Chili Bowl roundup: Thorson locks into A-Feature, heartbreak for Stenhouse

Chase Wilhelm

The 2020 Chili Bowl Nationals are underway from the Tulsa Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. See how NASCAR drivers and others fared in their respective qualifying nights leading up to Saturday night’s 55-lap A-Feature event, and check back throughout the week for the latest updates.

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Friday, Jan. 17

In a thriller all the way down to the final laps, Tanner Thorson put on a show on his way to winning Friday night‘s final preliminary qualifying night at the Chili Bowl Nationals.

After seven lead changes among four drivers, Thorson took the lead away from Ryan Bernal with just five laps remaining. Bernal was able to hold off Chris Windom, Tucker Klaasmeyer and NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Justin Allgaier at the end to earn the second of two transfer spots into Saturday night‘s 55-lap A-Feature finale. Allgaier held on to finish fourth.

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In what started as a great night turned sour for NASCAR Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the A-Feature. Stenhouse Jr. won his respective heat race and finished second in his Team Toyota qualifier after starting fifth, earning enough passing points to start third in the A-Feature. The No. 17bc Clauson-Marshall Racing driver took the lead from Chris Windom on Lap 4 and held on until he lost the lead to Thorson after a Lap 14 restart.

But that‘s when things went south for Stenhouse after making heavy contact with the Turn 4 cushion while Thorson was making the pass. The contact damaged the bottom nerf bar on Stenhouse‘s midget, rubbing on the left-rear tire. After a short caution period, Stenhouse was forced to go to the pit area with 13 laps to go due to a flat tire. Stenhouse finished 23rd.

Allgaier and Stenhouse will now have to rely on Saturday‘s last-chance qualifying rounds if they want to make it into Saturday night‘s grand finale. Other NASCAR drivers, including Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Ellis and J.J. Yeley, will also have a busy Saturday trying to race their way into transfer spots.

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Below are drivers who have clinched spots so far for Saturday night‘s 55-lap main event:

  • Cannon McIntosh

  • Tyler Courtney

  • Christopher Bell

  • Kyle Larson

  • Jonathan Beason

  • Rico Abreu

  • Colby Copeland

  • Thomas Meseraull

  • Tanner Thorson

  • Ryan Bernal

Thursday, Jan. 16

NASCAR Cup Series rookie Christopher Bell took the checkered flag during Thursday‘s John Christner Trucking Qualifying Night.

Bell worked his way into the 30-lap preliminary A-Feature by winning the seventh heat and the fourth Team Toyota qualifier to start sixth in the main event of the night. Bell made quick work of the competition on his way to the front, passing Thomas Meseraull for the lead on Lap 11 in the No. 84x Tucker-Boat Motorsports midget.

But the night wasn‘t as smooth toward the end as Bell had to fend off a hard charge by Buddy Kofoid in the closing laps and contact with a slower car on the final lap, but neither slowed him down, capturing his fifth consecutive preliminary qualifying night victory and sixth in Chili Bowl Nationals history.

The defending and three-time Chili Bowl champion is locked into his seventh straight main event, while Meseraull was able to hang on for second to earn the final transfer spot of the night for Saturday night‘s 55-lap grand finale.

Other notables included CJ Leary, driving for NASCAR Cup Series driver Alex Bowman, who finished seventh in the A-Feature. Leary was set to start second, but he was penalized for jumping the start in his respective Team Toyota qualifier, forcing the No. 55v Alex Bowman Racing machine back to 12th for the green flag.

After finishing sixth in his heat, former NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Cale Conley finished first in the first of two C-Main events, but the B-Main wasn‘t as pretty, exiting early after a front axle failed on the No. 11 midget to end his night.

Both Conley and Leary will revert to the last-chance qualifying round on Saturday before the main event to try to earn a spot in the A-Feature.

NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Justin Allgaier and NASCAR Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will be in action for Friday night‘s final preliminary round of qualifying.

Wednesday, Jan. 15

Rico Abreu took victory in Wednesday night‘s Hard Rock Casino Qualifying Night to advance to Saturday night‘s A-Feature main event.

After starting second, Abreu never looked back after taking the lead from 2019 World of Outlaws champion Brad Sweet around the halfway point of the 30-lap preliminary event. Sweet dropped back afterward but made a big effort to get back to the front, running third before contact with Blake Hahn with four laps to go sent Sweet for a tumble.

Colby Copeland finished second to Abreu, which also locked him into the main event.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, making his maiden voyage in the Chili Bowl Nationals, finished third in the seventh heat to advance to the A-Feature. But Newman‘s night didn‘t pan out after getting caught up in an incident with Giovanni Scelzi, Tyler Thomas, Robby Josett and Chase Jones just five laps into the event. Newman finished 21st and will need to go through the last-chance qualifying rounds Saturday to have a chance at a spot in Saturday‘s feature.

World of Outlaw driver and 2019 Knoxville Nationals champion David Gravel finished seventh after starting in the sixth spot. Gravel is set to make six NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series starts throughout the 2020 season with GMS Racing in the No. 24 truck sponsored by Axalta. He‘ll also compete in the ARCA Menards Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway with GMS Racing‘s alliance team, KBR Development.

Karsyn Elledge, niece of Dale Earnhardt Jr., worked her way into the A-Feature after finishing third in the second B-Feature of the night. After starting 22nd, Elledge was holding her own until she spun with 10 laps to go to bring out the fifth of seven total cautions.

Starting 23rd, J.J. Yeley finished 11th in the A-Feature after overcoming a flat left-rear tire. Yeley paid a visit to the work area and quickly returned to the track to make up time.

Tuesday, Jan. 14

NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson was perfect in Tuesday night’s Warren CAT Qualifying Night, winning his heat, qualifier and the 30-lap A-Feature preliminary race to earn a spot in Saturday night’s 55-lap finale. NASCAR Cup Series rookie Christopher Bell also earned a victory in the Invitational Race of Champions event in what serves as an all-star race featuring the Chili Bowl’s most talented drivers in history.

But perhaps the most surprising and impactful turn of events occurred after racing action was over. Groundskeeper Brad “Gravel” Chandler didn’t like how the track’s multiple grooves looked from the naked eye following Tuesday night’s action, according to Autoweek. Chandler knew something was off with the dimensions of the track, and reached out to iRacing to verify his notion after checking their digital laser scan of the track from 2018.

After iRacing provided Chandler with the exact dimensions of the corners from its data, Chandler and the grounds crew worked until around 4 a.m. to recut the track based on iRacing’s measurements. The berm at the bottom of the track was moved lower, while the cushion above the top grooved was pushed in.

Kevin Iannarelli, an associate producer at iRacing, spearheads all the scanning work for the racing simulation company. He spent a few hours last night analyzing the track data from the 2018 scan, giving Chandler and his team the radiuses of the corners, banking, height of the berm and basic dimensions of the clay surface.

The result? The racing world and the racing simulation world working together to produce a top-notch product at one of the biggest races of the year.

“I take a lot of pride in building relationships with the people responsible for the tracks when I go and collect the data we need to build our virtual tracks,” Iannarelli told “As a company, we are always looking for ways to not only improve our product but also help our partners when we have the tools and technology to do so. With the data we have someone could exactly replicate the Chili Bowl in their backyard, so it is pretty gratifying that we could help Steve and his team out by using our expertise to improve their on-track product. I doubt there are many examples of a software developer helping to change a race track overnight before.”

Monday, Jan. 13

Keith Kunz Motorsports driver Cannon McIntosh earned victory in the preliminary A-Feature during Monday night’s Cummins Qualifying Night. With two automatic spots to Saturday night’s A-Feature event during each qualifying night, McIntosh and second-place driver Tyler Courtney have earned the first pair of positions for the grand finale.

NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe finished second in the second heat race of the night, rallying from the seventh starting position to earn enough passing points for a spot in the night’s preliminary qualifying race. After starting fourth, Briscoe dropped back to collect a ninth-place finish in the A-Feature, but he’ll have a chance to race his way into the finale through last-chance qualifying races Saturday.

Ryan Ellis, former NASCAR Xfinity Series driver and public relations representative for Go Fas Racing, finished last in the fourth heat race of the night. Starting fifth in the C-Feature, Ellis was unable to advance his position, finishing fifth and just missed one of the top-four transfer spots in an effort to advance to the B-Feature. Ellis will have another opportunity to race his way into the A-Feature finale, but it will be a tall task through Saturday’s multiple rounds of last-chance qualifying events.

Next up is Tuesday’s Warren CAT Qualifying Night, where NASCAR Cup Series drivers Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman will have their chance to transfer into the A-Feature for Saturday night.

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