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Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson set to duel for Chili Bowl title

The Harley J. Earl Trophy for the Daytona 500, which Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated in 2004 to win in his fifth start at the track, 15 starts sooner than Dale Sr.'s first win at the track, is going in Dale Jr.'s HOF case.

TULSA, Oklahoma - Two of the greatest dirt track racers to enter NASCAR, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, will face off one more time in the 2022 Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, tonight and continue one of the most interesting rivalries in the sport. For the past three editions of this race, they have been one another’s closest competitors.

Rivalries are built over time and they don’t all have their genesis on NASCAR tracks.

Last year, after battling wheel to wheel for most of the 30-lap A Main on the last of six nights of racing, Bell pushed a little too high, jumped the cushion of dirt that develops in the outside groove and crashed.

Other incidents have followed, most notably last year in the NASCAR Cup race at Watkins Glen. Bell was not pleased after contact from Larson cost Bell a chance at the win. Bell’s frustration grew after Larson’s comments about not responding when he reached out to Bell.

“I think we (have a rivalry), at least speaking for myself, I respect him as a race car driver,” Larson said in a podcast at earlier this week. “I think he is one of the best, if not the best.

“I’ve always said that. He’s challenged me to become a better race car driver. He probably beat me in every dirt race I ran for three years, even outside of Chili Bowl. That really ate at me a lot and made me want to work harder to get better. I respect him a lot for that.”

Bell won the Chili Bowl from 2017-19. Larson denied him an opportunity to tie Kevin Swindell’s record of four straight feature wins in 2020. Bell was on his back bumper when the checkers waved.

Larson also won last year. Now he has the opportunity to tie Bell’s run of three consecutive wins.

“It was a lot more fun when I won, but it’s always good to have a really strong competitor,” Bell told NBC Sports before he strapped into his car Thursday night.

To be successful in dirt track racing, drivers have to be aggressive. With features often relatively short sprints, there is not a lot of opportunity to wait for an opening. Drivers have to make their own opportunities.

Passes often come after risky slide jobs and casual contact that can raise the blood pressure of both drivers.

“Yeah, we’ve had some run-ins, I guess, on the track,” Larson said in a podcast at earlier this week. “Mostly my doing, so I’m sure he has feelings about me from that. We still always race well together. I respect him as a race car driver. I like racing with him, it doesn’t matter what race it is.

“If he’s in the pit area, I want to beat him more than anybody. I’m sure the same goes to me from him. It will be a fun Chili Bowl. I hope we’re both up front battling for another win.”

But Bell doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“I don’t really think I’d call it a rivalry,” Bell said. “We’re just two guys who are competing really hard and both are trying to win. If we’re not there, someone else is going to win. We are really strong competitors who are trying to put on the best show we can.”

In order to have a chance to continue their rivalry, Larson and Bell first have to beat some of the best dirt track racers.

In Tuesday night’s qualification feature, Larson went toe-to-toe with Buddy Kofoid. Larson varied his line throughout the race to keep Kofoid guessing, and it was only in the closing laps that Kofoid slipped by.

On Thursday night, Bell got mired in traffic for a while, dropping back as far as fifth in the middle stages of the race. Sometimes patience pays off. Bell made his way to second with a handful of laps remaining and completed the pass with an aggressive slide job in Turn 2. Bell led only the last laps, but it was enough to lock him into the Saturday A Main.