This past weekend, the racing world was given a treat. We were able to not only watch one of the most prestigious dirt track races in the world — the 350-plus-entry Chili Bowl Nationals — but the race again came down to a late-race battle between two of the most talented young drivers in the sport today, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson.
We should feel super fortunate.
I’m not going to pretend that I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the event — as I wasn’t — but here are the cliff notes of what transpired:
After an entire week, where the field of more than 350 drivers — including several NASCAR names like Alex Bowman, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier and JJ Yeley — was whittled down to just the 24 best, it became obvious that if anyone wanted to win the coveted Golden Driller they were going to have to go through either Larson or Bell.
In the end, it came down to the two NASCAR drivers. Larson, who had dominated the race, slipped up and gave Bell an opportunity to pass on the final lap. Bell took the chance and pulled off an incredible third-straight Chili Bowl win. While Larson had reason to be upset as he had just given away a race that has eluded him for several years, he still mustered the fortitude to shake Bell’s hand in victory lane.
Watching this race unfold, to me, hearkened back to NASCAR’s stars of the 1980’s.
It wasn’t uncommon in that era to see some of NASCAR’s greatest — Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond and Bill Elliott just to name a few — wage war on local paved and dirt short tracks. They forged legacies during the week and carried that over to the weekend in NASCAR.
If you search on YouTube you can find footage of these old events and you’ll see that, like Larson and Bell, Earnhardt, Waltrip and others were always mixing it up for the win at the local level as well.
This was something that wasn’t missing from the stars of NASCAR in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Once guys like Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte or Jimmie Johnson got to the zenith of NASCAR, that’s basically where they stood. You didn’t hear about Gordon going to any local dirt tracks to compete against Jeff Burton in the 1990’s. Things seemed to become more of a business for drivers than something they actually did for fun.
But it wasn’t all the driver’s fault. Sponsorship deals started requiring more from the drivers, so free time shriveled up. The Cup Series schedule also ballooned over the years to a level that is absolutely ridiculous in 2019.
Drivers have become increasingly less accessible to the fans, and the style of race track has become more and more dull. Rule changes have become nearly untraceable and point systems and series naming sponsors continue to shift and change with each passing season it seems.
NASCAR, which was booming around 2005, has since begun to flounder. A large reason for why is that NASCAR has lost the die hard stock car fan.
A key to NASCAR building back it’s fan base will be by scoring points at the regional level with fans at local short tracks. Just like an election, where candidates visit key swing states to try to grab a few extra votes.
The only way that can happen? NASCAR’s stars showing local fans how the drivers on Sunday compare to their regional hot-shoes.
We need to celebrate and encourage drivers like Larson and Bell who run sprint cars as well as guys like Kyle Busch and others who routinely compete in late model events. Not only are they proving to be among the elite of the next generation of NASCAR drivers, but they are proving to circles outside of NASCAR that they are extremely versatile racers who will race any car, anywhere and chances are they’ll be heading to victory lane.
Ultimately, it gives validation to fans to watch on Sundays because it further instills that the drivers they’ll be watching on television are among the best in the country or the world.