Kyle Larson's 13-Year Journey To Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Glory

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Kyle Larson’s 2020 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl breakthrough was significant on countless levels.

Not only did it kickstart his earth-shattering season, which saw him tear across dirt tracks nationwide with 46 wins to his credit; but it marked his crowning moment in a building, a town, and an event that had seemed so painfully out-of-reach to him over the years.

13 long, aching years that is. Nine, oh-so-close main events. And finally, one glorious Golden Driller.

Time and time again, Larson was poised to top it all. Yet time and time again, his hopes were dashed, and he left empty-handed; until 2020, that is.

The passion he displayed post-race last January was simply overwhelming. When he climbed out of the car and reached for the skies, it was as if he had the entire world in his hands. The pure relief in his voice; the genuine smile he couldn’t stop flashing; the tears rolling down his face. That night in Tulsa, everyone was a Kyle Larson fan.

It was a moment forever frozen in Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals history.

But how did he get there? Let’s look back on Larson’s journey to the Chili Bowl mountaintop.

Watch the 2021 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals January 11-16 LIVE on FloRacing.

At 15, Kyle makes his Lucas Oil Chili Bowl debut in 2008. 

2008: Where It All Began

The journey started in 2008, when a wide-eyed, 15-year-old Kyle strolled into the Tulsa Expo Center with an opportunity to drive Cliff Blackwell’s No. 27.

He finished fourth in his Friday heat race behind Jeff Bland Jr., Travis Rilat and Darren Hagen. Ultimately, he ended his preliminary program in the B-Main, which sent him to the F-Main in Saturday’s finale.

Kyle’s chance opportunity in 2009 created a relationship with Bryan Clauson.

2009: Surprise Entrant

Larson’s 2009 ride is certainly the most interesting of all 13 attempts. In town as a spectator, the 16-year-old received a phone call from friend Kevin Swindell to report to Bryan Clauson’s pit area ASAP.

Once there, he realized that he was being offered a last-minute ride by Corey Tucker, a Team Penske Car Chief and Clauson’s partner at the time. Jerry Higbie Jr. suffered a severe case of food poisoning and couldn’t compete, so Larson got the nod. He borrowed equipment from Chad Boat, Clauson, Swindell, and more just to get in the car. Then, the kid put on a show.

He went seventh-to-third in his heat race, then eighth-to-sixth in his qualifier, finished second in the B-Main, and qualified for his preliminary feature. He gradually moved up from 19th on the start, but a lap five incident with nowhere to go ended his night with a DNF. Come Saturday, his run was halted in the D-Main.

In 2010, Kyle was a feature starter with Bryan Clauson, Inc. and Corey Tucker.

2010: First Main Event

At 17-years-old, his best shot yet at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl came in 2010. Returning with Corey Tucker and Bryan Clauson, Inc. in a Spike/Esslinger No. 39I, the high school senior was on rails from the start.

He finished fifth in his preliminary feature. Winning his Saturday B-Main over stars like Thomas Meseraull, Daniel Adler, Chris Windom, Mike Hess and Bobby East, Larson had punched his ticket into his first career Lucas Oil Chili Bowl main event, where he would finish the 50-lapper with a solid top ten effort.

The only picture to surface of Kyle before his wicked flip in 2011. 

2011: Blessing In Disguise

The 18-year-old rising star out of Elk Grove, Calif., gassed it up from the get-go and was on the move in his preliminary heat race until a vicious flip ended his week right there and then. He didn’t participate in Saturday’s program and, as he likes to remind people, he technically finished DEAD LAST in the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl that year.

The blessing though? Listen to Keith Kunz or Pete Willoughby tell the story about where they found Larson: it was that heat race when he flipped. Pete, the silent partner to Keith’s midget dynasty, was blown away by Kyle’s drive and told Keith that they had found their next project. Boy, did they hit the jackpot.

Kyle and Keith began a successful eight-year Lucas Oil Chili Bowl run in 2012. 

2012: Kyle Meet Keith

In 2012, Larson made the first of eight consecutive attempts at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl with the Toyota-backed powerhouse of Keith Kunz Motorsports. The relationship immediately took off. He drove by Kevin Ramey on lap six and never looked back on Tuesday, topping his first career preliminary feature.

Starting on the outside pole of the 55-lap finale, Larson fell to fourth on the start as he dared the outside groove in his No. 67 entry. He slowly recovered and got back to finish third, a career-best result for "Yung Money," but it left him wanting more… Wanting to beat the Swindell’s.

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Kyle slices and dices with Kevin and Sammy Swindell during the 2013 Saturday finale.

2013: Larson vs. The Swindells

This was Larson’s best shot ever at stopping the Swindell dynasty. He again controlled Tuesday’s preliminary after sliding by Brady Bacon for the win on lap 19 and secured his seat in Saturday’s showdown. It was Kevin Swindell on pole, Sammy Swindell outside, and Kyle behind them. A recipe for magic, right? Yep. What followed was one of the greatest duels the event has ever seen.

They swapped slider after slider, they nearly went three-wide, they banged it off the fence, they collided a few times, and most importantly, they brought the crowd to their feet and nearly blew the roof off the Tulsa Expo Center.

Ultimately, Kyle controlled laps 13-17, but a turn three slider gone wrong sent his No. 67 spinning and stalled backwards. Just as quickly as he tossed his hands up in disbelief, his first real chance at a Golden Driller had slipped through his hands. He ended in 21st and left hungrier than ever.

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Kyle's 2014 finale included a tangle with Sammy Swindell and a blown engine, all in the span of a few laps.

2014: Up In Smoke

The Cartwheel by Target car came out in 2014 for Larson’s seventh attempt at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl. His two-year streak of Tuesday triumphs was snapped when a poor qualifier relegated him to start 16th in the preliminary feature. He recovered with a fifth-place finish and went on to transfer to Saturday’s main event through the B-Main.

Charging from 15th-to-fifth at halfway, it appeared as if Larson would have a shot at catching Clauson and Christopher Bell out front. However, his Tulsa trouble continued when his motor let go and poured out a heap of smoke. It was another disappointing Saturday night.


Kyle spins running 3rd early in 2015's Saturday main event.

2015: Spin Cycle

Fresh off his 2014 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year campaign, Larson came back to Tulsa in 2015 determined to get that Driller.

It started off rough on Tuesday, but quickly became magical. A heat race wreck relegated him to the C-Main where he went sixth-to-first, then the B-Main where he went 13th-to-first, and he capped it off by going 17th-to-first to win his preliminary night.

Running third early in Saturday’s 55-lap main event, Larson looked ready to challenge Bryan Clauson out front, but one small error in turn one sent his No. 71K spinning. He rallied back through the field to finish seventh, but he was six spots shy of where he wanted.

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An unfortunate tangle with a lapped car on Tuesday mired Larson deep in the field on Saturday.

2016: Fast Cars & Bad Luck

He was good again this year, earning high point honors on Tuesday and streaking away from the pole position. He led 11 laps before, out of nowhere, a spinning lapper struck his No. 71K and forced him to a halt. He went tailback and recovered to run ninth in the feature, slotting him in the B-Main on Saturday.

Qualifying for the main event through a fifth-place B-Main run, Larson started the 55-lapper in 22nd, the farthest spot back in his career. He proved just how good he was estimated to be that week with a monumental 22nd-to-fifth bid for just his second top-five finish in Tulsa.

Kyle's 2017 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl could not recover from a preliminary feature crash.

2017: Flipped Out

After five consecutive years in the big show, Larson missed his first main event since 2011 this year. Battling with Tyler Courtney for the lead in Tuesday’s preliminary feature, Larson got over the edge in his Parker Store No. 71K and went for a wild flip down the track in turn three. He left with a 21st-place finish.

He tried to mount a charge in Saturday’s alphabet soup, but it all came to an end after he missed the C-Main transfer going from 18th-to-fourth.

Kyle looked poised to finally win his first golden driller in 2018. 

2018: The Engine Heard Round The World

Driving for his father Mike Larson in an iRacing sponsored No. 01 prepared by Keith Kunz, Kyle entered 2018 with new life. He was dominant on Tuesday and ran away with another preliminary win, then he won the Pole Shuffle for his first career pole position at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl.

He led the opening nine laps of Saturday’s finale before Bell passed him to lead the next 16. Larson fought back in traffic and capitalized with a masterful move to take command back on lap 26, just shy of halfway. He was calm, cool, and collected as he paced his No. 01 out front, but as it always seemed, doom was awaiting.

On lap 42, just 13 laps away from a Golden Driller, Larson’s motor expired and went up in smoke. He pulled into the infield and relinquished the lead to Bell, who ultimately won the title. It was the most deafening sound of a midget motor blowing up that you’d ever heard. In the end, Larson was left wondering what could’ve been.

Christopher Bell sneaks past on the final lap to steal the 2019 driller.

2019: Last Lap Nightmares

He had spun, he had flipped, he had blown motors, what hadn’t happened to prevent Kyle from winning the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl at this point? This had to be his year, right? Yeah, no…

With McDonald's donning the No. 01, Larson topped Tuesday night and started fourth in Saturday’s grand finale. He worked his way to the lead on lap 21 and never looked back, until the last lap. He built a sizable advantage and it appeared like he was finally going to conquer his Tulsa demons, and then the worst happened.

Missing the bottom in turn one, Larson opened the door and Bell walked right through. Taking the lead on the very final lap and surviving one last shot at the checkered, Bell successfully stole the Golden Driller.

Larson finished second. The look on his face was pure dejection. He admitted it was the worst loss of his life. It took days to even stop thinking about it. How do you come back from that crushing defeat?

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Kyle was overcome with emotion after his first Lucas Oil Chili Bowl victory.

2020: At Long Last

Inspired to make a change, Kyle came back to Tulsa in his own midget, a Lucas Oil sponsored King Chassis powered by Toyota with sprint car guru, Paul Silva, wrenching on the No. 01.

On Tuesday, he won his heat race, then his qualifier, and then led all 30 laps of the preliminary feature.

He started third in the feature, passed Tanner Thorson for second on lap 15, and slid right by Bell to take the lead on lap 39. Larson led the final 16 laps with ease; no mistakes, no errors, no bad luck, nothing could stop him this night.

Scoring the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals championship, Larson finally secured the elusive Golden Driller. His screams of relief amidst an emotional cage stand sent shockwaves throughout the Tulsa Expo.

Watch the 2021 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals January 11-16 LIVE on FloRacing.



Christopher Bell Beats Kofoid In Thursday's Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Prelim

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The winning trend continued on Thursday night. 

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For the first time in five years, Rico Abreu unleashed a whole brand new look on his Keith Kunz Motorsports No. 97. What didn’t change? His Wednesday night dominance.

More Take Than Give Triggers Arizona Pileup

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QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. (Jan. 13) — Brian Shirley saw the situation one way. Ricky Thornton Jr. viewed it another.In the first controversial moment of the 15th annual Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout at FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway, there was simply no middle ground reached between the two drivers who saw their hopes for victory in Wednesday night’s 30-lap Super Late Model feature dashed by an early-race tangle.The pair of top contenders — Thornton logged finishes of first and second in the miniseries’s opening-weekend events while Shirley was just a bit behind with runs of third and fourth — were battling for third place on lap seven of the A-main when their evenings went awry. Shirley dived low entering turn one and slid up the track in front of Thornton, but Thornton clipped the left side of Shirley’s car and both drivers’ machines collected fifth-place Stormy Scott of Las Cruces, N.M.After Thornton retired for a 22nd-place finish and Shirley soldiered on to place 17th in a race captured by Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., they stood in the pit area — separated by just a few stalls, in fact — looking back on the incident with differing opinions.“He saw his opportunity and took it,” Thornton said of Shirley, “and it pretty much didn’t work out.”“He could’ve hit the brakes, you know?” countered Shirley, pointedly questioning Thornton. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. I’m not saying it was all his fault because I did get in there hot, but it was because I wasn’t gonna hit him.”Shirley, 39, of Chatham, Ill., felt that he had cut his rival for position a break on the frontstretch and should have received the same treatment in return between turns one and two. The two drivers were charging hard in pursuit of second-place Jason Papich of Nipomo, Calif., with Shirley running high through turns three and four and Chandler, Ariz.’s Thornton sucked low until Thornton drifted toward the outside guardrail approaching the starter’s stand, prompting Shirley to abruptly cross over Thornton under the flagman and attempt a slider into the first and second corners.“Just coming off of four there, he was on the bottom and went straight to the wall, and I braked for him,” Shirley detailed. “Then I come down, cleared him like a mile, and he just come in there and doored us. They can watch the video. I never touched him.“I can hit the brakes, he can hit the brakes. I’m more disappointed because I braked for him and he couldn’t brake for me. It’s a two-way street.”From Shirley’s standpoint, his aggressive bid on Thornton was merely him reacting to the opening he was presented.“I made a move because when we were coming out of four, he pushed up,” Shirley said. “I was running the high side and he was running the bottom. He would’ve hit me if I wouldn’t have hit the brakes, so I moved down because I had the momentum to slide him. Instead of him turning back down to try and cross me back over he just ran into the left side of the door.“I don’t know what to say,” he continued. “I don’t know what I would’ve done any different. We wouldn’t have even been in the situation if he wouldn’t have pushed up out of four where I was already there. If he would’ve stayed on the bottom I would’ve went right by him without an issue, but he pushed out so then I had to figure out an exit plan.”Thornton, 30, certainly didn’t agree with the tactics Shirley decided to employ.“So I ran the bottom in three and four,” Thornton began. “I didn’t have all my speed down the front straightaway, and I kind of figured someone was gonna slide me. But then we entered and I thought we were good, and then he slid me, like, kind of late in the corner almost.“Watching the in-car (camera footage from his car), it looked like (Shirley) spun out, but, I think because he carried so much speed in the corner, he knew he was gonna destroy the wall so he tried to turn it sideways. When he did, he pretty much parked it (on the cushion), so then I had nowhere to go. At that point I was already back on the throttle. At that point there was no turning down or anything.”When Thornton contacted Shirley’s car, the right-rear deck and quarter-panel of Thornton’s SSI Motorsports Longhorn mount was pulled astray, leading him to limp into the infield with the sheet metal flopping along the track. Shirley’s Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket was shoved into the outside wall before Scott slid into the back of both cars, eliminating him as well. Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., also slapped Shirley’s car as he passed by but was able to continue racing to a fifth-place finish.Thornton felt fortunate that his 3-race-old car escaped the crash with mostly cosmetic damage, but he was well aware that he lost an opportunity to move a step closer to the Keyser Manufacturing bonus dollars posted for winning three or more races.“It just ripped the whole right side off,” said Thornton, who, with three races remaining in the miniseries, remains alive for the bonuses of $10,000 (three wins) and $25,000 (four victories). “It got the body, left-rear shock, couple left-rear parts just from Stormy getting in the left rear.“It kind of sucks for that to happen, especially on lap six of the race or whatever it was,” he added. “I had a really good car. I took off and I was running hard, but not so hard that I was gonna kill my stuff.”While there was no love lost between the two drivers after the incident — a Thornton team member even expressed his displeasure by tossing a signal stick at Shirley’s passing car in the infield (the stick bounced off Shirley’s car and nearly struck a photographer standing nearby) — they were ready to move on to the concluding weekend of WWS action.“It is what it is,” Thornton said, “and we’ll get it fixed up and try again on Friday.”“Luckily it just looks like a lot of bodywork, but it still ruins your night,” Shirley commented. “We started 11th and was passing him for third so it wasn’t like we sucked. We’ve been trying different things, little bitty things every race we’re in. In the heat race I felt like we were horrible, and then, I hate to say, we just put the thing back to where it was when I won them races last year (three WWS features) and that’s how I went.“We’ll put it back together and hopefully next time circumstances might come out a little different.”

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