Multiple NASCAR Cup Series drivers took a run at winning the Chili Bowl Nationals last week, but it was a guy with a nondescript truck series resume who snared the championship over the likes of three-time winner Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and 2021 Cup Series and Chili Bowl champion Kyle Larson.
The best part of the story, though, was the fact that Tanner Thorson was racing at all.
Tanner Thorson topped Christopher Bell and a big-name field
Chili Bowl Nationals week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was everything dirt-track racing enthusiasts have come to expect from the beloved event. A record 381 entries made it onto the track, and six long days of competition generated 65 harrowing flips of midget cars trying to negotiate the quarter-mile track.
Starting out of the second position late Saturday night, Thorson scored his first Chili Bowl Nationals win by holding off NASCAR Cup Series driver Christopher Bell in the final laps, snapping a run of five straight titles by Bell or Kyle Larson. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., another Cup Series racer, nailed down ninth place.
Thorson, 25, was on a career path that might have landed him in the Cup Series alongside those big-name racers someday, having made it to the Camping World Truck Series for 11 races in 2018.
Tanner Thorson escaped death in a 2019 wreck away from the track
Tanner Thorson’s asphalt racing resume is relatively brief: a few ARCA Menards Series races in 2016-17, one appearance in the K&N NASCAR Pro Series East Series in 2018, and a brief run in the Camping World Truck Series. In 11 races for the Randy Young team, three of which ended with mechanical problems, he never finished better than 13th.
Still, Thorson showed enough that he should have been able to return to the truck series in 2019 for at least another partial schedule. He never got the opportunity.
Hauling his midget racing car home from an event in Las Vegas on March 4, 2019, Thorson was injured after crashing his pickup truck on a California state highway near Modesto. The crash involved four vehicles, and Thorson’s truck was fully engulfed in flames by the time help arrived, NBC Sports reported.
Thorson suffered a broken left arm, a cracked sternum, broken ribs, and a punctured lung. The arm injury required surgery.
That proved to be the end of his NASCAR days, but Thorson never gave up racing. The 2016 USAC national midget champion has been a mainstay on the dirt-track circuits. He was fifth in the USAC circuit last season.
His breakthrough Chili Bowl Nationals victory seemed inevitable given Thorson’s recent history in the event. He finished in the top 10 four times from 2017-21, with the only miss coming in 2020 despite starting on the pole.
More noteworthy developments at the Chili Bowl Nationals
Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion, flipped in his F feature race and did not finish. The scary-looking incident happened after cars in front of him checked up and Elliott’s ride made contact with a tire, sending him airborne.
Alex Bowman, the NASCAR teammate of Elliott and Kyle Larson, finished second in the C feature to advance to the B feature, where he placed 11th.
Meanwhile, Chase Briscoe placed sixth in the C feature, barely missing his chance to race in the B feature. Ryan Newman finished 13th in his C main.
The breakthrough driver of the week was Kaylee Bryson, who became the first woman in the event’s 36-year history to compete for the overall championship. Bryson started 10th in Saturday’s second B feature but pulled out the victory to qualify for the final, where she placed 18th.