Let’s start out by acknowledging here that Kyle Larson is one of the great American racing talents ever to strap into a car.
Hyperbole? Nah. At age 26, Larson is already a winning NASCAR driver, one of the top sprint car drivers and the second-best midget racer in the world. That’s a combination few can claim.
Of course, he’d prefer to be the best in a midget — and he was probably on that path until Christopher Bell showed up and started beating him regularly. Now Larson has found himself in the unusual position of trying to raise his game instead of simply relying on his natural abilities.
Bell has pushed Larson to be better in a midget, and Larson is ready to push back.
“I’ve worked really hard to become a smarter racer and make better decisions — in a way, think like he might think — so instead of being a step behind, maybe be at his level,” Larson said. “You have to always work on your game and try to get better, because he’s getting better and better every race.”
Larson certainly didn’t look like he had much competition Tuesday, when he waxed the field on his prelim night for the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was Larson’s fifth career prelim win.
But Bell — his Keith Kunz Motorsports teammate — hasn’t run his prelims yet. They did race together in the Race of Champions on Tuesday, but it wasn’t a true head-to-head test — Bell started 15th by random draw and Larson started fourth. Even so, Bell only finished one spot behind Larson.
The true showdown, widely anticipated for a year now, is shaping up to take place once again in Saturday night’s 55-lap A-Main. That’s assuming Bell doesn’t have trouble making the big race — though that would be a shock, considering he’s the back-to-back Chili Bowl champion.
Larson had no problem with declaring Bell as the driver to beat again.
“I’ve got zero (Golden) Drillers in my trophy case,” Larson said. “You just look at his track record — not just in this building, but any racetrack in a midget — and his win percentage is crazy over the last four or five years. I would definitely say he’s the favorite anywhere he goes in a midget right now.”
That said, Larson actually got the better of the two when they raced midgets recently in New Zealand. It was Bell who finished second to Larson on a couple nights rather than the other way around.
Larson suggested it was because they were in different equipment, but added: “Maybe I’m just making excuses for him.”
“It’d been a long time since I beat Christopher in anything — at least on dirt — so that was good,” he said.
The question is: Can Larson do it again?
SPONSOR WOES IN OFFSEASON
Larson’s firesuit at the Chili Bowl is still sporting a DC Solar patch, though the company won’t be on his NASCAR ride this season after an FBI raid on its headquarters. When it became clear the funding was gone, Chip Ganassi Racing had to shut down its Xfinity team — which was going to be fully sponsored by DC Solar — and is scrambling to find a new sponsor for Larson’s Cup car (DC Solar was the primary sponsor for 12 races last season).
Larson said going to race in New Zealand when the news came out was a helpful distraction to the sponsor troubles.
“It’s nice to go to New Zealand because I don’t talk to anybody in the States, really,” he said. “I kind of get away from everything that’s going on here. I don’t even really know what all has gone on or how the future is going to look.
“Unfortunate that it happened. (DC Solar owners) Jeff and Paulette Carpoff have been nothing but great to myself, so I hate that it all happened. I know my team is probably working really hard to fill those races — because it’s a lot of races they were on the car — but I don’t get into NASCAR mode until Sunday (after the Chili Bowl). So I’m still not really thinking or worrying about it yet.”
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