Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, two of NASCAR’s greatest dirt track racers, will compete in the 2022 Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, tonight, continuing one of the sport’s most fascinating rivalries. They have been each other’s closest competitors over the past three editions of this event.
Rivalries take time to develop, and they don’t all begin on NASCAR courses.
Last year, after dueling wheel to wheel for the most of the 30-lap A Main on the final night of racing, Bell pushed a bit too high, jumped the dirt cushion that forms in the outer groove, and crashed.
Other accidents have occurred since then, the most recent being last year’s NASCAR Cup race at Watkins Glen. Bell was irritated after Larson’s contact cost him a chance to win. Bell’s frustration grew after Larson’s comments about not responding when he reached out to Bell.
“I think we (have a rivalry), at least speaking for myself, I respect him as a race car driver,” Larson said in a podcast at FloRacing.com earlier this week. “I think he is one of the best, if not the best.
“I’ve always said that. He’s challenged me to become a better race car driver. He probably beat me in every dirt race I ran for three years, even outside of Chili Bowl. That really ate at me a lot and made me want to work harder to get better. I respect him a lot for that.”
From 2017 to 2019, Bell was the Chili Bowl champion. In 2020, Larson denied him the chance to tie Kevin Swindell’s record of four consecutive feature wins. When the checkers waved, Bell was on his back bumper.
Larson was also the winner the previous year. He now has a chance to match Bell’s three-game winning streak.
“It was a lot more fun when I won, but it’s always good to have a really strong competitor,” Bell told NBC Sports before he strapped into his car Thursday night.
Drivers must be aggressive to be successful in dirt track racing. With features that are frequently brief sprints, there isn’t much time to wait for an opening. It is up to the drivers to create their own opportunities.
Passes frequently follow risky slide jobs and casual contact, which can increase both drivers’ blood pressure.
“Yeah, we’ve had some run-ins, I guess, on the track,” Larson said in a podcast at FloRacing.com earlier this week. “Mostly my doing, so I’m sure he has feelings about me from that. We still always race well together. I respect him as a race car driver. I like racing with him, it doesn’t matter what race it is.
“If he’s in the pit area, I want to beat him more than anybody. I’m sure the same goes to me from him. It will be a fun Chili Bowl. I hope we’re both up front battling for another win.”
But Bell doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I don’t really think I’d call it a rivalry,” Bell said. “We’re just two guys who are competing really hard and both are trying to win. If we’re not there, someone else is going to win. We are really strong competitors who are trying to put on the best show we can.”
Larson and Bell must first defeat some of the top dirt track racers in order to continue their rivalry.
Larson went toe-to-toe with Buddy Kofoid in the qualification feature on Tuesday night. Larson changed his line throughout the race to keep Kofoid guessing, and it wasn’t until the final laps that Kofoid was able to pass him.
Bell got stuck in traffic for a time and dropped to fifth place in the middle of the race. Patience is sometimes rewarded. With a few laps to go, Bell moved up to second and completed the overtake with an aggressive slide job in Turn 2. Bell only led for the last few laps, but that was enough to secure his spot in the Saturday A Main.
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