TULSA, Okla. — Christopher Bell has learned over the last two years that the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals can be just as fickle as it can be kind.
After winning three straight Chili Bowl crowns from 2017-’19, Bell was denied by Kyle Larson a year ago in a late-race battle to the finish. He ended as the runner-up in that contest, but Saturday’s 35th edition of the Super Bowl of Midget Racing had a much more surprising end to the story.
Bell stayed patient for most of the 55-lap A Main, settling into third from the start and riding behind Larson and Justin Grant until a caution inside of 20 laps to go bunched the field up and raised the intensity level.
The Norman, Okla., native slid past Grant shortly after racing resumed on lap 38, making the pass for second coming to 10-to-go signal and quickly setting sail after Larson’s leading No. 01.
Bell chased him down in a hurry and, after Larson bounced off the cushion twice, appeared to be in striking distance with six laps left to steal Larson’s thunder for the fourth time in five years.
Dancing through slower traffic, the pair sized one another up until four laps remained, when a Blake Hahn’s spin drew another yellow flag.
It appeared that all signs were pointing toward another clash of the titans, another war between Larson and Bell that would go down to the last lap or the last corner.
As it turned out, that caution flag set the stage for one of the more dramatic moments in Chili Bowl history, but it wasn’t the one that most fans were expecting.
Larson got the jump on the restart, but Bell reeled him back in and methodically began setting up his move. On a slick race track with a treacherous curb up top, it was going to come down to a deep slide job and Bell prepared to fire his shot with two laps left.
Unfortunately for Bell, his CB Industries No. 84x tagged the outside berm in turn three as he was building speed, sending it into a wild flip in the third turn that silenced the River Spirit Expo Center.
In one stunning turn of events, Bell — the three-time champion who had Larson’s number for so long in Tulsa — was out of it. His shot to win, and his race, were over just like that.
Saturday marked just the second time in Bell’s eight feature starts that he finished outside the top 12, credited with 14th in the 24-car field and a frustrating DNF.
“It was disappointing to have it end like that, but I left it all on the table. Unfortunately, it came up a little bit short,” Bell said. “Hopefully, it was a good race for the fans. I know it was exciting, as it always is here at the Chili Bowl from my seat. The track just took forever to widen out and we were just following each other for so long. I just could never really make a move on him (Larson) like I wanted to.
“I knew it was getting toward the end there, so I just laid it all on the line.”
Despite missing out on a fourth Golden Driller trophy, Bell remains one of the most accomplished drivers in the history of Tulsa Expo Raceway.
His eight feature starts have produced three wins, five podiums and an average finish of 7.13. Bell has started on the front row in six of his eight Chili Bowl appearances. He rolled off third Saturday night.
Bell will have his next shot at glory inside the River Spirit Expo Center during the 36th running of the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals, Jan. 10-15, 2022.
Following tradition, the dates were announced at the conclusion of Saturday night’s grand finale.
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