November 27, 2018 | By Lee Spencer

The fun factor is alive and well with Larson and Bell

Photo by PHOTO: Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson race for Golden Driller trophy at Lucas Oil Chili Bowl in January-- CREDIT: John Lee of High-Fly'n Photos --

The Kyle Larson/Christopher Bell Show continues this weekend in the Gateway Dirt Nationals at the Dome at America’s Center—the former home to the St. Louis Rams.

For the last few years, the drivers have developed a friendly rivalry on dirt that would impress even those who have yet to be initiated into the art of dirt-track racing.

Although Bell has beaten Larson in their last two appearances in the Chili Bowl Nationals and Turkey Night Grand Prix, the racing has been epic.

It’s just a matter of time before NASCAR fans are treated to this rivalry on a weekly basis once Bell graduates to the Monster Energy Cup Series level.

And the sport will certainly be better for it.

Not surprisingly, Bell’s first NASCAR victory came on dirt—in his third-career truck start at Eldora Speedway in 2015. Larson was not entered in that race but won the Eldora Dirt Derby the following year. Bell finished second.

The drivers first squared off in stock cars at Texas Motor Speedway in 2017. Larson finished third, Bell sixth. Spectators witnessed a better glimpse during Larson’s limited six-race Xfinity Series run in 2018. In equally competitive Xfinity Series equipment, the drivers were well-matched. Bell set a rookie Xfinity record with seven wins in his first season. But the 23-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver wasn’t victorious when Larson was in the field.

Larson, 26, won four of the six races he entered. They both wrecked in the season opener at Daytona. At Las Vegas in March, Larson beat Bell by a .881-second margin. Bell finished third when Larson won the July race at Daytona. By August, when Bell had nearly a full-season of Xfinity experience under his belt, he finished a mere .434-seconds behind Larson in the Bristol Xfinity race. It’s a moment Bell anticipated from the moment he arrived in NASCAR.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for that—me and Kyle to race,” Bell said after the Bristol battle. “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.

“I was smiling inside my helmet so big. This is the first time I’ve gotten to run the real Bristol where the top rubbers in and you get going around there pretty good. That was the most fun I’ve had in a stock car, man. I love lapped traffic, and Kyle loves lapped traffic, too. We grew up racing without spotters where lapped traffic was a huge factor of the race, and then you go to 90 percent of the NASCAR tracks that are big enough and spotters have enough time to communicate and they just kind of get the lapped cars out of your way.

“Here at Bristol, that’s not the case, you have to navigate the lapped traffic, and that’s what makes this place really fun.”

On dirt, Bell, 23, has had the upper hand of late. Since winning the USAC National Midget Championship with Keith Kunz Motorsports in 2013, the Norman, Okla., native has climbed to 20th on the all-time USAC list with 23 midget victories. With his Turkey Night victory last Thursday, Bell is two wins short of Parnelli Jones’ 25 career wins and four behind Tony Stewart.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, the bout between Larson and Bell went on for nearly 90 laps at Ventura Raceway. Bell out-dueled Larson for his second Turkey Night Grand Prix trophy then asked, “How about a rematch?” before the start of the Chili Bowl. Larson won the pole after topping Bell in the pole shuffle and led the first nine laps. Bell led the next 16 laps until hitting traffic and Larson took the point. Unfortunately, Larson’s midget suffered engine issues 15 laps later and turned over the lead to Bell, who held on for his second Golden Driller.

At Ventura last Thursday, Chad Boat came from second to take the early lead and held the point for the first 50 laps. The final 48 turned into a slugfest between Larson and Bell, who started ninth and worked his way forward. When Larson was trapped in traffic on Lap 87, Bell took advantage and grabbed the lead for his third Turkey Night victory.

“Another fun race with Chris, just came up a little short,” Larson said. “Got close, just couldn’t get by him.”

On the World of Outlaws tour, Larson has six career wins. With a dispensation from NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi, he has entered the Knoxville Nationals the last three years and finished on the podium in his last two starts. This year, Larson ran eight WoO races with one win, five top fives and six top 10s. His Kyle Larson Racing team finished fifth in the standings with Shane Stewart behind the wheel. Carson Macedo, who won the Battle at the Beach Turkey Night race for 360 non-winged sprint cars, will replace Stewart next season.

Bell picked up his fourth WoO’s win this season. Along with his victory at Eldora on October, Bell earned two top-10 finishes in five sprint car starts. With his concentration on the Xfinity title, Bell is limited in his open-wheel opportunities during the NASCAR season.

Although Bell is scheduled to run another full season in the Xfinity Series, it’s just a matter of time before he graduates to Cup. JGR can run Bell in seven races next year without violating the four-car rule or voiding the driver’s rookie status.

“The tough deal with that is there are no part-time Cup cars,” Bell said. “So I don’t know how that would happen.”

Where would Bell like to make his Cup debut given the opportunity?

“My favorite track is Atlanta,” said Bell, who finished third from the pole in the March Xfinity race there and won from the pole in last year’s truck race. “Every time I’ve run there, I’ve run really well. So, that would be a fun place to go and a place I feel really comfortable at. But especially with the new rule packages, I don’t know where I would benefit from making my debut.”

Whenever that time comes, it will bring new era to NASCAR. Sure, stock car racing has enjoyed its share of open wheel stars from AJ Foyt to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. But it’s not often that a rivalry carries on from one tour to the next.

What this contest brings with it is the “fun” that both Bell and Larson can attest to—and a factor that seems harder to find in NASCAR’s current climate. But if Larson and Bell can bring the fun factor back to stock car racing, maybe it will be contagious.


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