Longtime dirt rivals Larson and Bell at last go head-to-head for NASCAR championship

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FILE - Christopher Bell, left, and Kyle Larson, right, are shown at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Oct. 22, 2023. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell are locked into NASCAR's championship-deciding finale, leaving two spots open Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

AVONDALE, Ariz. – The rivalry hardly reaches the heights of Petty versus Pearson or Earnhardt against Gordon as one of NASCAR’s great competitions. But there is no doubt that dozens of dirt track battles between Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have created an interesting dynamic ahead of Sunday's championship.

Larson beat Bell at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to claim the first of four spots in Sunday's title-deciding season finale, then Bell won the next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway to take the second slot.

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Their rivalry is the most intense of the championship contenders — William Byron dates Ryan Blaney's youngest sister and referred to Blaney as his “brother-in-law” last week — and Bell and Larson will finally race each other for the biggest trophy to date.

“I don’t know how fans view it, (but) I really enjoy getting to race a guy in the Cup Series that when we were starting out racing with each other, neither of us were in the Cup Series,” Larson said.

Larson has 23 wins over nine full Cup Series seasons and won the 2021 Cup title driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Bell has six wins in four Cup seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won the Truck Series championship in 2017.

For most of their careers, the annual Chili Bowl Nationals in Bell's home state of Oklahoma was the only race that mattered. Bell won it three consecutive times in small open-wheel midget cars from 2017 to 2019 as Larson came up short time and time again.

Larson finally broke through with back-to-back wins in 2020 and 2021.

The two were once dirt midget teammates at Keith Kunz Motorsports, where Bell seemed to consistently beat Larson in equal equipment, and the relationship hasn't always been warm.

“He kicked my ass for a few years straight, like every race,” Larson said. “I don’t know if I ever beat him. He made me work really hard to get better as a driver, especially on the dirt track stuff.”

The two had a NASCAR incident on the road course at Watkins Glen two years ago that created a brief but public feud: Larson said Bell ignored an apology text, Bell said Larson “cried to the media” about the snub before Bell had a chance to respond.

They went quite some time without speaking before eventually resolving the dispute and moving on with their careers. Larson at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday is racing for a second Cup title in three years, while Bell is back in the championship four for the second consecutive year but seeking his first championship.

The respect level is certainly there and was evident after Larson held off Bell over the closing laps to win Las Vegas for the championship berth. He flashed a thumbs-up to runner-up Bell after the finish.

“That was just me kind of showing respect and saying thanks in a way for having us race it out,” Larson said. "He’s always been a really fair, clean racer. We’ve had numbers and numbers of battles in stock cars, but mostly in dirt track. I’m typically the one that is the aggressor or the aggressive one in our battles. Probably push the limit of being dirty sometimes.

“For him to continue to race me clean, I definitely have a ton of respect for him. Always have. In my opinion, he’s one of the best race car drivers in the world, and could do everything that I get to do outside of NASCAR if his team would let him.”

Hendrick Motorsports allows Larson to race outside of NASCAR, and he will attempt the Indianapolis 500 next May. Joe Gibbs Racing has curtailed almost all of Bell's extracurricular racing.

But Larson takes credit in Bell even being in NASCAR with a top team.

Bell had an offer on a development deal with struggling Roush Fenway Racing in 2014 that, if he signed, would take him out of Toyota's program. Toyota had already lost Larson to Chevrolet and swooped in to stop Bell from being a Ford driver.

“I think his story and all of that, me being with Toyota, then not moving forward with them, them kind of pushing him along after they felt like they lost an opportunity on me, I feel like I take pride a little bit in that, that he is in the Cup Series maybe partly because of me,” Larson said.


AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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