TULSA, Okla. — Kyle Larson is not trying to stir up any trouble, nor trying to dis his NASCAR job, when he gets asked about the meaning of potentially winning the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in relation to the Daytona 500.
It’s no surprise that a Chili Bowl would mean more than a Daytona 500 win for Larson. And it’s not just because the Chili Bowl is Saturday night at the Tulsa Expo Center.
Larson grew up wanting to star in sprint cars, and the Chili Bowl is arguably the biggest midget race of the season. With 357 entries, there just is nothing like it — every top competitor is racing, and, with very limited rules, they often build cars strictly for this event.
When Larson looks at who has won Chili Bowl titles, it reads as a list of superstars he admired.
So the 25-year-old will accept a little social media bashing for saying what he feels. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver really has no other choice but to hope people understand.
“Everybody thinks I don’t want to win the Daytona 500,” Larson said Thursday in the garage area at the Chili Bowl. “It’s not like that at all. That race is still huge and important to me. But, I guess, to my heart, whatever, however you want to describe it, Chili Bowl just personally means a little bit more. I’m not the only person [to feel that way].”
As far as Larson’s view, NASCAR Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse knows exactly what he means.
“I don’t think he deserves getting bashed,” Stenhouse said. “We all want to win races, and there’s races that you’ve been trying to win for a long time. The way I look at it, he’s been trying to win this race longer than he’s been trying to win the Daytona 500. You look at the list, it’s very few that has won this race. I can guarantee you he wants to win the Daytona 500 really bad, too.”
Stenhouse tried to explain a dirt-track sprint-car racer’s philosophy: “When I was racing go-karts and sprint cars, I didn’t think about winning the Daytona 500 because, for one, I didn’t ever think I would ever race there, and I knew I had an opportunity to race here,” Stenhouse said. “You race your whole life thinking about doing this. Now we get the opportunity to race the Daytona 500 every year.”
At Daytona, a driver often is at the mercy of other drivers as far as the draft. A driver at the Chili Bowl knows it takes great equipment, but a driver often has to adapt to the track conditions.
Larson has made it to the championship race in six of the past seven years. Larson has had shots to win the Daytona 500 (he ran out of gas last year), but his shots at the Chili Bowl have come more often yet the best he has done is third.
“This is what I got my start in,” Larson said. “People think I’m crazy. But you can go around the corner and ask [Christopher] Bell the same question, and he’d probably say a second Chili Bowl win.”
Bell, the defending Chili Bowl and 2017 Camping World Series champion, might have multiple Chili Bowl wins before he ever starts a Daytona 500. The Chili Bowl is the Oklahoma native’s childhood dream, as he would attend every year and buy the race T-shirt that includes images of all the previous winning cars.
He made sure to buy one this year with his car from last year on it.
“It’s really, really cool to see my car on there,” Bell said. “I’ve had those shirts ever since I was coming here in the early 2000s. To be able to have my car on there with Sammy’s five other cars and [two-time winner] Dan Boorse and all those guys who won that race is really cool because that T-shirt is the emblem of the Chili Bowl for me.”
There have been just 20 winners in the 31 years of the event. Sammy Swindell has won it five times; his son, Kevin, has won four; and Tony Stewart is among the two-time winners.
Stenhouse tried to be diplomatic in his answer of what would mean more.
“If I won it this year, it would probably be one of the bigger wins of my career,” Stenhouse said. “Until we got to Daytona in February, and if we won that, I would put that one up there.”
Larson actually said that, growing up, he wanted to win the Knoxville Nationals — the race in which he had to ask his NASCAR team owner, Chip Ganassi, permission to race last year because he is not allowed to race a sprint car the night before a NASCAR practice or race. Larson ended up finishing second at Knoxville and winning the Cup race at Michigan the next day.
That won’t mean more weekend dirt-track racing for Larson.
“I won’t be able to run probably another race like that,” Larson said. “Hopefully I can do Knoxville some more and stuff like that. As far as other races go on a Cup weekend, I probably won’t even ask. I know the answer.”
Speaking of asking and knowing answers, Larson did make a big request in the past month — he got engaged to Katelyn Sweet, who is pregnant with their second child.
Larson admitted he was nervous.
“I was super nervous [proposing], even though I shouldn’t be because I’ve been with her forever and we have one kid and another on the way,” Larson said. “So I shouldn’t be nervous because I know the answer. It was still nerve-wracking.”
Even his engagement attracted some social media criticism of his choice to have children before marriage.
“I see it, but that stuff doesn’t bother me,” Larson said. “It’s not their lives.”
Larson is going to live his life his way, and that will always include loving racing on dirt — so much so that he already has put a condition on his wedding date:
“I told her I don’t care when it is, just don’t let it interfere with my dirt racing,” Larson said with a laugh.