Bell, vying for a record-tying fourth consecutive win in the country’s premier midget race, finished second in the 24-car field at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cannon McIntosh, 17 years old, finished third. NASCAR Xfinity driver Justin Allgaier placed 21st.
A year ago, Larson lost this race on the last lap to Bell. Larson had a large enough lead late in Saturday night’s race that Bell wasn’t close enough to make a move.
“Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later,” Larson said on the MavTV broadcast. “I feel like I’m going to pass out.
“I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”
Here’s how other NASCAR competitors did in the various races Saturday that led to the A main that Larson won:
You can’t even fully dream of moments like this. I thought I might know what it’d feel like to finally win this thing but after what I experienced tonight I had no clue! I’m so blessed to be with great people. Loved… https://t.co/G6kONqvk9e
Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.
“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.
Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.
What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.
It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long.
Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.
“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.
“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.
“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”
The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.
“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”
2. Tire change with short track package
One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks.
With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.
“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.
“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.
“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”
Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.
One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.
“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”
3. Decisions, decisions
Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.
While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.
Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.
Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.
“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”
Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.
Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.
“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”
Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.
Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?
“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”
Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.
So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?
“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”
Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”
With a new crew chief will come new demands.
“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.
“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”
5. A name to remember
Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.
He felt good about what he wrote.
Until he got his grade.
McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.
The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.
The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.
McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.
He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.
“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.
“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”
Christopher Bell win sends him to Saturday’s Chili Bowl feature
Three-time defending Chili Bowl Nationals champion Christopher Bell won his preliminary feature race Thursday to advance to Saturday night’s feature event.
The victory was his fifth consecutive preliminary night feature win at the Chili Bowl. Bell continued his strong week. He won the event’s race of champions earlier this week.
Thomas Meseraull finished second to also advance to Saturday’s main event.
The other preliminary feature winners this week have been Cannon McIntosh (Monday), Kyle Larson (Tuesday) and Rico Abreu (Wednesday). Abreu won back-to-back Chili Bowl titles before Bell’s run of three in a row.
“You know (Larson) is going to be there at the end,” Bell said in the press conference about Saturday night’s feature. “Rico is on kill mode. The champ is back. I think Rico is going to be really strong. Aaron Reutzel, my teammate, was outstanding at the end of the race Monday night. I think there are a ton of guys that will show up. I think we’re in for a treat Saturday.”
Kyle Larson‘s quest for his first Chili Bowl Nationals championship resumes tonight.
Larson, Alex Bowman and NBC Sports broadcaster Dillon Welch are among those scheduled to compete Tuesday, day two of the six-day event that concludes Saturday night at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“There’s a handful of events throughout the year that get me excited, but the Chili Bowl is right up there at the top,” Larson said at a press conference Monday. “It’s hard to believe that this is my 13th year competing in this event. It’s pretty incredible. I look forward to it more and more each year.”
Larson finished second to Christopher Bell in last year’s Chili Bowl Nationals after being passed by Bell on the final lap.
“It took a few days, for sure, it took longer than any other race to get over that I’ve had in my career,” Larson said at Monday’s press conference of last year’s defeat. “I think when you go through defeats like that, it just makes you want it that much more and work harder to get better and probably, hopefully, someday when I do win, it’s going to make it feel that much more special. I would have obviously liked to (have won) but made a mistake and allowed Chris to get by and those are things you learn from. Hopefully, I don’t ever make that mistake again.”
On Monday night, 17-year-old Cannon McIntosh won his heat, qualifier and the feature to advance to Saturday’s main event. McIntosh drives for Keith Kunz Motorsports, which has won the last five Chili Bowl Nationals (Rico Abreu won in 2015-16 and Bell won from 2017-19).
Tyler Courtney finished second to also advance to Saturday night’s 55-lap 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):