Since it’s 2019 and the world is an angry place, many of us have developed a negative connotation with the word “rivalry.”
When we think of rivals, we think of two people who spew vitriol and trash talk, going against each other not just on the playing field, but in Twitter burns and Instagram-worthy clips.
One has to win and rub it in. The other has to lose and pout or vow revenge. Competing with civility seems like a lost art.
Even when you bring up the word “rivalry” to Christopher Bell — referring to the one he shares with Kyle Larson — Bell momentarily cringes before agreeing on the definition.
“‘Rivalry’ is…well, I guess rivalry is the right term for what we have for what we have going on,” he said. “But we’re acquaintances, we’re friends — we’re each other’s biggest supporters. So it’s a very unique relationship we have.”
There’s nothing in the dictionary definition of rivalry that says the people have to dislike each other, and Bell and Larson clearly don’t. If you thought Bell coming out of nowhere to snatch Larson’s dream trophy away Saturday night at the Chili Bowl might finally change that (guilty as charged), you’d be way wrong.
Even though it has to be tough to swallow losing such a cherished race. to someone who consistently beats you, the only bitterness Larson expressed afterward was toward himself for allowing Bell to catch him.
Did Bell make contact in the process? Yes, Larson said, but nothing unwarranted. He opened the door for it and expected it. Fair game.
As a cloud of confetti surrounded Bell, Larson stood 50 feet away and stared blankly at the celebration stage for several long minutes. It’s been well documented the Chili Bowl is the race Larson wants to win more than any other, based on his dirt upbringing and the importance of the race — both personally and in the midget world.
Larson’s parents still sit in the same seats they did when they came as fans, before Kyle even started racing in the event. And Mike Larson, Kyle’s dad, was technically the car owner for the Chili Bowl this year — meaning father and son could have celebrated together in victory lane at a place they both hold so dear.
And it looked like it was going to finally happen, as Larson dominated the race and had a sizable lead in the final laps. But that all disappeared when Larson slipped up coming to the white flag, allowing Bell to gain ground, then made another bobble in Turn 1 of the final lap.
Bell scooted underneath and muscled his way by on the backstretch as Larson tried in vain to fend him off in the final turns.
The sold-out crowd exploded, Bell exulted at his third straight Chili Bowl win and Larson was left shocked at another Golden Driller that got away — and ended up in Bell’s hands, again.
You couldn’t blame Larson in the slightest if that turned into resentment rather than respect for his opponent. But that’s not what happened.
After composing himself and letting Bell do a victory lane interview, Larson strode toward the younger driver and offered an outstretched hand. They shook, then later entered the media center together and posed for the traditional podium photos. Larson even forced a smile as to not ruin the picture.
That’s not to say Larson was OK with losing — far from it. He was so devastated, he could barely raise his voice enough to be heard. But unlike many people in his position, Larson didn’t point the finger at anyone else and accepted responsibility for the outcome.
Meanwhile, Bell refrained from bragging about his own skills, humbly describing the method he used to catch Larson and expressing surprise he had the opportunity to win.
“It was very easy to slip, but he is the most talented race car driver a lot of us have ever seen,” Bell said later, after Larson had left the room. “So yeah, it’s pretty surprising he did slip.”
And so goes another chapter in the rivalry, which has now extended across years and various disciplines (midgets, sprints and stock cars) and even countries (they raced each other several times in New Zealand last month).
The two texted each other this week and expressed how remarkable it was that they always seem to finish 1-2 — in some order — when they’re on the same track. It’s already happened at least four times since the NASCAR season ended in November.
But no matter who wins or what the circumstances are, they always seem to remain on good terms.
That fact, as much as their talent itself, deserves applause in today’s day and age. Hey parents, want a good example of sportsmanship and class? Watch how Larson and Bell treat each other — and what they say about each other — even in the greatest moments of disappointment.
The 2019 Chili Bowl will be remembered as a great finish, but it will ultimately be just another addition to the Larson and Bell highlight reel. And the best is yet to come, when Bell finally graduates to the Cup Series and can go head-to-head with Larson on a weekly basis.
It’s a rivalry without animosity or hate, and you know what? That’s just fine. The world could use more like it.
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