Chili Bowl begins its six-day run on Monday
With 355 drivers from 33 states and five countries converging on Tulsa for the 33rd annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl, getting everything to fit within the confines of the River Spirit Expo Center continues to be a challenge every year. Time management is also a challenge, so for the first time, the Chili Bowl has become a six-day event, giving fans one more day of racing. It all gets started Monday.
The addition of a day will result in a slight change in the qualifying format. With five days of qualifying, only the top two drivers each night will lock into Saturday's main event instead of three, like in the past. That locks in 10 drivers, with the remaining 14 starters coming from Saturday night B-mains.
Chili Bowl co-promoter and founder Emmett Hahn sees the changes as a positive for everyone.
“For the fans and our help. When you look at it, everything is a win-win,” Hahn said of the changes. “It will be a better race track, get out earlier, and it spreads out the top drivers during the week. There is not a negative to it.” The added night is a plus for those who don't already have tickets. “For those people who can't get a reserved seat, this is perfect for them,” Hahn said.
Once again many big-name teams from many forms of racing have entered multiple-car teams. Leading the way is Keith Kunz, who is bringing 11 cars to the show. As a car owner, Kunz has won the past four Chili Bowls. Two-time champion Christopher Bell returns in a Kunz car along with Rico Abreu, who won in 2015-16.
“The A team is coming back,” Hahn said with a smile. “We are going to have all the stars here. The
offense and a substandard shooting start from its former Most Valuable Player.
A season ago, the loss of Andre Roberson hurt the Thunder's postseason hopes. This season, OKC is No. 1 in defensive efficiency (102.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) without Roberson touching the floor.
“We preach team defense so it's never truly one-on-one with us,” said forward Jerami Grant, who's strengthened the starting lineup in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony trade this past summer. “The basis of our defense is if somebody is beat, there's always somebody there to help.”
Good, because the Thunder's 3-point and free throw percentages rank among the worst in the league. They are problems based on a roster built for speed, not comfort, the length and athleticism plan of general manager Sam Presti to put a legion of multi-positional athletes around Westbrook in the post-Kevin Durant landscape.
It doesn't help the Thunder's 20th-ranked offense when Patrick Patterson and Alex Abrines — needed perimeter floor spacers off the bench — are shooting 32.7 and 32.3 percent, respectively, from 3-point range.
“It's less pressure on Russ and PG (Paul George) and those guys to provide points every night,” said Patterson of what happens when him and Abrines hit shots.
Those are players receiving fewer than seven shots per game combined, however.
Despite little concern inside the Thunder, Westbrook's ongoing battle with his shot is an issue. He is taking three times as many shots as the aforementioned bench players, but is seeing them fall at his lowest rate since his second season. He's thrived in every area but scoring efficiency.
So, how does OKC still sit third in the Western Conference?
On Saturday, the Thunder started 1-of-10 from the field, going four minutes between George baskets, yet only trailed by two points midway through the first quarter. Amid a league where shooting is hoarded, it was a case study in the team's alternative method to success.
LaMarcus Aldridge shredded the Thunder for 56 points and 16 free throws on Thursday, but on Saturday had just 14 shot attempts and one free throw attempt. He received the ball against Grant in the post, and Terrance Ferguson slid from the backside to double team him. Ferguson's head was on a swivel. He looked like he was running suicides sprints between the 6-foot-11 Aldridge and his defensive assignment in the opposite corner, retreating quickly after Aldridge passed out of the post.
“I think at one point I didn't know if we'd get to 50 at the half,” Donovan said. “The thing that was encouraging to me was we came out of the locker room and we defended closer to our identity than we'd been for most of the year.”
Offense has been the issue, and so much of the Thunder's offense comes down to Westbrook. He was shooting nearly 49 percent from the field to start the season — more at the rim, more free throws, fewer 3-pointers — before a nasty left ankle sprain in mid-November.
If and when that rhythm returns, OKC still will have accumulated scrapes and scratches from how it wants to play. Westbrook wears them nightly, a reminder of what the Thunder leans on.
“I think everyone in this locker room tries to play defense first,” Schroder said. “That's our identity.”
Christopher Bell of Norman competes in the A-Main race at the Chili Bowl at the River Spirit Expo Center on Jan. 11, 2018.
Rico Abreu (left) celebrates winning the A Feature championship race at the Chili Bowl Nationals with his team owner Keith Kunz at Expo Square in Tulsa on Jan. 17, 2015.