It’s difficult to keep a race car driver out of action during a long break in the NASCAR schedule. Factor in the ennui induced by the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, and it should come as no surprise that Cup Series stars will find a way to get behind the wheel before the world’s top stock car attraction resumes competition in February.
The diversion of choice for a growing number of NASCAR drivers is the week-long, the Super Bowl of Midget racing, contested on the indoor dirt track at the Tulsa Expo Center in Oklahoma. To win the Golden Driller trophy, a driver must advance from a field of approximately 350 cars and take the checkered flag in the 55-lap main event.
For Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson, the Chili Bowl represents a return to racing roots. Bell, who will take over the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the Cup Series this year, grew up racing on dirt in his native Oklahoma. Larson, who moves to the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Cup car, did the same in California.
Bell won three straight Golden Drillers from 2017 through 2019 before Larson ended the baby-faced assassin’s quest for a record-tying fourth straight Chili Bowl title last January. Bell turned up for the Chili Bowl, which starts Jan. 11, by racing in four different divisions in the Tulsa Shootout for Mini Sprint cars.
Larson didn’t need a refresher course on dirt. Fired by team owner Chip Ganassi and suspended by NASCAR in April for uttering a racial slur during a virtual race, Larson spent the rest of the year competing in sprint cars, midgets, Silver Crown cars, and dirt late models. He won 46 of the 92 events he entered. Likely as not, he and Bell will settle the Chili Bowl between them, as they have done for the last four years.
If Bell and Larson are Chili Bowl veterans, Chase Elliott is a newbie. Having wrapped up the NASCAR Cup Series title with his Nov. 8 victory at Phoenix Raceway, Elliott decided to try his hand on the dirt at Tulsa, where he’ll compete in the No. 9E DiaEdge Racing midget.
Elliott won’t come to Tulsa completely cold. He competed against veteran dirt racers, including Larson, in back-to-back events at Millbridge Speedway near Mooresville, N.C. Elliott finished third and fourth, respectively, in the two races—and impressed his more experienced rivals.
Bell said of Elliott’s foray into midget racing:
I’m thrilled that he’s doing it, I think that it’s really cool. I don’t know if it’s important that he does it, but I think it’s really awesome the fact he’s willing to step outside of his comfort zone and, obviously, try something that is completely different than something he has ever done in his life. It gives me a ton of respect for him, and I’m proud of him for trying, and, yeah, just ups my respect level tremendously for him.
In December, for the first time, NASCAR tested the superspeedway version of its NextGen Cup Series car, which will make its competitive debut in the 2022 Daytona 500. Chris Buescher of Roush Fenway Racing drove the test car.
John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation, said:
The primary objective of the test was to get the new car up to speed in single-car runs. Daytona was an important test for us, because when we come back here in 2022, we have to make sure we hit the speed targets that we’re looking for. We came here with one car. Obviously, we would like to come here with 15 or 20, but we just don’t have that many right now. So we played with a lot of horsepower levels and drag levels to hit our target speed, which we were able to do pretty easily. We did that early in day one. Then spent the rest of the test trying some new things on steering and also doing some ride-height sweeps just to get some sensitivities in the car to ride height.
Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]More info on Reid Spencer
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