TULSA, Okla. — Christopher Bell made it look all too easy as he cruised to victory Thursday during John Christner Trucking Night, winning his preliminary night for the third-consecutive year at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
Bell, who is seeking to defend his Chili Bowl title from last year, made it a clean sweep of the night, winning his heat race and qualifier before starting from the pole and leading all 25 laps of the preliminary A-Feature virtually uncontested.
His fourth-straight preliminary night win tied Bell with Kyle Larson and the late Bryan Clauson for third all-time, and Bell had a very simple reason why he continues to be so strong at the Tulsa Expo Center after parking his No. 71W iRacing.com Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota in victory lane again.
“It’s just good race cars,” said Bell. “That’s what it really boils down to. All my teammates have been really fast all week long. Keith just brings really, really good cars here.”
Those really, really good race cars have now swept the first three preliminary nights of the 2018 Chili Bowl, making Keith Kunz the first car owner to accomplish said feat.
“It’s pretty remarkable that he’s been able to do that,” Bell admitted. “I’ve got some really fast teammates, but I know I was right on par with them and that’s going to make Saturday night that much more fun and more interesting once we get to battling up front in the big show.”
Bell jetted out from the point and had nearly a full straightaway over the pack before the night’s first caution flew on lap four, with C.J. Leary spinning from second in Alex Bowman’s car and collecting Tyler Edwards in the process.
Resetting back to three laps complete, Bell again fired off strong when the green flag flew, this time stretching his legs and opening up a commanding 4.760 second gap over Chase Johnson and Caleb Armstrong before Gage Walker came to a stop in turn four to bring the yellow back out right at the halfway point.
That brought Shane Golobic into the mix, as Golobic surged around Johnson and into second with eight laps to go, setting his sights quickly on Bell as the reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion powered away into the distance.
But as Bell saw Golobic begin to close on the big screen, the caution flew after he’d taken the white flag, setting up a green-white-checkered finish in which the Clauson-Marshall Racing pilot tried to wrest control from the Keith Kunz driver, to no avail.
Still, Golobic crossed the line in second, falling nearly a second in arrears but having the bigger picture to celebrate as he locked into Saturday night’s main event.
“Christopher (Bell) was just in a class of his own tonight,” Globic admitted. “I really am getting sick of running second to him here tonight and pretty much every year, but I’ve really got to thank the NDS Energy Drink team for giving me an awesome race car. This (No.) 17 was rolling and it was just a pleasure to drive tonight, so it’s worth some celebrating. We’re going to have a little fun with the pole shuffle (on Friday night).”
Johnson completed the podium in third, with the Penngrove, Calif. young gun locking into his first-ever Chili Bowl championship feature after an emotional and hard-fought battle with Armstrong and Tracy Hines in the final laps.
“Somebody pinch me,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe it. Wow. We are locked in with a podium finish on prelim night. … I am just at a loss for words right now and just incredibly proud to do this for myself, my family and this whole team. They so deserve it. I’m so humbled to be in this position.”
Just missing the final transfer, Hines crossed the line in fourth, while Armstrong was relegated to fifth in the end.
Ryan Bernal, Billy Pauch Jr., Matt Sherrell, Tim Crawley and Jerry Coons Jr. completed the balance of the top 10.
Tanner Thorson and Michael Pickens both charged forward all the way from their respective D-Mains to make the A, with Thorson finishing 11th and Pickens coming home 14th.
The duo passed 37 and 39 cars, respectively, during their runs through the alphabet soup.
Chili Bowl action continues with Vacuworx Qualifying Night on Friday, seeing hot laps for the final night of competition before championship features kicking off at 4 p.m. local time.
Full race results can be viewed by turning to the next page…