Nick Oxford
Nick Oxford

Chili Bowl 2022: Tanner Thorson holds off Christopher Bell in closing laps for win

Christopher Bell’s shot at four will have to wait another year.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who doubles as a top-shelf dirt racer, lost the lead late in the Chili Bowl Nationals to Tanner Thorson, who powered to his first win in one of the most prestigious races in the country on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It’s the first Chili Bowl victory for Thorson, an ace driver who previously competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

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Bell was going for his fourth win in the dirt Midget race held in his home state Oklahoma. Only two drivers have won this event at least four times: Sammy Swindell is the all-time leader with five wins, and Kevin Swindell has four.

Bell started Saturday night’s A-Main from the pole position and led the opening 36 laps of the 55-lap event. He lost the lead to Thorson following a caution, but appeared to be in position to pass for the lead — and perhaps win — with six laps to go. A flip by Brady Bacon brought out the caution, though, and Thorson maintained the lead.

Bell would finish second, with Rico Abreu, Michael “Buddy” Kofoid and Tanner Carrick completing the top five.

Thorson’s win broke a two-year winning streak by Kyle Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champ. Larson finished sixth and was one of three Cup Series regulars in the top 10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a Chili Bowl for the ages and finished Saturday night ninth. His week included a photo finish heat-race victory over former Cup Series driver Kasey Kahne on Friday, followed later with a runner-up finish in the night’s A-Main race.

Larson was seeking to become just the third driver to win three in a row.

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.

Larson, Bell and Stenhouse Jr. were among the 10 drivers locked into the A-Main heading into Saturday, leaving more than 300 drivers competing for the final 14 spots. Those that had not yet qualified for the main event 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 P-Feature races. The top six finishers advanced upward to the corresponding O-Feature races, in which there were already several drivers who had qualified based on their performance earlier in the week. Then the top six finishers from each O-Feature race advanced into the N-Feature races, where other drivers were also waiting and so on.

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Finishes for notable drivers included:

Kaylee Bryson: Bryson made history this weekend, becoming the first woman in the event’s 36-year history to make the championship A-Main. Bryson started 10th in Saturday’s second B-Feature and drove her way up to first, then held on to win and automatically advance. She finished 18th.

Chase Elliott: The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champ has embraced the grassroots world in recent years, foraying into the dirt scene and adding experience in a variety of disciplines. In his second Chili Bowl, Elliott had plenty of ups and downs. The ups: In Monday’s opening action, Elliott won his heat race from the pole position and went on to finish eighth in his B-Feature race. He also finished ninth in the Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions, an impressive run for a driver with such little experience on dirt.

That slotted Elliott into the F-Feature in Saturday’s championship day, where he would climb from his car after a frightening flip uninjured, but with a 19th-place finish.

Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott climbs into his car as he prepares to race in the 2022 Chili Bow. (Nick Oxford/NASCAR)

Alex Bowman: Bowman fell a few spots short of qualifying for the A-Main on Saturday. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is a constant in the dirt world, building his own cars and showing off progress on his social platforms, and he’s always one to watch in Tulsa. Coming off a four-win NASCAR Cup Series season in 2021 driving the No. 48, Bowman finished second in his C-Feature race Saturday. That put his No. 55X car into the B-Features, with a shot at making the championship race in sight.

Bowman would finish 11th in his B-Feature after starting 17th, a strong run-up but not enough to earn one of the seven transfer spots.

Prior to Saturday, Bowman won his 10-lap qualifying race to advance to the day’s A-Feature, where he finished ninth.

Ryan Newman: What a week for the “Rocket Man.” His third Chili Bowl produced a strong run in his Friday heat race and some additional clarity about his future.

Ryan Newman gets into his car before the feature race during the 2022 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire at Tulsa Expo Raceway in Tulsa, Oklahoma on January 14, 2022. (Nick Oxford/NASCAR)
Ryan Newman gets into his car before the feature race. (Nick Oxford/NASCAR)

Boasting a smile this weekend in the pits, Newman told NASCAR.com his main goal in racing this year is to have fun — with winning a close second. After racing full time in the Cup Series from 2002-21, Newman does not have a ride for 2022. But he does not consider himself retired. He specifically named dirt late model racing, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and the USAC Silver Crown as competitions he intends to enter in 2022. He called them “bucket list items (he) missed along the way” through a couple of decades in the Cup Series.

And although he didn’t advance out of the C-Feature on Saturday night, he surely ended the night with another smile.

Chase Briscoe: Briscoe has had his share of heartache at the Chili Bowl, and Saturday he fell one spot short of advancing to the B-Feature. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver started seventh and had worked his way up to fifth — the final transfer position — before losing the spot to Spencer Bayston with two laps to go. Briscoe would go on to finish sixth, with the top five drivers advancing up to the B-Feature races.

All that after being involved in a first-lap wreck, which the driver says damaged the front axle and right front shock of his No. 5 machine.

Dillon Welch: A NASCAR reporter for MRN and NBC and lifetime racer who excels every time he gets in the seat, Welch qualified for the A-Feature for the second time in his racing career. Welch hadn’t raced a Midget event since last year’s Chili Bowl, but he still advanced out of the B-Feature — driving from 11th to sixth late to claim a spot in the A-Main, where he finished 22nd.

Jesse Love: The two-time ARCA Menards West Series champion capped his week by finishing 19th in his Saturday D-Feature race.

J.J. Yeley: The veteran Yeley, who has had a number of memorable Chili Bowl moments over the years, finished 11th in the first of two E-Feature races to end his Chili Bowl run. Yeley had finished second in the F-Feature to advance up to the E.

Carson Hocevar: Hocevar, 18, finished second place in his J-Feature race Saturday, advancing upward. In the I-Feature he would finish 12th out of 15 drivers and failed to advance. The Niece Motorsports driver is coming off a 10th-place finish in the Camping World Truck Series in 2021. This was his Chili Bowl debut.

Ryan Ellis: Ellis finished 11th the first L-Feature race Saturday. Earlier in the week, Ellis finished sixth in his eight-lap heat race on Friday. That placed him in one of the evening’s C Features, and he finished ninth again to end the night.

Jesse Little: Little started his day in the M-Feature, where he finished ninth and did not advance. Making his Chili Bowl debut, Little finished eighth in his heat race during Tuesday’s racing. He then finished 10th later that evening in the C-Feature.