Cup Series rookie Christopher Bell‘s effort for a fourth straight Chili Bowl Nationals title begins today.
Bell’s preliminary feature in the midget racing event is scheduled for tonight at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he will try to secure a spot in Saturday night’s A main feature.
Kyle Larson moved closer to his first Chili Bowl Nationals crown by winning his preliminary feature Tuesday night. The win advances him to Saturday night’s main event at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Jonathan Beason finished second and also advanced to the Chili Bowl Nationals main event.
“We were able to avoid trouble again and get our sixth prelim win and set ourselves to line up toward the front Saturday,” Larson said in the news conference after the race.
NBC Sports broadcaster Dillon Welch finished fourth in Tuesday night’s preliminary feature. Alex Bowman placed 10th.
Earlier in the evening, Christopher Bell won the race of champions. Rico Abreu finished second. Larson was fourth.
– Advancement from heat races to features is based upon passing points earned in heat race and qualifying races. Passing points are based upon car starting position when the yellow light goes out prior to the initial start of the heat or qualifying race.
– The 40 drivers earning the most passing points advance to four “A” qualifying races; drivers in passing points positions 41-68 will go to two C Main races. The two C Main races will have 16 cars, 12 laps in length.
– The top four cars in each C Main race will advance to the back of the B Main races, going 15 laps. (Top four from first C Main to back of first B Main, top four from second C Main to back of second B main)
– The lineup of each “A” Qualifying race will include an inversion of six cars. The top 24 cars in passing points will make the inversion. (The top point driver will start on row three of the first qualifying race, the No. 2 driver on row 3 of the second qualifying race, etc.)
– The four qualifying races will have 10 cars each with the top 16 in combined passing points from the heats and qualifying races advancing to the A Main.
– The balance of the cars (24) from the “A” qualifying races will advance to two 16 car B Mains. The top four in each B Main will advance to the A Main, going 30 laps.
– There will be 24 drivers in each preliminary night A feature
– The top two drivers in the preliminary A qualify for Saturday’s A Main.
Giovanni Scelzi grew up the son of a four-time National Hot Rod Association champion, and has been making a significant name of his own racing dirt midgets and sprints, particularly in the World of Outlaws series.
But there’s another race series that the 18-year-old Scelzi – “Gio” for short – has his sights set upon: NASCAR.
If all goes well, Scelzi hopes to begin climbing the NASCAR ladder – perhaps as early as this year.
Once the Chili Bowl concludes Saturday night, Scelzi, son of four-time NHRA champion Gary Scelzi, and younger brother of fellow sprint/midget car racer Dominic Scelzi, will then travel with Larson to Australia, where they’ll compete in several races, most notably the biggest event of the Australian sprint car season, The Classic, on Jan. 23-24.
Needless to say, all the time together with Larson will give the youngest Scelzi a chance to further pick his fellow Californian’s mind about how to reach and race in NASCAR.
“I love sprint car racing, that’s always where my heart will be,” Scelzi told NBC Sports last week. “It’s obviously what I grew up doing, dirt racing.
“I’ll still race sprint cars as much as I can, but in the next 5-10 years, I hope to get into Trucks and Xfinity to get towards NASCAR (Cup).”
Scelzi and his father have been working on getting Gio some seat time this year in the ARCA Menards Series West (formerly K&N Pro Series West).
“Hopefully this year or next year I’ll transition over to ARCA, which is a good stepping stone, do something along those lines and get my feet wet on pavement,” Gio Scelzi said. “I’ve done some testing the last year, just trying to see if that’s the direction I want to go.
“Nothing’s been announced yet, but I think something will be announced here pretty soon to hopefully go down that path.”
Even though their father was one of the most prolific drivers in NHRA history, Gio and his brother Dominic went in a different direction when they first started racing themselves.
Instead of the straight and narrow, they chose round and dirty, you might say.
“The hardest part of drag racing, there really is no way for a kid that can race anything before you’re 16,” Scelzi said. “That’s kind of the age where you can earn a license and are allowed to race under power and really learn how to race.
“But in dirt racing, there’s micro-sprints, outlaw karts, you name it, there’s all kind of kids classes you could do to learn how to race. My dad went to dirt races a lot in California and really enjoyed it, was good friends with (NASCAR Hall of Famer) Tony Stewart and (sprint car racer) Danny Lasoski, so he always had a friend base in dirt racing and that was a way to get me and my brother in a race car when we were really young.”
Dominic began racing go-karts at five years old and Gio began racing micro-sprints at 6 at their home track, Plaza Park Raceway in Visalia, Calif., about 30 miles from Fresno.
“I think sprint car racing is so unique from other forms of racing,” Gio Scelzi said. “With a 410 sprint car, around the United States, you have the World of Outlaws, the All-Stars (All Star Circuit of Champions), IRA (Sprint Series), Knoxville (Nationals), I mean there’s probably 20 or 30 race tracks racing on a given weekend, with the same rules package, the same kind of cars and there are very good race car drivers in their own region.
“With a sprint car, what I’ve done the last two years, I’ve been based in Indianapolis and race wherever we want. If we want to race in an All-Star race in Ohio, we can go there. If we want to race an Outlaw race in North Dakota, we can go there.
“There are so many different options with that same rules package that is such a simple, powerful, exciting race car, I don’t think there’s no other kind of professional racing where you can make a living at it that has that kind of atmosphere.
“If you’ve got the money and the motors to race, you can race every weekend. Just the World of Outlaws schedule is 95 races. Or you can race the All-Stars, which is 50 races, and then maybe 20 races in Outlaws when you want to. There’s so much freedom with a team where you want to go and where you want to race, I think that’s what makes it unique.”
The youngest Scelzi has steadily been making a name for himself in the sprint car dirt racing world. At the age of 16 in 2018, he became the youngest winner in World of Outlaws history. He also won his first USAC Midget race in just his sixth career start in the series.
And at 17 last season, he was the youngest winner in the Knoxville Raceway’s history when he won an All Star Circuit of Champions race there, one of the most notable outings in a season that saw Scelzi make 71 starts across several dirt racing series, earning nine wins, 23 top-five and 40 top-10 finishes.
This week is the second Chili Bowl for Scelzi. He did well in his first start in 2018, finishing sixth in his preliminary race, was second in the B Main and then was running in the top 10 in the week’s main event – until the motor in his midget car blew halfway through the race and he finished last in the 24-car field.
Scelzi is racing at the Chili Bowl — his first race of the week is this evening, which kicks off the Nationals’ six-night run at the Tulsa Expo Center — as part of the Toyota Development program with Chad Boat (son of former IndyCar driver Billy Boat). His teammates include Christopher Bell and NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch.
“I’m excited for it,” Gio Scelzi told NBC Sports. “The Chili Bowl as an event is huge and keeps growing and growing and attracting more attention through NASCAR and all kinds of racing fans.
“There’s a lot of good race cars, it seems like every year more and more guys and good race car drivers all-around get a ride and want to participate.”
Here’s a video of Scelzi getting ready and then taking to the track for his first practice session Monday (video courtesy Toyota Racing Development):
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 Cup. Larson 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.
“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.”
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.
.@KyleLarsonRacin is my favorite driver. @CBellRacing continues to impress me by beating the guy I consider the most talented driver today. We are blessed to watch you two race 👊🏼