TULSA, Okla. — Christopher Bell’s face was as red as his Toyota Racing fire suit. There’s no telling whether this was the result of exhaustion or frustration. Either would apply.
Having just climbed out of his No. 71W Keith Kunz Motorsports midget car, Bell stood with his hands on his hips and watched Tanner Thorson celebrate in a cloud of confetti. Those who arrived to greet the 27-year-old NASCAR Cup Series driver were met with shoulder shrugs and tepid smiles.
Some might call this result an upset, but Bell knows better. He suggested as much earlier in the week, when he explained how one simple mistake can doom any driver on the quarter-mile dirt track.
Between Bell’s three consecutive victories in 2017-19 and Kyle Larson’s back-to-back triumphs in 2020-21, NASCAR Cup Series drivers had won the last five Chili Bowls prior to Saturday night. The 2022 edition of the Super Bowl of midget car racing served as a reminder that NASCAR drivers’ success at the Chili Bowl is more of an exception than the rule.
That is, assuming one considers Bell and Larson to be NASCAR drivers in this setting. Thorson does not.
“These guys, even though they’re NASCAR guys, they’re still dirt guys,” the 25-year-old Thorson said of Larson and Bell, both of whom built their careers racing open-wheel cars on dirt. “When people say ‘NASCAR guys,’ I don’t think of them as NASCAR guys. Because I grew up racing with them.
“They’re dirt guys to me.”
Most considered Bell and Larson the co-favorites to win the Chili Bowl even though a refrain was repeated all week: “Everybody knows how easy it is to have something happen to take you out of it,” Bell said Thursday after his record eighth preliminary feature victory.
Added NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, speaking with FloRacing on Friday: “There’s a lot of strong competition, and it just seems to get deeper every year. You can’t make any mistakes.”
In his pursuit of Thorson during the closing laps Saturday, Bell made a mistake. He was attempting to find speed at the top of the track, padded with clumps of dirt, when he crossed the fine line with which dirt racers routinely flirt.
“Whenever the top gets like that, it’s side bite to run against it and it’s grip to run against it,” Bell explained. “So you want to run against it as hard as you can. But there’s a line and a limit. You can hit it at X mph, but if you go one mph over X, you’re going to push.
“You have to do it once to find out where the limit is, and unfortunately I did it before (Thorson) did it.”
— FloRacing (@FloRacing) January 16, 2022
The 2022 Chili Bowl perfectly displayed that strong competition of which Gordon spoke. More than a dozen drivers with NASCAR ties entered the event, but only Bell, Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reached the A-Main.
Chase Elliott, the 2020 Cup Series champ, flipped his car in an F-Main on Saturday. Ryan Newman finished 13th in his C-Main. Alex Bowman finished 11th in his B-Main. It’s no coincidence that the Cup Series drivers with the most Chili Bowl experience reached the deepest levels of the event.
And really, of those drivers, only Bell was a true contender for the win. Larson struggled all week to find the speed that contributed to his pair of Chili Bowl titles. The defending Cup Series champion finished sixth in the main event.
These are the reasons Bell’s face had returned to its normal color by the time he reached the post-race media conference portion of the night. By that time, he was able to joke with Thorson.
“Want to see my trophy?” Thorson joked with his rival as he sat down to speak with the press.
Bell, sitting next to Thorson, replied with a smile: “I know what it looks like.”
For Bell, there’s no shame in a runner-up finish to one of the best midget car racers in the world. He may have three Chili Bowl titles, but Bell knows any of them could have been lost the same way a 2022 victory slipped through his fingers.
Though Bell stumbled in the closing laps, the reality is he did not lose the Chili Bowl. Thorson took it. Bell would not have been chasing Thorson had the latter not slid below for what turned out to be the winning pass on Lap 36 of 55.
“It got really slick right beneath the cushion,” Bell said of the track conditions. “I could tell I was really starting to slow down in my mid-corner speed in Turns 3-4. The thought came across my mind to start trying to pick up the middle off of Turn 4.
“And Tanner beat me to it.”