Long: Rivalry NASCAR needs but fans might have to wait to see

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The rivalry NASCAR needs most won’t take place until 2020. At the earliest.

Until then, fans will have to enjoy the limited times Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell race each other in midget cars. That might be it because their NASCAR schedules may not intersect much this year.

Bell, who won a rookie record seven Xfinity Series races last year, returns for a second season even though he said in August he was ready for CupLarson enters his sixth season in Cup. The only way they will race each other in NASCAR this year will be if Toyota runs Bell in some Cup races or Larson finds a ride for select Xfinity races. Nothing has been announced for either at this point.

If they don’t compete in the same NASCAR race this year, fans will lose. This is among the best rivalries in motorsports and is one fueled not by hate but by competition.

Saturday night’s Chili Bowl Nationals added to a growing list of Larson-Bell duels that have become must-see viewing in recent months.

“These guys race each other, but they know how to race each other,’’ said Keith Kunz, whose midget car team has won the past five Chili Bowl Nationals, including the last three with Bell. “You watch all the races for the last three or four years, they expect the slide job, they see it coming, they know how to cross over and counter maneuver. They do things that I don’t think any of us have seen anybody do in a long time between the two of them.”

That makes for edge-of-the-seat viewing when Bell and Larson race together. Just like this past weekend.

Bell passed Larson on the final lap after contact between them to win his third consecutive Chili Bowl title. Afterward, Larson lamented how he let Bell chase him down but said he was “more upset” with the contact he made with Bell in Turn 3 when trying to reclaim the lead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L93nhfpoN8&t=11s

“I try to pride myself and not race like that and that’s twice now that I’ve done that on the last lap,” Larson said. “Just a little desperation out of myself. Got to not do that in the future.”

Larson made contact with Bell on the last lap of the Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race in November at Ventura (California) Raceway. Bell took the lead with 12 laps to go. Larson challenged Bell but couldn’t get by on the final lap. 

And in August at Bristol, Larson and Bell dueled in the Xfinity race. With less than 50 laps to go, Bell hounded Larson for the lead while they ran through lapped traffic. During a caution that interrupted the battle, Bell radioed crew chief Jason Ratcliff and said: “This is pretty fun right here.” Ratcliff responded: “Looks like it.”

https://youtu.be/bMy5Uuh2AUo?t=6574

Larson won that race and Bell finished second. Larson won four of his six Xfinity starts last year. Bell finished second twice in those races and third another time. 

Both Larson and Bell were excited after Bristol about racing each other for the lead in a NASCAR event.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for that – me and Kyle to race,” Bell said that day. “It seems like whenever we’re dirt racing, we’re racing each other a lot, but we haven’t really got to race each other on pavement yet. It was really fun to be able to race really hard with him.”

Larson said after the Bristol win that he looked forward to competing against Bell for more NASCAR wins.

“It’s been the Kyle (Busch) and Kyle show at a lot of places,” Larson said, “but with Chris’ driving style and mine, I think it’s going to be the Kyle, Kyle and Chris show at a lot of these places, especially Bristol for a long time. I’m excited for him to get his Cup opportunity whenever that may arise.”

When Bell gets a full-time Cup ride will be among the key stories this season. Joe Gibbs Racing enters this year with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones. Provided that lineup remains the same for 2020, then Bell could go to Leavine Family Racing, which switched to Toyota after last year, and is aligned with JGR.

The key for Toyota is to not lose Bell as it lost Larson. With no place to put Larson, Toyota saw the talented open-wheel racer sign with a Chevrolet Xfinity team for the 2013 season, leading Larson to a Cup ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014.

When Bell reaches Cup, he and Larson could provide NASCAR fans with thrills for years.

“Me and Kyle were talking about this the other day,” Bell said on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It’s kind of weird. It seems like if Kyle and I are in the same race together we seem to elevate each other. Kyle has been my No. 1 supporter and it all started at Little Rock, Arkansas, at the Short Track Nationals back in, I think, 2012. … That was my first time I got on the national scene and Kyle was on Twitter saying this kid’s the next big thing. Basically since day one, Kyle has been trying to promote me and telling people I’m good and stuff like that.”

While there are others in Cup and Xfinity who raise each other’s level when they race one another, there hasn’t been that rivalry — friendly or not — that has been consistent. Even last year when Kevin Harvick, Busch and Truex Jr. dominated, there were few times they battled each other for wins late in a race. 

Bell and Larson often seem to find each other at the front when they race together.

It’s just a matter of getting them in the same NASCAR races this season because 2020 is too long to wait to watch these two duel for the win.