It’s that time of year when the annual predictions for the Chili Bowl Nationals start floating around the internet. We like to play the numbers game as much as anyone, so without hesitation, here are our predictions for the 2020 event, along with the reasoning behind these predictions:
Most Likely To Win
Kyle Larson is almost everyone’s favorite going into the event. He’s won every major midget race leading up to the Chili Bowl, including a few Down Under. As far as the Tulsa venue goes, Larson has won two previous heat races and five preliminary night A-Features. He has reached the final night A-Feature eight-times: 2010 (10th), 2012 (3rd), 2013 (21st), 2014 (22nd), 2015 (7th), 2016 (5th), 2018 (19th), and 2019 (2nd). Despite leading the race until the last lap in 2019, Larson still has not won the whole enchilada at Tulsa. Unless his luck changes, he won’t win it again this year.
Three-time Chili Bowl winner Christopher Bell has stacked up an impressive record with four heat race victories, five preliminary night A-Feature wins, and an incredible resume in the final night A-Feature with solid performances: 2014 (3rd), 2015 (23rd), 2016 (12th), 2017 (1st), 2018 (1st), and 2019 (1st). It would be difficult to bet against him, especially behind the wheel of a Keith Kunz Motorsports car. We’re betting the Keith Kunz team and the strong independent teams like Larson’s, will run each other so hard, they will run each other out of the race. We predict that C-Bell will not make it four-in-a-row.
The back-to-back winner in 2015 and 2016, Rico Abreu, has more fun with this event than another driver. His “Mullet-Hat” collectible from last year’s race are highly-sought after items. A guy with this much talent, having this much fun, is almost a sure thing to sweep the event. His Chili Bowl resume includes five heat race wins, four preliminary night A-Feature wins, and two event wins. Alas, the likable Abreu is one of the Kunz Motorsports members who will probably be the class of the field until the car surrenders.
Who Do We Expect
We are going to go out on a limb (although it is not that far of a reach) and pick Daum Motorsports driver Zach Daum, Rusty Kunz – RMS driver Brad Sweet, or RAMS Racing’s Justin Grant to finish on top.
Veteran driver Brad Sweet had solid finishes in the finals the last two years with a Sixth place finish in 2018, and Seventh last year. Sweet is coming off of a career year in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car series and is teamed up with one of the experts in dirt track racing, Rusty Kunz. We give credit to this veteran racer and the car owner who recognizes chassis setup and race management skills.
Zach Daum is more of an independent who earned his way up the ladder. Daum has four heat race wins at the Tulsa event, won a preliminary night, and has appeared in seven final A-Features with progressively better results each year. His Chili Bowl resume to date includes: 2010 (23rd), 2012 (13th), 2014 (13th), 2015 (9th), 2016 (3rd), 2017 (7th), and 2019 (5th).
It is easy to like Justin Grant. The California driver will race anything … anytime. He can run and win in anything with open wheels and pushes himself to take every opportunity presented. In the past four years, Grant has three heat race wins, won three preliminary night A-Features, and contended in four Final A-Features at the Chili Bowl: 2016 (23rd), 2017 (3rd), 2018 (7th), and 2019 (3rd). Frankly, we’ll be stunned if he doesn’t win.
Don’t Bet Against
There are a host of other racers who could easily upset the apple cart and walk away with the Golden Driller. From big-name former Champions like Tim McCreadie to five-time champion Sammy Swindell, with a few other drivers with big reputations in-between. J.J. Yeley has struggled the last few years at the event, but one can never count the Arizona driver out.
Experienced midget racer Shane Golobic is tough to overlook, having made it through seven final A-features. Tanner Thorson is looking to complete a comeback journey after a devastating fiery multi-car incident on Highway 99 in Modesto, California. His background in midget auto racing is strong, and this would be an amazing rebound story. His previous finishes in the Chili Bowl finals are impressive: 2015 (4th), 2016 (9th), 2017 (4th), 2018 (4th), and 2019 (10th).
Don’t count out USAC Sprint Car stars Tyler Courtney, C.J. Leary, or Shane Cottle, either. They are threats to win on any given night, and all three are coming off terrific seasons.
(Not So) Surprise Finishers
There are always a few racers who quietly compile serious racing stats and seemingly surprise fans when they win significant events. Those almost-forgotten “workhorse” racers may surprise many casual fans, but those watching the midget scene closely recognize them.
Michael Pickens is one of those drivers. With four Chili Bowl heat race wins, Pickens is no stranger to success at the Chili Bowl, but you rarely hear his name mentioned as a top contender. That could change this year when Pickens climbs into the RMS Racing Midget.
Daryn Pittman is another blue-collar driver that many don’t expect to see in the top five of a Midget racing event, yet he is there frequently. Pittman’s career has centered mainly on winged Sprints, but he has clearly shown an aptitude for traditional-style open-wheel cars too. He has finished in the top-ten on the final night at the Chili Bowl four times, finishing Second in 2017.
Rookies And Young Guns
The term “rookie” is used loosely, simply meaning it is the racer’s first appearance at the event. We don’t put much stock into the rookie title because of that. Technically, if Parnelli Jones got behind the wheel in Tulsa, he would be able to declare rookie status… so take that for what it is worth.
Many of these driver’s wearing the rookie designation have established themselves as champions in one of the ASCS divisions, or similar series. Nevertheless, there are a few of these “rookies” who intrigue our imagination.
Australian James Davison, the GT World Challenge driver, is showing up as a 33-year-old rookie. Likewise, the Australian Midget car (Speedcar) Champion, Kaidon Brown, has entered a NOS Energy Drink-sponsored Midget. These two could put on a show.
Beyond the rookies, there are a few younger drivers who usually draw some attention. Fresh-faced drivers in the ”young gun” category include the young sensation Zeb Wise, West Coast phenoms Giovanni Scelzi, Jake Swanson, and Brody Roa. Jason McDougal and Logan Seavey should be included in this list. We expect one or more of these drivers to put their mark on the 2020 Chili Bowl.
Fun To Watch
There are always some names that evoke great memories who show up on the roster. These experienced veterans have a long list of accolades in their careers and are still fun to watch. We include Dave Darland, Donny Schatz, Damion Gardner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Sammy Swindell, and Ryan Newman in this list.
In case anyone forgot, Newman was a beast in midgets before his NASCAR career. It should be a blast to watch him in close quarters on dirt again. And Swindell … well, he’s a five-time winner of the event. He knows how to get around this joint.
There are some personal favorites who we’d like to see do well. Ronnie Gardner has had a stellar career on the West Coast in Midget Racing. Ace McCarthy has the best hauler and most exceptional attitude of anyone at the track. Casey Shuman has always honored any request that OneDirt has made for interviews, which makes him very likable in our book.
Thomas Meseraull is a fan favorite wherever he goes. We’d also like to see A.J. Fike and Jerry Coons Jr. rewarded with great finishes for all the years of hard racing. Coons has racked up ten heat race wins and three preliminary night Feature wins over the years. Fike has five Chili Bowl heat wins.
Finally, there was one entry who caused us to pause and take a second look. Mark Lowery is a racer with extensive dirt, asphalt, open-wheel, and Late Model racing experience. The former NASCAR truck series driver is entered with the Woodland Autosport #8W Midget. His application indicated the chassis is a Spike chassis, powered by an Offenhauser. Assuming it was probably an error, we called the Chili Bowl PR for verification. Offenhauser was precisely what was put on the entry form.
We ended up calling one of the crew members for verification. It turns out the team was, in fact, trolling for people like us. Their entry is a Spike/Esslinger, but the team couldn’t resist pulling a quick-one on the historians who read the list of 400 entries. Well done, you caught us. Now we can’t help but wonder, what if?
Pro Tip: Keep an eye on cars fitted with Stanton SR-11x engines.
No matter who comes out victorious, the fans will be appreciative of the great racing and the spectacle of what this event has become. We will be there to bring you daily coverage, along with many things not routinely presented — like the trade show, which is another component of the Chili Bowl. Stay tuned!