2024 Wild West Shootout

Larson vs. Pierce: The Epic Wild West Shootout Finish That Never Came To Be

Larson vs. Pierce: The Epic Wild West Shootout Finish That Never Came To Be

Kyle Larson and Bobby Pierce were headed toward another epic finish at the Wild West Shootout in their short, growing history of memorable battles.

Jan 15, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

Immersed in the heat of battle with the most dynamic racer on the planet giving chase, Bobby Pierce thought what everyone else was thinking in Sunday’s 50-lap finale of the Rio Grande Waste Services Wild West Shootout presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts at Vado Speedway Park.

“This thing’s gonna come down to the wire,” Pierce’s instincts alerted him as Kyle Larson relentlessly chipped away at the deficit in the closing laps, just mere car lengths behind the Oakwood, Ill., superstar who up to that point hadn’t been vulnerable really all week. | Complete WWS coverage

The sixth and final night of the season-launching event had all the makings of yet another instant classic at the 3/8-mile oval. Until Lady Luck decided to twist the fate of Pierce, who stunningly slowed out of the lead with seven laps left because of a flat right-rear tire.

And just like that, those witnessing the miniseries finale were robbed of a barnburner of a finish — and potentially another DirtonDirt.com Race of the Year candidate for the second year in a row — between two of the finest, mettlesome racers America has to offer.

“Heck, it could’ve been a replay of that,” Pierce said, referencing his slugfest victory over Larson in last year’s miniseries finale.

Larson ultimately drove away on the race’s final restart for a nearly three-second victory worth $26,000, a breeze to the finish that was far less dramatic than even the 2021 NASCAR Cup champion hoped for.

“Yeah, I’m happy I won. I wish we could’ve raced it out,” Larson said. “He probably would’ve beat me and took home the big chunk of cash. That sucks to have a tire go out on him like that. It’s just hard racing. And he’s still going to win a bunch more money this year.”

Larson’s mere presence had a lot to do with Pierce’s tire going down at the absolute worst time. Pierce bolted on the hardest right-rear tire compound possible — Hoosier’s NLMT-4 — and prepared the tire not too much differently than the week’s previous nights.

Granted, Sunday’s feature spanned 50 laps, the longest of the week. But the 27-year-old going full steam ahead for the Penske Paydirt Jackpot of $100,000 for an unprecedented fifth win of the miniseries had never been under that degree of duress in the late stages all week. Three of Pierce’s four wins were decisive, so when he saw Larson pull to his inside with under 10 laps left and he was already feeling his tires wane in effectiveness, mentally shifting into high gear turned out to be overmuch in the end.

“Oh yeah, I saw him. As he was starting to catch me, I was taking it easy,” Pierce said. “I was really pushing my car about as hard as I wanted to push it. Like, I could tell it was abrasive on my right-rear. You can kind of feel it. I wasn’t wanting to push my car any harder, and when he started catching me, it feels like he was catching me pretty quick. So I had to push it hard. And the car couldn’t handle it.”

Pierce, who had a flawless week until there were seven laps left on Sunday, isn’t buying that Lady Luck twisted his fate (“You can call it luck or whatever, but the tire could’ve been done a little differently so it wouldn’t blow out”) and took responsibility for the shortcoming.

“We kind of missed that,” Pierce sad. “That was on us tonight that that happened. We’ll know for next year. We’ll know for next year; try to come back and win all six.”

Next year, Pierce could very well win all six miniseries races, especially with Larson planning the ultimate racing trip to Australia where he’d tentatively race Sprint Cars, Late Models and Midgets. Another reason why Sunday’s finish left onlookers empty is because Larson and Pierce are rarely pitted head-to-head, so when they are, it’s like something more of a treat, particularly with both at the apex of their careers and trying to go places few drivers have gone before.

For Larson, an example of that is racing the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coke 600 on May 26. For Pierce, 50 wins is a realistic goal this year. He already has four in the bag two weeks into the new year.

The two drivers only recall two other occasions where they slugged it out one-two for the win: Last year’s Wild West Shootout finale, which earned DirtonDirt.com’s Race of the Year honors, and 2016’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.

When that race — a race that a (then) 20-year-old Pierce and (then) 24-year-old Larson combined to lead all 150 laps with Larson outlasting Pierce in an epic duel — was brought to Larson’s attention, he gasped, saying, “I forgot all about that.”

“When I think of Bobby Pierce, I think of Dirt Late Models,” Larson said. “I do remember that race. He was really good in a really underfunded Truck compared to what I was in. Yeah, he was doing a really good job.”

Pierce introduced himself to the wider American motorsports audience, more or less, that summer night nearly eight years ago with an improbable performance, leading a race-high 103 laps in a Mike Mittler-owned Truck. The only thing is that had a similarly deflating end, too, when Pierce wrecked out of second trying to slide Larson for the lead — that demise coming on lap 126 of 150.

“Yeah, he put a lot of pressure on me,” Larson said. “I don’t know if he slid me or got into the wall … I can’t remember. Yeah, he was my toughest competition.”

To put that run in perspective, Mittler’s Trucks had led 51 total laps in 24 years of competition outside of Pierce’s 103 paced circuits that night. And 39 of those were Pierce at the Eldora Dirt Derby the year before.

Pierce’s enduring memory of that night is that “Larson and I were throwing sliders all over the place.” It also clashed four of the best dirt racers this generation has seen: Larson, second-running Christopher Bell, third-running Rico Abreu, and Pierce, who ended up finishing 26th.

Other than that, the bitterness of the would-be victory in a NASCAR Truck has been long gone, if bitterness was ever the feeling to begin with.

“That was such a long time ago,” Pierce said when asked if he ever wistfully thinks about that race. “This is what I focus on now. All my focus is on this. I don’t think about racing anything else. It’s like DirtonDirt. All Late Models, all the time.”

Pierce’s name had been tossed around in NASCAR circles as a viable stock car prospect. But Pierce has only logged one Truck Series race since — the 2017 Eldora Dirt Derby — and never seemed to have had the desire to go that direction with his career.

“I don’t care too much for NASCAR. It’s kind of boring,” Pierce said bluntly. “It’s not boring to everybody, but for me, being a dirt guy, dirt racing is the only racing that excites me. I’ll watch some NASCAR, but it doesn’t excite me like a dirt race does. Like I grew up a dirt fan. So, like, to me, NASCAR is political and it’s boring. I don’t like it. I don’t like asphalt. Asphalt is for getting there. You can put that in the story.”

“I’ll watch the Daytona 500,” Pierce added, perhaps wanting to lighten his bluntness of speech.

Possessing a very similar skillet and akin driving spirit to Larson’s, Pierce would likely make a successful stock car driver himself. There are very few drivers who can match the relentlessness of Larson on dirt, and Pierce is one of them. And of late, it’s been Pierce who’s pushed Larson to up the ante.

“I’m not fast enough to race with Bobby,” Larson said through a laugh. “As much as I want to.

“He’s fun to watch. He can kind of do it all, right?” Larson added. “He can run really hard on the top, but he can also be really smooth through the bottom, middle, whatever he needs to go fast. Where I kind of have one thing in my playbook and that’s to pound the top, which sucks because I wish I could do what they do. We just have to get our car better to do the things they do.”

Battles with Pierce purify Larson’s view of himself, particularly in the ultra-technical Dirt Late Model that he repeatably claims are the “hardest race cars to drive.”

Each time Larson would chip into Pierce’s lead on Sunday, the slightest bobble would set him back. For that reason, Larson wasn’t sure he could fully reel in the rip-roaring and smooth-sailing Pierce.

“It’s tough to say. He was really good. He wasn’t really making mistakes,” Larson said. “I could push hard and close on him for a couple laps. Then I would make mistakes and give that all back up. And then have to work that much harder to get back to that same point. He was nice and steady and made some good moves in traffic.

“I was able to show my nose once. Yeah, it would’ve been hard to pass him with six laps left. But there was what, six laps left? Maybe he could’ve made a mistake? But I doubt it. Either way, at least we were able to put enough pressure on him to make him push harder.”

Pierce, meanwhile, still wasn’t so sure of himself.

“I was pretty worried before the flat tire, I thought I might get passed anyways because my tire was blistered,” he said. “I was really losing traction. I was super loose.”

And those clashing realities between two megastars unsure of themselves — Larson giving chase and a seemingly invulnerable Pierce suddenly appearing vulnerable — is the kind of entertainment not even Pierce could deny.

“It was probably going to be a really, really good race down to the checkered line if the tire didn’t blow out,” Pierce said. “It probably could’ve been (a Finish of the Year candidate). I was a sitting duck with what was going on. It seemed like he still had speed. It was probably going to come down to the wire.”

Unfortunately we'll never know.