Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty, Vol. 3: 2021 Chili Bowl

The A-Main – The stats sheet will show that Kyle Larson was utterly dominant in scoring his second consecutive Chili Bowl, but it was far closer than the scoresheet will show.

Larson, who bested polesitter Justin Grant on the race’s first restart after a first-lap caution, weathered more than 20 laps of challenge from faster Grant, who couldn’t find away around a narrow-grooved track.

The drama started on lap 46, when Larson caught the cushion in turn 4 and came to a near dead-stop, allowing both Grant and third-place Christopher Bell to close the gap. Bell, sensing blood in the water, executed a slide job on Grant on the next lap and began running down Larson, who several laps later clipped the turn 4 cushion again only to be saved by a lap 52 yellow when Blake Hahn spun in turn 4.

On the ensuing restart, Bell threw everything he had into catching Larson, but his night came up short with a violent flip in turn 3.


Larson would weather another restart and drive off to his second consecutive Golden Driller.

Saturday’s king of the “alphabet soup” was Broken Arrow, Okla.’s Jason McDougal. McDougal, who had already made waves when he climbed from a C-main on his prelim night to lead his B-feature before his engine went sour, climbed from a start in the I-mains Saturday morning all the way to the first D-main, equaling JJ Yeley‘s fabled 2004 run that saw him contest six features on one Chili Bowl Saturday. McDougal raced all the way into the final transfer spot of said D-main only to be spun out by Hollister, Calif.’s Ryan Bernal in turn 3 on the last lap. Bernal was disqualified for his role in the spin and roundly booed by the Oklahoma crowd.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

McDougal. See above.

Watertown, N.Y.’s Tim McCreadie was the biggest story of Monday’s first prelims, scoring the first bowl of soup for the weekend. McCreadie, the late model regular that left Tulsa after his prelims to participate in the Sunshine Nationals at Volusia, made the first climb of the week, overcoming an eventful heat race to go from the C to A-main and scoring a top-10 finish doing so. McCreadie put up a credible effort in his B-main Saturday but failed to make the main event.

Elk Grove, Calif.’s Larson was in a league of his own during Tuesday’s prelims. Larson won his heat, won his qualifier and dominated the night’s A-main event, proving he is more than capable of defending his 2020 Chili Bowl crown. Perhaps the only blip on his performance was the track conditions for the A-main; the Tulsa surface took significant rubber by night’s end and limited passing.

St. Helena, Calif.’s Rico Abreu was also the class of the field for Wednesday’s night prelims, scoring a heat race win and the A-main. Abreu, a former Chili Bowl winner, was not as dominant as Larson, but proved to have a car strong enough to lurk and strike, as was demonstrated during a very patient heat race performance. Abreu proved a non-factor in Saturday’s A-main.

Norman, Okla.’s Bell‘s A-main victory on Thursday night capped the third straight prelim night dominated by a former Chili Bowl winner, and came after Bell won the champions invitational race Tuesday night. Though the opening laps of Thursday’s A-main hinted at a possible upset when Bell got stuck in traffic on the start, by lap 10 the iRacing midget was riding off into the sunset. Bell appeared to have something for Larson in the closing laps before his flip.

Arguably the best drive of anyone in the field came on Friday night courtesy of Olive Branch, Miss.’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse, who had a disastrous heat race after getting involved in a wreck caused by the most inexperienced rookie in the field (more on that later), not only made the C to A climb Friday night, but won a B-main feature and came home third in the A-main (Stenhouse’s teammate, Ione, Calif.’s  Grant, won the event for Clauson Marshall Racing). Stenhouse followed that ladder climb up by winning the second B-main on Saturday, qualifying for the main event; he finished seventh in the A.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Two weeks ago, Pipersville, Pa.’s Brian Carber was the toast of Tulsa, scoring two driller trophies in the Tulsa Shootout and seemingly full of momentum to bring to Keith Kunz Motorsports for the Chili Bowl. Carber, who did make it to a C-main start Saturday, was all but invisible throughout the week, and ended up in an early-race incident in the second C-main that took him from contention early. Fame is fleeting.

Dillsburg, Pa.’s Anthony Macri was a last-minute sub to make his Chili Bowl debut. That debut lasted until turn 1 of the first lap of his first heat.

Macri was a scratch from his scheduled M-main start Saturday morning.

Easily the most talked about rookie of the Chili Bowl was Kelseyville, Calif.’s Anthony Esberg. Never heard of him? Don’t worry, he could return the favor:

Esberg, who started on the front row for the final heat Friday, incurred the ire of the racing social media warriors when he had a first-lap spin that triggered a multi-car wreck. A lap later, Esberg followed that up with one of the hardest wrecks endured all week long at Tulsa (more on that later). Esberg did not cause any further incidents throughout the weekend, but his performance and story put the theory of “any press is good press” to a real test.

Frontstretch Regulars

Semi-regular Cup Series competitor Garrett Smithley fell from pole to seventh in his preliminary heat race, was lapped in his C-main feature and finished eighth of 10 starters in his M-main Saturday morning.

Part-time Xfinity Series competitor Ryan Ellis fell from a pole start to missing a transfer spot in his heat race on Thursday, then failed to advance from his C-main. Ellis did advance through a K-main Saturday morning before finishing eighth in the second J-main and failing to advance further.

Justin Allgaier won the paint scheme war and his heat race Friday night, but it all went downhill from there.

Allgaier was involved in seeming every incident on track Friday, relegating the Xfinity Series regular to an I-main start Saturday. Allgaier won his I-main comfortably, but finished seventh in the second H-main, one spot short of a transfer up the ladder.

Soon to be Xfinity Series regular Santino Ferrucci had a quiet heat race but did advance from C to B on his preliminary night. Ferrucci took to the track for the first G-main on Saturday afternoon and moved up from 10th to a transfer spot. Advancement went out the window on the G’s final restart, when Ferrucci was spun out going into turn 1. Ferrucci got spun again on the same lap, then spun himself out trying to get going down the backstretch.

Cup Series regular Ryan Newman wrecked in his preliminary heat race, but a C to B climb that night granted the Rocket a birth in the second G-main Saturday. Newman made forward progress in the G-main, but came up one spot short of transferring after slipping back after slapping the backstretch wall on lap 6.

Part-timer NASCAR journeyman Tanner Berryhill and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott both saw their weekends end in the second F-main, with Berryhill enduring a partial flip after Tulsa, Okla.’s Shawn Mahaffey bounced off the frontstretch wall into his No. 17. Elliott was mired in traffic but found a groove in the last three laps that got him up to seventh, mere thousandths of a second from a transfer spot in a three-wide finish at the line.

After proving all but invisible in the Tulsa Shootout two weeks ago, former Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt made it all the way to the A-main on his preliminary night, allowing him to make a D-main start Saturday afternoon. That was all she wrote, as Moffitt fell back from his 10th-place starting spot and never challenged to transfer.

Kasey Kahne‘s solid Friday included a heat race win. But the C-main start he earned on Saturday lasted only two laps, with a four-car crash including the all-time Chili Bowl wins leader Sammy Swindell sent him packing.

Yeley rebounded from a mediocre heat race Friday to win a B-main and secure a C-main start for Saturday. Yeley, starting from the pole in the second C-main, dropped like a rock with a car that got visibly out of shape anytime it went near the cushion, fell one spot short of a transfer forward.

Chase Briscoe won his heat race way back during Monday prelims and a seventh-place finish in Monday’s A-main was enough to earn a B-main start. And though he made forward progress in the first B-main Saturday, being glued to the bottom of the track did not prove the road to success. Briscoe finished ninth and missed a transfer by two spots.

Fanning the Flames

If Joe Biden is truly interested in uniting America, all he needs to do is condemn Ryan Bernal in his inaugural address this weekend. The reduced-size crowd in Tulsa was heard for the first time all weekend Saturday in condemning Bernal for ending what was going to be a record-breaking climb up the ladder by McDougal. A Texas Longhorns fan would have found friendlier quarters in the Expo Center than Bernal after the spin, who to his credit took unmitigated ownership of his mistake. The fans and McDougal have reason to be upset, but credit to Bernal for being a man about it.

One more note on the McDougal mess. Twitter was ablaze after his soup bowl ran dry, with fans suggesting everything from results restoration to a promoter’s provisional to a fan vote to get the Oklahoman back into the fold. These are all terrible ideas that would dilute so much of what makes the Chili Bowl such a significant (and tense) event. To paraphrase of the soon-to-be-canceled Thomas Jefferson, when angry count to the C-mains. When very angry count to the A.

It was easy to tell watching social media that a lot of fans thrilled to be tuning into the Chili Bowl got bored as soon as the C-mains ended and track prep took over. The crew that works the dirt at Tulsa is the best in the business, but the work they do borders on the obsessive. There truthfully aren’t a whole lot of dirt shows out there where the track requires a break in between each main event. Let alone a break of over 60 minutes to get the A-main going. This was a departure from every other night of the Bowl this week. The slowed down show on Saturday night after five days of relentless heats put a real damper on the event and had plenty of folks that had tuned in from the NFL for the main calling it a night early instead. The racing surface needs to be good, but the show also needs to go on. Just as a frame of reference, Volusia Speedway Park was able to run two full late model features, plus victory lane, plus a partial WoO Late Model feature and victory lane interview in the amount of time between the Chili Bowl B- and A-mains.

As I mentioned in my Thursday article, this was my first beginning to end experience with the Chili Bowl. Sure, the extensive track prep into the wee hours of the night may be the way that it’s always been done. That may be good enough for those that live their lives obsessing over this event, but for the rest of us that see the Chili Bowl representing dirt racing as a whole, there’s major cause for concern the way Saturday night was handled. A newbie fan that is getting this first exposure to dirt and thinking it’s normal to spend more time at the track watching the grounds crew than the racecars isn’t heading to their local track anytime soon. Start the soup earlier. Include a scheduled intermission as part of the MAVTV telecast. Don’t drag out interviews that serve no purpose for over an hour when it’s approaching midnight Eastern time. The Chili Bowl has become bigger than the sport in some ways. With great influence comes great responsibility.

The coverage from Flo Racing was fantastic all week long (until this morning anyway, see below). MAVTV offering the Chili Bowl A-main as a freebie as a kickoff of their upcoming streaming platform was a service to race fans coast to coast. None of that changes how disorienting it was to have the commentators and camera work that spent five days covering the event go out the window for the most important laps of the weekend. Never mind having to watch the stream on my laptop as opposed to my trusty 55-inch, as the Lucas Oil Racing/MAVTV Plus app was not available for new subscribers to download and use. And it also sucked to see MAVTV take over the broadcast only to use a pre-taped pre-race show that made no mention of the day’s events, including McDougal’s ladder climb. And this:

I don’t want to dunk on MAVTV. After how scatterbrained and brain-dead much of Flo’s commentary was Saturday morning (keep Scotty Cook away from the booth, or any microphone, for the love of God), MAVTV’s polish was welcome. Further, it was very big of them to make this event available for free. Making the Chili Bowl more available than ever is a great step forward for the sport as a whole, but for as generous as MAVTV was not having their streaming platform up and running for such a marquee event feels like a missed opportunity.

And though I’ve been nothing but complimentary of Flo’s weekday broadcasts, I am going to echo what a number of Twitter users had to say all through prelims. Interviewing drivers in their wrecked cars 10 seconds after the incident is over is a little much.

Stenhouse Jr. has junked enough racecars to fill Tulsa Expo Center over the last decade, which made watching NASCAR Twitter meltdown about his Chili Bowl being derailed after a bad bout with a rookie driver during his heat race Friday night ironically amusing. In their defense, watching a race with an actual open field and no charters has to be a foreign concept.

The rookie crisis of 2021 wasn’t the only drama to strike Friday after what had been a fairly predictable Chili Bowl. It wasn’t a gaffe of the caliber that turned the Snowflake 100 into a race put on by snowflakes last month, but it was a glaring inconsistency in officiating that allowed Corona, Calif.’s Ronnie Gardner to drive away and win a qualifier after spinning Fargo, N.D.’s Tim Estenson from the race lead early in Qualifier #1. The inconsistency was even more striking 24 hours later given that Bernal was disqualified for doing the exact same thing.

I would in no way shape or form argue against the Chili Bowl mandating the use of a HANS device or some form of head or neck restraint moving forward, as watching Esberg’s neck snap the way it did in his flip Friday was the scariest moment of the weekend.

But considering this is the same event that just spent a near week putting 7,000-plus people indoors in grandstands with social distancing not even possible, the pearl-clutching might as well stop… this sport kissed “safety” goodbye a while ago.

Ewing, Ill.’s Daniel Robinson was justifiably excited after making a last-lap pass of dirt great Swindell during Wednesday’s prelims. But this was an awful Mayfield/Earnhardt way to express that excitement. For those too young to remember, Mayfield won the battle, but Earnhardt is forever.

Numbers Game

1 – idiot kicked out of Tulsa Expo Center for refusing to wear a mask

69 – official flip count endured by the 2021 Chili Bowl field

307 – number of entries for 2021 Chili Bowl

$10,000 – purse for winning Chili Bowl A-Main

Where It Rated (on a scale of one to six beer cans, with one a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one three lukewarm Golden Chillers from Tulsa’s Marshall Brewing. No cooler could keep beer cold long enough to last this marathon. Stenhouse’s Friday night rebound and McDougal’s stunning climb through the alphabet soup Saturday were great, compelling stories, but any excitement from those events was syphoned away by three formulaic days of prelims and an absurdly long wait for a reworked track that delivered a mediocre A-main. I’m glad my first Chili Bowl is over.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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