If the Big Grin Emoji existed in human form — a giant smiley head, just with legs and arms — that would usually describe Christopher Bell at the Chili Bowl. Bell is in his element here, at his cherished home state race, exuding joy with every step he takes at the River Spirit Expo Center.
Bell gets to live his dream of racing against the best midget drivers in the world — in a race that means everything to him — and usually kick their asses in the process.
He did it again Thursday night in the Chili Bowl prelims, winning the A-Main to put himself in great position for Saturday while wowing both the crowd and his competitors in the process.
“He’s unreal,” Shane Golobic said after finishing second. “He’s the best there is, hands down. I was pretty proud to be able to race with him.”
“He makes everybody better,” third-place finisher C.J. Leary said. “His car control is out of this world. A lot of guys are really good, but Christopher is on top right now.”
But one person wasn’t impressed with Bell’s performance: Bell himself. The human Big Grin Emoji was gone, replaced by a Worried Face Emoji who could barely force a smile in the postrace media session.
As it turns out, Bell didn’t have the feel he was used to on Thursday. He managed to win anyway, but the two-time defending Chili Bowl champion isn’t optimistic about his chances on Saturday.
He used words like “shaken” to describe himself after discovering he felt “rusty” on the track. He cited his Keith Kunz Motorsports teammates’ relatively easy wins in their prelims earlier in the week and openly fretted about not being able to hang with them.
At one point late in the race, he inadvertently popped a wheelie down the frontstretch and said he had flashes of leaving the building in an ambulance.
This wasn’t some sort of false show of humility or an attempt to be a perfectionist; Bell was seriously, legitimately concerned about how he ran, and it was written all over his face as he spoke. His confidence, he said, had taken a hit.
“The longer you’re on top, the harder it is to stay there,” Bell said. “I’m going to do my best to figure out why I didn’t feel as good as I normally do and why I didn’t run as good of a race as I normally do.”
Bell knows his chief rival, Kyle Larson, is “hungry” for a first Golden Driller trophy. The race means just as much to Larson, but he’s never won it.
Then there’s KKM teammates Rico Abreu — a two-time champ himself — and Logan Seavey, the defending USAC National Midget champion. Not to mention a host of other drivers who don’t happen to be in the same equipment as Bell but feel they can pull off an upset.
Bell might be the favorite in many minds heading into Saturday, but it’s no sure thing in his own head.
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