TULSA, Okla. – C.J. Leary may not have locked himself into Saturday night’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals finale on Thursday, but he and car owner Alex Bowman certainly proved that they’ve found speed as the week has rolled on.
After Bowman earned a top-10 finish during his preliminary night, Leary upped the ante by challenging for a lock-in spot throughout the 25-lap feature on John Christner Trucking Qualifying Night.
He nearly came away with it, too.
Leary came at second-running Shane Golobic with a big slide job inside of the final two laps, actually edging Golobic out by a bumper at the white flag as he looked to secure a spot in the pole shuffle.
However, Golobic was able to cross back underneath Leary and retake second on the final lap, with the No. 55V Valvoline entry completing the podium and going into a B main for Saturday’s program.
After last year saw Leary roll from the D main to the B main before mechanical woes eliminated him from contention, the Indiana driver is confident that this year, he can race his way into the big show.
“I was just hoping the race would go green, because I felt like I had a really fast car under (longer) green flag conditions, but the cautions gave my hand away a little bit,” Leary noted. “I was getting to something off of turn two and sliding down in (turns) three and four.
“I can’t say enough about everyone on this Alex Bowman Racing team,” he added. “Last year I would have been really happy to be in this position, but this year it means we still have work to do. We can’t hang our heads, though. We had a lot of speed here.”
– Two drivers turned potentially-disastrous nights into positive results, salvaging their Chili Bowls and giving themselves a shot to race into the 55-lap headliner on Saturday night.
One was 2005 Chili Bowl winner Tracy Hines, who piloted the Leader Card Racing No. 11 back from a spectacular flip in his heat race, through both the C and B main and made the A main Thursday night.
The other was a much lesser-known name, California’s Jake Morgan, who raced his way from last in his C main all the way into the A main on Thursday before a flip in the feature ended his night prematurely.
Even though the final outcome wasn’t what he had hoped for, Morgan was thrilled with the speed in his car and believes that he and his team will have a reasonable shot to make some noise on Saturday.
“I’ve got a great group of guys behind me. Mike Sala gave me a great opportunity to come out here and run a midget, and this is a huge way to repay them I feel like,” Morgan noted. “We just had bad luck in our heat race … Christopher (Bell) and I got together coming to the white and we fell back. It was part of racing here at the Chili Bowl.
“I’m just proud we got our head back on our shoulders and made the main. It means a lot.”
– While Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports was celebrating its fourth-straight Thursday night preliminary win at the Chili Bowl with Christopher Bell, as well as the team’s fourth win in four nights this week, its two rookie contenders found themselves disappointed in the pits after a rough outing.
Sam Johnson and McKenna Haase were battling for the lead in their qualifier when they banged wheels, leaving Johnson with a flat left-rear tire and relegating Haase backwards from the lead.
Haase finished fourth and Johnson was ninth after the contact, putting both into B mains and eventually relegating both young drivers out of a shot to make the feature.
It was a reminder that inside the Tulsa Expo Center, the range of emotions from victory to defeat can be extremely vast, even within one organization.
– While Tony Stewart has been a fixture at the Chili Bowl Nationals over the past several years, working extensively with the track preparation crew and even piloting a tractor himself at times, a NASCAR name that fans on social media were surprised to see in attendance Thursday night was Jeff Gordon.
The four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was spotted in the Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports pit area and struck up extensive conversation with Thursday night winner Christopher Bell and Pete Willoughby before Keith Kunz himself joined in later on as well.
Gordon’s lone Saturday A main start at the Chili Bowl came in 1990, when he finished 16th in a 20-car field. John Heydenreich won the 40-lap feature on that day.
– The official Chili Bowl flip count stands at 41 through four nights of competition, with a sizable jump of 19 flips during Thursday’s preliminary night program.
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Watch The Chili Bowl Live: The Chili Bowl will be shown live online on www.racinboys.com. The online PPV experience will run from Monday through Saturday’s qualifiers. At the time of opening ceremonies (6 p.m. local time) on Saturday, Racinboys PPV coverage will cease as the final features will be shown live on MAVTV (more information here).