Christopher Bell’s Chili Bowl success continues to elevate Cup Series driver’s profile

TULSA, Okla. — Christopher Bell’s anger was evident. He sprung out of his No. 71W Keith Kunz Motorsports midget car and, without removing his helmet or making eye contact with a single team member or spectator nearby, he turned to and stormed into the team’s hauler and disappeared.

This is what the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals mean to the driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series. This is not some offseason diversion.

In many ways, this is home.

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Of course, the 27-year-old went on to win Thursday’s preliminary A Feature, his seventh consecutive such result at the Chili Bowl. His frustration was the result of a second-place finish in his qualifier, which he might have won for an evening sweep had he not been held up by slower cars.

“It was so frustrating,” Bell told later, by this point with a smile on his face. “On paper, it said I should be able to drive right by them. The guy in front of me was really struggling. I feel bad because I kind of waved my hand at him after the race. He didn’t do anything wrong. I just couldn’t get by, and I knew I had to go if I wanted any hope of making the race Saturday.”

Most drivers would not have accomplished what Bell did Thursday, when he stormed to that second-place finish in his qualifier with a gutsy move on the last lap. He followed that performance with his eighth preliminary A Feature victory in nine years, tied for the most in Chili Bowl history.

Then again, most drivers do not have the experience Bell carries on this quarter-mile dirt track.

The Chili Bowl is quite literally home for Bell, a native of nearby Norman, Oklahoma. Known as the Super Bowl of midget car racing, the event feels like home to the race car driver as much as it does to the person. Bell’s first Chili Bowl as a competitor came in 2011, when he was barely old enough to hold a driver’s license, though he had attended the event as a spectator many times before.

Eleven years later, he’s the star of the show.

A palpable energy overtakes the crowd of 15,000 in the dust-filled Tulsa Expo Center when Bell takes the track — and with good reason. Bell’s victory Thursday marked his 58th national midget car feature win, by far the most for a Toyota Racing driver. (Kyle Larson ranks second with the 35 victories he acquired while racing for Toyota.)

Bell’s eighth preliminary A Feature win placed him in a tie with Sammy Swindell for the most in Chili Bowl history. Swindell holds the record with five Chili Bowl main event victories. Bell’s three main event victories came consecutively from 2017-19.

“It’s crazy,” Bell allowed, reflecting on the preliminary wins record. “Everybody knows how easy it is to have something happen to take you out of it. It’s unbelievable how many things have to go right to put yourself in this position. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to do it.”

Bell was not always this dominant at the Chili Bowl. He finished 24th in his first preliminary feature in 2011, followed by a 20th and a 12th the next two years before breaking through with a win in 2014. That year brought Bell’s first main event appearance and an impressive third-place run, but he placed 23rd and 12 in his main events the next two years before winning in 2017.

Bell’s NASCAR career flourished alongside his dirt racing efforts. Months after he won his first Chili Bowl main event, he won the Camping World Truck Series championship. A year after his third straight Chili Bowl win, in 2020, Bell made his first Cup Series start as a full-time driver for Leavine Family Racing.

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Asked how his Chili Bowl experience has evolved as a result of his success, Bell said the changes have nothing to do with him and everything to do with his surroundings.

“Just seeing the event grow has been the biggest thing,” he noted. “It’s incredible to see the amount of people; the amount of talented race car drivers.”

Bell’s success and subsequent rise to fame has at least a little to do with that growth. That’s what happens when a home-grown talent reaches the highest level of stock-car racing without severing his roots in dirt.

If Bell parlays his Thursday-night win into another Saturday main event victory in 2022, which would be his fourth at the Chili Bowl in six years, the growth will continue.