TULSA, Okla. – Christopher Bell led the most laps around Tulsa Expo Center on Saturday evening, but couldn’t translate such control to a fourth Chili Bowl Nationals Golden Driller.
The 27-year-old NASCAR Cup Series driver for Joe Gibbs Racing paced 36 of the 55 circuits from the pole in a Keith Kunz Motorsports midget – the stable that had dominated the week – until Tanner Thorson dismantled Bell on a lap-37 slide job.
Thorson celebrated his first Chili Bowl Nationals triumph while Bell’s runner-up put him on the losing end for the third-straight year.
“I probably lost the race because Tanner was in second and searched around the track a little better than I did,” Bell said. “I didn’t want to get off the bottom and nobody wanted to get off the bottom. I was trying to be patient in traffic. It got really slick, and I started to slow down in three and four and I started to consider running the middle, but Tanner beat me to it.”
Bell understands the precision it takes to win the Chili Bowl Nationals. He won three-straight event titles from 2017-19, including a last-lap pass for the win around Kyle Larson in ‘19.
In 2020, Bell finished second to Larson, and last year, Bell had Larson in crosshairs in the final laps, running second until he misjudged the cushion and subsequently flipped to finish 14th.
On Saturday, an ill-timed caution didn’t play to Bell’s benefit. With six laps to go, Bell gained position on Thorson in traffic, racing to his outside off turn four. Then the slower cars of Brady Bacon and Colby Copeland got tangled in front of the race for the lead, as both Bell and Thorson narrowly missed disaster.
That gave Thorson a clean track on a single-file restart with six laps left.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Bell said of the caution. “[Thorson] got tight off of [turn] four, which allowed me to get to him. There were cars on the top, cars on the bottom and cars in the middle.
“That’s when it was fun when you have to pick and choose your opportunity to get by him. I saw my chance and I was able to get by him. I felt that would have been my best opportunity to win if it had stayed green.”
Bell said the restart was “deja vu” from preliminary-night Thursday, where Bell restarted second behind race-long leader Thorson with four laps remaining.
On Thursday, Bell stuck an assertive slide job once things resumed for the race lead and eighth preliminary-night win.
“On Thursday, he was leaving the door open going into turn one, so I tried to fill the hole on Saturday],” Bell said. “This time I did. I completed it, and he got back and blocked the slider. I tried to rip it really hard and unfortunately got tight on the cushion.”
Thorson, that time, ripped his midget off the cushion, underneath Bell’s machine that slid in front, and undercut back to the point. By then, Bell’s hourglass ran dry.
“Whenever I got to lapped traffic there, I knew the middle was getting good off turn four,” Bell said. “I was having to really baby it against the curb so I didn’t toss the nose.
“My gut was telling me to move down but, man, when is the middle ever the place to be at the Chili Bowl? Unfortunately it was tonight.”