TULSA, Okla. — Jason McDougal was the talk of the town during the alphabet soup portion of Saturday’s 35th Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals and he wasn’t even in the field for the grand finale.
Whether he should have had a chance to be is another discussion entirely, but the fact remains that McDougal made a run of historic proportions inside the River Spirit Expo Center.
Not since 2004 — when J.J. Yeley came out of an F Main to qualify for the A Main — had a driver participated in six features on championship day during the Chili Bowl.
McDougal did just that, only to be denied a shot at even more racing in the most heartbreaking of fashions.
The Broken Arrow, Okla., native found himself “buried in the soup,” as the locals say, after having to come out of the C Main on his preliminary night Thursday due to a lack of passing points.
He transferred to the B Main easily and rallied from 13th to the lead, but his car lost power under yellow with three laps to go and McDougal couldn’t continue, placing him into an I Main for Saturday’s finale.
McDougal won that contest from fourth, starting a monumental run through the alphabet.
He went from 10th to second in the first H Main, 12th to second in his G Main and 17th to second in his F Main before his Klatt Enterprises team put on some fresh tires for McDougal’s second effort.
That charge began in the E Main, where a 15th-to-second run allowed McDougal to tag the back of the first D Main, where the electricity in the air ramped up to a feverish pitch.
Could McDougal go from as deep as anyone had ever come from in the alphabet to make the MAVTV portion (which annually begins with the night’s C Mains) of the program?
It took the help of a few timely cautions, but McDougal cracked the top five — where he needed to be in order to transfer out of his D Main — with two laps to go after a restart following a Sam Hafertepe Jr. spin.
At that moment, it appeared McDougal was going to make history by going to his seventh feature of the day. Unfortunately, sixth-running Ryan Bernal had other ideas.
Entering turn three coming to the checkered flag, Bernal sailed his NOS Energy Drink No. 87w into the corner, getting into the back of McDougal’s black No. 4b and sending it spinning to a stop.
The crowd fell deathly quiet for a split second as the realization of what had happened sunk in. Then a cacophony of noise erupted, with cheers for McDougal and an even louder chorus of boos for Bernal.
Bernal was swiftly disqualified for aggressive driving, denying him the transfer spot he had muscled his way into, while McDougal emerged from his car with a mix of exhaustion, disappointment and pride on his face.
Though the run ended in an instant, the enormity of what he had done was in full force.
“It’s crazy to think we just tied Yeley and I believe we had a car that could have made it all the way through there,” McDougal said in his trailer after the D Mains ended. “It just didn’t work out.”
Bernal entered the Klatt Enterprises trailer during the interview to speak with McDougal and crew chief Bob East, so McDougal elected to choose his words carefully before he had a chance to talk directly with Bernal.
Asked if he expected contact on the last lap, McDougal said, “Not like that. I was running the bottom in (turns) three and four and the corner before … so it is what it is.”
For his part, Bernal took responsibility for the incident during an interview on the Chili Bowl’s pay-per-view stream moments after he learned of the disqualification.
“You know, there’s obviously a lot of pushing and shoving when it’s for a transfer spot at the Chili Bowl,” Bernal noted. “Just a stupid move on my part. Honestly, I drove it in there too hard. I thought he was going to the top. He obviously protected the bottom and then, you know, I got into him.
“It was my fault.”
Though it was little consolation, McDougal was named the Rich Vogler Hard Charger Award recipient for the 2021 Chili Bowl, advancing more positions (54) than any other driver throughout Saturday’s program.
Regardless of the final outcome, McDougal admitted he took solace in matching a page of Chili Bowl history and hopes that it will lead to a full-time opportunity that would put him back into the weekly conversation in dirt-track racing.
“I really enjoy what I do and where I’m at in life,” McDougal said. “KT (Kevin Thomas Jr.) has taken me in and I’ve gotten to see racing from a different sort of perspective than what I maybe did before. I ran midgets with Bob (East), but racing got kind of got old to me for a minute.
“It seems like it’s finally fun again, though, and I’m really happy about that and hope to continue.”