The Daytona 500 is still about a month away, but Christopher Bell already is competing in his own Daytona 500.
Bell will drive in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 16 in Daytona Beach, Florida, but this week, his focus is on the Chili Bowl at the River Spirit Expo Center. Bell, a 25-year-old from Norman, has competed in the Chili Bowl most of his career, even now with a NASCAR career starting to take off.
“This was my Daytona 500 growing up,” Bell said. “This is the biggest event that, obviously, we have in Oklahoma, but the biggest event that I attended as a kid. All my heroes raced here, and it’s just really, really special to me. …
“You can go ask any racer in Oklahoma, and they’ll tell you this is the race they want to run.”
Bell was so young when he attended his first Chili Bowl he hadn’t even started his racing career yet, which he began at 6. He attended the event with his uncle and remembers sitting on the front row, mesmerized by the cars flying by him on the front stretch.
“I got to watch some great racing, and I fell in love with it,” Bell said.
In 2020, kids attending their first Chili Bowl probably are buying T-shirts and hoodies with Bell’s name written across them. The program they get as a souvenir has a picture of Bell celebrating on the cover.
Bell has had a lot of reason to celebrate recently at the Chili Bowl, where he has won the past three. That success is what’s made him a legend at the Expo Center, with his name on top of the newest banner that features the names of past winners, alongside greats like Tony Stewart and Sammy Swindell.
Like Bell, those guys keep coming back to race in Tulsa, no matter the next big race in front of them or the fame they’ve achieved.
“It’s just everybody here, the atmosphere because of all your friends and competitors,” Bell said. “You have so many different competitors from all different forms of motorsport. That’s what makes the Chili Bowl so unique.”
Bell’s success at the Chili Bowl helped propel his NASCAR career. His first NASCAR opportunity came in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series in 2015. He took off in the Camping World Truck Series, which he won in 2017. Bell made his Xfinity Series debut that same year and won a rookie-record six races. He has 16 career wins in the Xfinity Series.
In September, it was announced Bell will drive the No. 95 Toyota in the Cup Series this year. He is a rookie of the year contender.
“A lot of it is just the experience,” Bell said. “Learning to run longer distance races in NASCAR, I think that really plays an advantage for me here.”
Bell’s Chili Bowl qualifying race this year isn’t until Thursday night, when he’ll look to seal a spot in Saturday night’s main event and defend his title. On Tuesday night, though, Bell competed in the Race of Champions, which he won for the first time. The Race of Champions features past winners and the biggest names at the event.
“Man, this one’s pretty sweet,” Bell said after the race. “This Race of Champions has eluded me for a long time.”
Saturday night will conclude the Chili Bowl with either Bell’s record-tying fourth-consecutive championship, or his reign ending. Then Bell will be off to Florida shortly after to start qualifying at the Daytona 500. But before he enters a world he’s still making a name for himself in, Bell will be in Tulsa, where he’s the face of the Chili Bowl.
“I just love the Chili Bowl, man,” Bell said. “This race is one of my favorites — not one of my favorites — it’s my favorite event of the year.”
Gallery: Day 3 of the Chili Bowl at Expo Square in Tulsa
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