TULSA, Okla. — Ever since he opened the motorsports industry’s eyes with a seventh-place finish during last year’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals, Buddy Kofoid has been on a rapid ascent within the sport.
Returning to the River Spirit Expo Center this week, regarded as one of the favorites to potentially take home the coveted Golden Driller trophy, Kofoid has embraced his newfound status as a contender.
Gone, mostly at least, are the nerves of a first-timer in the building. They’ve been replaced by relaxed confidence and a cool outlook that have many believing Kofoid can take the fight to perennial favorites Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson, who have combined to win the last four Chili Bowl Nationals features.
Kofoid proved those early predictions right during John Christner Trucking Qualifying Night Thursday, racing from seventh to second (behind Bell) on a tricky Tulsa Expo Raceway surface to lock himself into the Saturday finale in the iconic Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports No. 67.
Considering he had to outduel heavy hitters such as Spencer Bayston and Brady Bacon to secure the position, it was a performance that turned heads, even for those expecting big things from Kofoid.
“I think we did what we knew we could do, but we still made some people look up because there were a ton of good guys in that field ahead of us,” Kofoid said. “I knew it was going to be tough (to finish top two) and I told myself going in — when I was sitting on the ramp — that I needed five cars. And I knew that was going to be a big ask, but we were definitely up for the task. We got the car good enough to where I could pass cars and then kind of maneuver wherever I wanted to.
“It was a little bit of an up-and-down night, as far as running really well in the heat race and then being a little free in the qualifier and only passing a couple of cars. That somewhat hurt me, but starting seventh we were still able to rally from it,” he added. “We could roll the bottom really well. That was the most comfortable I’d felt on the bottom since I’ve been here. I saw Christopher moving up a little bit and I tried that a couple of times and was able to get back down to block the bottom, but by the time I moved up to be able to pick off a couple of cars he had built that gap and we couldn’t quite get to him in traffic.
“All in all, I’m really happy with what we showed and relieved we can have a more relaxed Saturday.”
Kofoid heard people call his strong run last year a “fluke” or a “flash in the pan,” due to the fact that he only had a handful of midget races under his belt at that point, and took notes.
He didn’t let any of the comments get to him, but he didn’t forget them, either.
After Saturday night, the Penngrove, Calif., native felt validation in Tulsa. He proved the 2020 Chili Bowl wasn’t just a one-off good run, but that he can contend against the stars on a regular basis.
That became clearer after he beat Larson in a heads-up duel at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway during the November Classic for his third USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Series victory of last season.
“Having the outdoor season we did, I think, really helped me hone in on my skills and helped me gain the experience that I needed as a midget racer,” Kofoid explained. “I was able to apply some of the stuff I learned to get into second and just, from there, hold that pace. I’m glad to be here, glad to be driving for Keith (Kunz) and Pete (Willoughby), and really glad to be in the show already on Saturday.”
Going into the 55-lapper Saturday night, Kofoid hopes that much like he did last year, he can fly under the radar and let his race car do the talking as he pursues a breakthrough Chili Bowl victory.
That task may be a little more difficult now that he’s proven himself as a repeat contender, but Kofoid isn’t worried about the small things. He’s got the big picture in mind.
“I feel like my approach coming in here was the same — to win and to lock in, much like last year — but I know the expectations were a little different,” Kofoid noted. “I keep high expectations for myself, but I feel like I handle the pressure pretty well and can stay pretty calm. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to win this race as much as anyone does and I know I’m definitely in a car that can do it. So in that regard I feel pretty good about it.
“I’m not too worked up, but it’s crazy what a race like this can do to your emotions or your nerves,” he continued. “Just trying to focus in and know that we’ve given ourselves the best shot possible for Saturday.”
Kofoid will be among the 10 drivers participating in Saturday’s pole dash — a series of four-car sprint races — that will determine the lineup for the first five rows of the 55-lap Chili Bowl finale.
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