, who started Saturday in the first of two B-Feature races, finished third in that event to claim a transfer spot into the championship race. He finished 21st in the big show.
Sammy Swindell, the all-time leader with five Chili Bowl wins, took 13th.
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Finishes for notable drivers included:
• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. started his day in the E-Feature, finishing third, and then passed two cars on the final lap of the ensuing D-Feature race to claim the final transfer spot into the C-Feature, where he started last based off his previous finishing position. He made up some ground, but not enough, finishing 17th and ending his night.
The Cup Series driver and two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion is a talented and well-respected dirt driver and a consistent entrant in the Chili Bowl. Stenhouse will drive for JTG Daugherty Racing in its flagship No. 47 Chevrolet this year.
• Ryan Newman won his E-Feature race, where he started the day, to advance to the D-Feature. He finished seventh and did not advance any further. Still, it’s considered an impressive showing for the Cup Series veteran. He hadn’t raced a dirt Midget car since 2000 prior to a tune-up race at Gateway earlier in the month. Prior to Saturday, the 42-year-old was in the A-Feature of his Wednesday qualifying race before being involved in a five-car incident just five laps in, forcing him to attempt and drive his way into the main event on Saturday.
• Chase Briscoe fell short of the championship A-Feature in agonizing fashion. The full-time Stewart-Haas Racing driver figures to be in the championship picture of the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, and throughout the week he looked like he’d be a factor in the main event. He nearly was. A third-place finish in one of the C-Feature races advanced Briscoe to the B-Features, but his eighth-place finish — after starting 17th — was one spot short of a transfer.
• Dillon Welch, a NASCAR reporter and lifetime racer who excels every time he gets in the seat, also fell a heartbreaking one spot shy of advancing to the A-Feature. Starting fourth in the second B-Feature, a pair of late cautions bunched up the field, leaving Welch one spot outside the transfer line. A ridiculous last lap with a near-successful slide job wasn’t quite enough.
• Alex Bowman started Saturday in one of the two C-Feature races and finished second to cleanly advance. He couldn’t duplicate the feat, finishing 12th in the following B-Feature. Bowman, who drives the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series, earned his first career win at NASCAR’s top level in 2019. He’s an avid Midget racer who often tweets his progress on building the latest cars. Driver C.J. Leary gave Bowman a rooting interest in the A-Feature, as he drives Bowman’s equipment.
• Longtime veteran racer J.J. Yeley, who has had a number of memorable Chili Bowl moments over the years, couldn’t quite pull off another one. Yeley finished fifth a C-Feature race, where he began Saturday, to advance upward with the final transfer position. A 10th-place finish in the ensuing race was impressive considering his 20th-place start — last in the field — but three spots short of making the A-Feature.
• Karsyn Elledge finished 17th in the E-Feature, bettering her run from last year by two full races.
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