TULSA, Okla. – In spite of a litany of bad Tulsa luck, for a moment Thursday night, there was an outside flicker of hope that Kyle Larson’s dream of attempting a Dirt Double on Saturday might come true.
From the time that Larson announced he was coming back to the Chili Bowl Nationals powered by NOS Energy Drink, in an attempt to make another run at a Golden Driller trophy while also competing in the dirt late model Wild West Shootout at Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park, the anticipation was palpable.
And even after he’d flipped in his heat race and been relegated to a C-Feature on Victory Fuel Qualifying Night inside the SageNet Center, Larson and his Keith Kunz Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian crew had persevered and earned themselves a chance at redemption.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion and two-time Chili Bowl winner won his C-Feature going away, then charged from 11th to second in 15 laps to transfer from the second B-Feature into the night’s 30-lap preliminary main event.
After starting 20th, Larson worked up into a battle for 10th over the first 23 laps of the feature but needed a caution to have any real shot of advancing further. He just didn’t want to be the caution.
Unfortunately, the latter scenario was exactly what happened.
The front end of Larson’s machine snapped loose down the frontstretch coming to lap 24, sending him jumping over the outside berm and into a cartwheeling flip along the safety fencing before coming to rest in a mangled, smoking heap.
As fans watched on, a tow cable was attached to Larson’s car to bring it to the work area. Owner Keith Kunz and his KKM crew briefly looked over the damage, but Larson shook his head, knowing that any attempt to try and restart was futile.
Given the logistics with Saturday’s Vado program, Larson’s only real hope of competing Saturday night was to lock into the 55-lap finale. Any run through the “alphabet soup” wouldn’t be remotely feasible.
Once that prospect was off the table, Larson knew his time in Tulsa – and the Dirt Double dream – was over.
“Everything about tonight was all self-inflicted,” Larson admitted. “I could have done something [differently], I’m sure. The heat was a mess for me. I wasn’t quite comfortable yet. I wasn’t running hard enough and got myself in bad spots, fell back, and then made contact and flipped when I was trying to get aggressive. … We had to grind from there.
“I thought for a minute it might be an OK night, but we needed some cautions in the feature and just never got them,” he added. “The [initial] start hurt me, too, because I got past a couple cars and was going to get past a few more before [teammate Gavan] Boschele biked, landed, and I hit his right rear [tire]. That cost me all the spots I’d just gained and we got stuck in the mid-pack after that.
“I pretty well knew we were done [as far as locking into Saturday] from there.”
Larson’s night was ultimately snakebitten from the very start, as he hiked over the backstretch berm early in his heat race, fell to last place, then made contact with Christopher Townsend on lap five that sent him flipping in turn two.
Though he was able to continue on, Larson’s front bumper was bent in and the setup underneath his No. 98k LynK Chassis car wasn’t to his liking at all. An eventual fifth-place heat finish wasn’t enough to get him into the top-40 in passing points and move on to a qualifier, meaning he had to “run the soup.”
A raucous crowd cheered as Larson moved his way from C-Feature to B-Feature to A-Feature, but his deep starting position and a “treacherous” Tulsa Expo Raceway surface worked against him in the end.
“It’s a bummer. On my part, I made a lot of mistakes, mostly from not feeling fully comfortable,” Larson noted. “Had I been here all week, practiced Sunday, run the Race of Champions, and found that comfort against the curb here on a flat track … things might have been a little different.
“I just put myself in a hole and it made it hard to recover from it.”
Despite the disappointing end to his day, Larson still found some net positives from returning to the Chili Bowl environment after a year away, as well as working with KKM co-owners Kunz and Pete Willoughby again.
“It was fun to get to work with Keith and Pete and Chucky and Beau … those were guys who were with the team when I started with KKM in 2011,” Larson said. “There’s so many [KKM] cars now that it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re all on one team even though you are, but that core group feels like what it did in 2011. It felt like a small team over here.
“I loved working with them again; I really enjoyed that part of it,” he added. “I didn’t really have any pressure, either, which was good. I think a lot of people might think differently – with how many mistakes I made on track, it probably looked like I was under pressure – but I never felt like I was.
“I just came here to run the best that I could, and if I didn’t make the top two, oh well.”
Talk around the dirt world has been that Larson might race a sprint car during the winter months next year, near the traditional timeframe when the 39th edition of the Chili Bowl would take place.
Larson didn’t give any hints as to what he’ll be doing in January of 2025, but he didn’t close the door on the idea of returning to Tulsa for another shot at a Golden Driller, either.
“I don’t know [what next year will bring],” Larson admitted. “I definitely want to go to Australia [and race sprint cars]; there’s just a lot to work out there, because I don’t want to go and do that with anyone else besides Paul Silva and the (No.) 57. It just takes a lot of money to go there, and organizing, and logistics. I don’t know many people down there and neither does he. It takes a lot to make that trip all work.
“Hopefully, we can figure it out. It’d be a lot of fun to go down there, but I don’t want to spend three weeks down there like Brad [Sweet, his brother-in-law] is right now. … I can’t be down there that long. Maybe there would be an opportunity to come home early and get to come here. We’ll see.
“My schedule is always crazy. You never really know where I’ll be.”
For now, Larson will be back in New Mexico for the rest of the weekend, as his quest for a third Golden Driller trophy extends further out into the future.
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