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The 2021 Daytona 500, a.k.a. the Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, is just four weeks away, but for a handful of drivers who will compete in the Great American Race, the Chili Bowl Nationals—a.k.a. the Super Bowl of Midget Racing—takes center stage in January at Tulsa Expo Center Raceway.
NASCAR Cup Series drivers Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are Chili Bowl regulars, having started their respective careers on dirt bullrings before transitioning to asphalt. For reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott, however, the Chili Bowl was an eye-opening baptism. Elliott finished 15th in one of Saturday’s two F-mains before watching Larson, Bell, and Stenhouse compete for the championship in the A-feature.
Why should 2021 be any different from 2020? For Kyle Larson, the new year started just the way the old one ended—in Victory Lane. Larson took the lead from Justin Grant on the first lap of the championship race and led wire-to-wire for his second straight victory in the biggest, most prestigious event for midget race cars.
“I don’t think I’d call it dominating at all,” said Larson who won 46 races on dirt last year while suspended from NASCAR racing for using a racial slur in a virtual racing event. “I had to work way harder for that one than last year’s, I felt like. I could feel Grant pressuring me pretty much the whole race.
I made a lot of massive mistakes there in that race. Thankfully, I was able to hold them all off and get cautions there at the right time. I think if we were in traffic, it could have been a totally different race… A lot of hard work there.
Now reinstated by NASCAR, Larson returns to the pavement this year with a new team—Hendrick Motorsports. Larson posted top-10 finishes in his last two Daytona 500s but has never scored a top-five in the season-opening Cup Series race.
In the closing laps, it was Christopher Bell, not Grant who was pressing Larson aggressively. When Larson bounced off the cushion in Turn 4 twice, Bell closed the ground and pulled alongside his rival momentarily. But Bell jumped the cushion entering Turn 3 with three laps left, flipped through the air, and landed next to the outside wall, his race over.
The wild race cost Bell a chance to earn a fourth Golden Driller trophy. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Cup car won the Chili Bowl three straight years from 2017-2019 before surrendering the title to Larson last year.
Before the accident, Bell had won everything in sight at Tulsa, from the VIROC Race of Champions on Tuesday night to his preliminary A-feature on Thursday. Bell will open the NASCAR season on Feb. 14 in the Daytona 500; in his debut at the race last year, he crashed out in 21st place.
Note: Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished seventh in the Chili Bowl A-main on Saturday. Bell was credited with 13th after the wreck.
When Daytona 500 Speedweeks arrive in February, you’ll see some new drivers trying to qualify for NASCAR’s most prestigious race for the first time. Kaulig Racing has tapped 22-year-old Kaz Grala to drive a Chevrolet in the 63rd running of the Great American Race.
“This is a huge opportunity for me both personally and professionally,” said Grala, whose only previous NASCAR Cup Series start came at the Daytona Road Course last year, subbing for Austin Dillon after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19. “I’ve grown up dreaming of reaching the NASCAR Cup Series, so it will be really special to get more chances to race against my heroes, with Kaulig Racing being the perfect team to take that next step with.”
Noah Gragson likewise hopes to qualify for the 500 in his first attempt at the race. A full-time driver for JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Gragson will try to qualify for his Cup debut in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet recently vacated by now-retired Brendan Gaughan.
When you’re racing Late Models and trying to work your way up, the Daytona 500 seems pretty far away. To have it become a reality is something I don’t take lightly. I’m ready for this moment, and I’m proud to have it.”
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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