For the first time in nearly 51 years, the NASCAR Cup Series is getting dirty! NASCAR’s best head to a dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway for a 250-lap duel in Tennessee. The field will be set by four 15-lap qualifying races consisting of nine or ten cars based on a random draw. Some Cup Series drivers are experienced in dirt racing, while others have very little experience. Here are three drivers to watch this weekend on dirt in Bristol.
Kyle Larson has gained the reputation of being one of the best dirt late model racers out there. He won over 40 dirt races in 2020 while suspended from NASCAR and is a two-time reigning Chilli Bowl Nationals winner, the dirt equivalent of winning a Daytona 500. Larson also won the 2016 Truck Series dirt race at Eldora Speedway.
In the 2021 Cup Series, Larson already has a victory and two other races in which he was very close. He wrecked late at the Daytona Road Course while in contention for the win, and dominated last weekend at Atlanta before getting passed late by Ryan Blaney. Expect Larson to run up front all race on Sunday.
Similar to Larson, Christopher Bell has also gained a strong dirt reputation. He’s won countless World of Outlaws events and won the Chilli Bowl Nationals in three consecutive years (2017-2019). He also won the 2015 Truck Series race at Eldora.
Bell has gotten off to a strong start this season, winning at the Daytona Road Course and currently sitting 9th in the points standings after a 21st place finish last weekend in Atlanta. Bell is one of the favorites on Sunday, and expect him to run towards the front at the end of the race.
Kyle Busch hasn’t proven to necessarily be as strong of a dirt racer compared to Larson and Bell, but the difference is that Busch already has practiced on the dirt configuration. He ran in the Bristol Dirt Nationals last weekend, finishing second in the B-Main, and then 11th in the A-main race.
Busch picked up another top-5 last weekend at Atlanta but has yet to secure his first win of 2021. Experience pays off, so expect Kyle Busch to have a strong chance at victory on Sunday in Bristol.
Bell’s late pass of Joey Logano allowed him to capture his first NASCAR Cup Series victory, a week after Michael McDowell earned his.
Joe Gibbs hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2007. Yet, his teams are still finding ways to win on Sunday.
Less than 24 hours after his grandson Ty earned a win in his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start, Gibbs’ unit at the premier Cup level also featured a first-time victor. Christopher Bell earned his first Cup Series victory at Daytona International Speedway’s road course in just his second career start in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Bell would pass Joey Logano with less than two laps remaining to secure the win.
“This is the happiest moment I’ve had in a very long time. 2020 was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career,” Bell said. “To be able to come back in 21 and win in the Cup Series this early on a road course is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Bell has been part of Gibbs’ developmental endeavors for several seasons, previously winning 16 races over three years in his Xfinity program. The 26-year-old also won the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title in a Toyota Tundra owned by his current teammate Kyle Busch. His rookie season at the Cup level was a struggle, driving the No. 95 Toyota for the Gibbs-affiliated Leavine Family Racing. Bell struggled in lesser equipment but showed some speed in last season’s maiden voyage on Daytona’s road course.
Early in the race, Bell took an early risk, staying on the track during a caution for debris on the track toward the end of the first 16-lap stage while a majority of the rest of the field pitted. The No. 20 failed to earn stage points with a 12th-place finish, but there was no denying its speed. Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, also the winner of the past four road course events, dominated the early portions of the race, but Bell’s Toyota was matching his times. Elliott and Bell were running in the top two spots after each pitted at lap 57 of 70 when a caution came out for rain.
Both Bell and Elliott visited pit road, but Elliott fell out of contention after two separate incidents with Corey LaJoie and later Bell’s teammate Denny Hamlin, relegating him to a 21st-place finish. Bell won the race off pit road and restarted 12th, quickly making his way through the field on fresher tires. He made it up to sixth after the Elliott-LaJoie get-together and another incident involving Tyler Reddick brought out cautions.
Going back green, Bell worked his way through on-track chaos and some of the sport’s most renowned names to earn his way to the front. His pass of Logano left behind Hamlin, as well as prior champions Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick.
“The last lap was pretty surreal,” Bell recalled. “All race long I kind of felt like I was trying to do my best job and not screwing up, hit my marks, not overdriving the corners. Whenever I got by the 22 coming to the white flag, I knew I was faster than him. I ran him down from a while back. All I had to do was get a couple of good corners and get away.”
With his win, each of the first two events of the Cup Series season has featured a first-time winner, following Michael McDowell’s win at the Daytona 500 (run on the traditional oval) last weekend. This is the third time a season has opened with consecutive first-time winners, with such a feat also occurring in 1949 and 1950.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
McDowell got into trouble on the first lap of the race, missing the first turn and losing his steering. However, the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford recovered to finish 8th, earning consecutive top-ten finishes for the first time in his 14-year career.
AJ Allmendinger ran his first Cup Series race in November 2018, finishing 7th in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. Allmendinger earned his lone career Cup victory at another road course, Watkins Glen, in 2014 and has won four more on the Xfinity circuit. He is currently racing full-time for Kaulig in the Xfinity Series.
Reddick was one of four cars not to finish, a list that also included Josh Bilicki (brakes), Ross Chastain (crash), and Quin Houff (engine).
Hamlin takes over the Cup Series points lead, pacing Logano by 12 points.
Championships won and championships missed unite at JGR, whose drivers experienced a roller-coaster 2020 season.
2021 Joe Gibbs Racing Driver Chart
Martin Truex Jr.
Bass Pro Shops/Auto-Owners Insurance/DeWalt
Legendary NFL head coach Joe Gibbs opted for another championship venture during his days coaching football in Washington. As he closed in on his third and final Super Bowl title, Gibbs was starting his own NASCAR squad, starting things off with future champion Dale Jarrett. After Jarrett and another trophy-hoister in the making, Bobby Labonte, piloted the original No. 18 car to 10 wins over its first seven seasons, Gibbs expanded to a two-car operation, welcoming in the hot-headed but talented Tony Stewart to the No. 20. In the first year of the Labonte-Stewart tandem, the former finished second behind Jarrett, then driving for Robert Yates Racing, before winning a title of his own in 2000. Stewart would take home the championship two years, the first of two such celebrations in Gibbs’ No. 20 (the other coming in 2005).
The original Nos. 18 and 20 cars are now respectively piloted by Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell. Busch has brought home two further Cup Series championships (2015, 2019).
A third car, the No. 11, arrived in 2004 as a part-time unit before Denny Hamlin earned full-time duties just over a year later by closing out the 2005 campaign with five top 20 finishes in the final seven races. The gambit immediately paid off with a third-place finish in the final standings, the best by any Cup rookie in the modern era (since 1972). Hamlin has since gone on to win 44 races in Gibbs’ equipment, including three Daytona 500s (including the most recent two), and, with the exception of an injury-marred 2013, has finished no worse than 12th in the final standings.
Gibbs would often field a fourth car for research and development before that unit eventually became the No. 19 Toyota, originally driven by Carl Edwards in 2015-16. Edwards retired weeks before the 2017 Daytona 500, first leaving the Camry to Daniel Suarez for two seasons before championship driver Martin Truex Jr. came over after the shutdown of Furniture Row Racing.
2020 in Review
The closest Gibbs ever came to an undefeated season was the 1991-92 NFL campaign, winning his first 11 games en route to Super Bowl XXVI. Hamlin tried hard to duplicate the feat after the coronavirus-induced pause, winning seven races and running at the front of the standings with Kevin Harvick all season. Following a 28th-place finish at Indianapolis in July, Hamlin finished outside of the Top 20 in just one of the final 20 races. He advanced to the final four at Phoenix for the second straight season but came home fourth in the standings despite a run in the top five.
Despite Hamlin’s success, the biggest story at Gibbs was by far the Kyle Busch saga. The No. 18’s title defense did not as planned, as a topsy-turvy season often denied him victories through factors beyond his control. Busch eventually was able to score a win at Texas in the 34th weekend of the season.
Truex was relatively quiet in his second year in the No. 19 car after picking up seven wins and a runner-up posting the year prior. He earned a single, yet dominant, victory at the summer race at Martinsville and his 23 top tens led all Gibbs drivers (third in NASCAR overall). Despite a summer stretch where he earned a streak of nine top fives in ten races, Truex missed out on the championship quartet after a tough race at the penultimate event back at Martinsville.
Bell, the 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion, got his Cup feet wet in the No. 95 at now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, which shut down after last season despite a technical alliance with Gibbs. Erik Jones piloted the No. 20 car in each of the past three seasons, finishing no better than 15th and winning two races.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 16th full season Career Cup Victories: 57 (last: Texas, fall 2020) 2020 finish: 8th Best standings finish: 2015, 2019
There’s nothing wrong with going down in the same sentences as the legendary Mark Martin, whom Hamlin passed on the all-time wins list last season. But those comparisons are going to grow in a pejorative light if Hamlin continues to miss out on a title, unfair as they may be. Based on his on-track output, Hamlin may be closer to a title than ever before. Since Chris Gabehart took over as crew chief in 2019, Hamlin has won 13 races.
“Chris (has done) a great job of getting the most out of me each and every week,” Hamlin said prior to descending upon Daytona. “When he came in, a lot of it was me working on the driving aspect and giving him the free reign to go and do whatever he needed to do with the race car and us trusting each other. I think that whatever has happened, it’s clicked and it’s worked well, and we’ve gotten a lot of success from that.”
Undeterred by another close finish, Hamlin has kept busy this offseason. In addition to starring in a widely-aired Domino’s commercial, Hamlin has been busy running 23XI Racing alongside NBA legend Michael Jordan and competitor Bubba Wallace. Hamlin has been instrumental in the team’s formation but has assured fans of his No. 11 that his day-to-day involvement with 23XI (which will hold a technical alliance with JGR) is on hold for the time being. Hamlin solidified his commitment to the No. 11 with a newly granted extension.
“I’m really looking forward to going to the race track and then concentrating on one thing and that’s being a race car driver and getting the most out of it,” Hamlin said. “For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date and where I’m kind of done on the day to day for 23X1 and I just think that now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me, in the long run, to continue to be successful.”
Experience: 17th full season Career Cup Victories: 2020 finish: 4th Best standings finish: 2nd (2010)
By all accounts, there are many teams in NASCAR that would make ridiculous sacrifices to earn Busch’s 2020 ledger (1 win, 14 top fives, 20 top tens). But Busch knows that there’s far more expected of him. Following Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, Busch is the only active multiple-champion on the Cup level.
To kickstart 2021, the No. 18’s personnel underwent a bit of a reboot. A good bunch of Busch’s crew shifted over to the No. 20 inherited by Bell, including pit boss Adam Stevens, who helped Busch win each of his Cup Series titles. Busch’s Camry will carry the familiar, colorful insignias of M&M’s and Mars, Incorporated’s confectionaries, but he feels it’s a complete shift. He compared the shift to his original Gibbs arrival in 2008, when he moved into the No. 18 after his first three Cup seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. Busch would go on to earn his first eight wins in a Gibbs vehicle that season.
“I kind of feel like I got fired from the 18 car and moved over to the 20 guys,” Busch said. “There’s this whole thing mentally in my head that I kind of got fired and rehired. Maybe that’ll hold true with how it looked in 2007 to 2008 from Hendrick to Gibbs. And I went off and won eight races. It’s a new challenge, it’s a whole group, but looking forward to it.”
Engineer Ben Beshore will take over as Busch’s crew chief, having overseen four Busch wins at the Xfinity level in 2019. Beshore matched the output in a full season with Harrison Burton. The collaboration got off to a good start this week, as Busch took advantage of a battle for the lead gone awry between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to win the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on Tuesday night.
“We’ve had a lot of success together. We kind of know the language we’re both speaking,” Beshore said after the Clash victory. “To be able to start the year with some momentum, some positive momentum, get a win right off the bat here, it’s awesome. Especially with a lot of new team members on the car, just getting everybody tied together, pulling in the same direction. I think it’s huge.”
Martin Truex Jr.
Experience: 16th full season Career Cup Victories: 27 (last: Martinsville summer, 2020) 2020 finish: 7th Best standings finish: 2017 Champion
Truex was another driver with a very consistent season that went somewhat by the wayside because we’ve grown accustomed to much bigger things. Going into last year, Truex had won 19 races over the prior three campaigns, winning the 2017 title and finishing in the runner-up slot in the other two seasons. Last season was Truex’s first without crew chief Cole Pearn since 2014. The Mayetta, NJ native had won all but two of his 26 Cup Series races with Pearn in town. Eventually, Truex found a rapport with new boss James Small, leading to their summer endeavors.
JGR brass obviously feels the collaboration is working. Truex and Small will work a second season together and Truex, 40, was recently signed to an extension that will keep him in the No. 19 Toyota.
“We’re always fired up and we are working hard to be better at things,” Truex said what was and what’s to come at JGR. “Last year did not go the way that we wanted. We had a lot of close calls and had some races we probably should have won, and things didn’t go the way we needed to, or we screwed them up. That always makes you angry and makes you want to go back and redo it or retry it. I think we are better prepared this year for sure as a unit.”
Experience: 2nd season Career Cup Victories: 0 2020 finish: 20th Best standings finish: 20th (2020)
Bell, the 2020 Camping World Truck Series champion, didn’t live up to his massive potential in his first season, probably due to underfunded equipment over at LFR. He did, however, put up some strong efforts in his debut. His 20th-place posting was the best by any LFR driver and he tied Matt DiBenedetto’s team record with seven top tens. Bell’s best finish was a third-place showing at Texas behind Busch. He now returns to Gibbs after placing their Xfinity program in the top five in 2018 and 2019 with Stevens as his crew chief. The pair got off to a strong start at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday, as Bell earned a runner-up result in a photo-finish with Aric Almirola.
Despite his familiarity and prior success in a Gibbs vehicle, Bell feels like there’s some pressure to perform in his return to the organization.
“I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” Bell said. Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach provides all of the resources needed to have four championship-caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough.”
JGR is an organization where each of its four drivers is more than capable of making the postseason, and they should be well expected to do so in 2021. The biggest question mark will probably be Bell, if only because he has yet to consistently prove himself at the Cup level yet. Either way, there’s no reason to believe that this team shouldn’t be contending for a championship.
Richard Petty Motorsports has announced that Erik Jones will be replacing Bubba Wallace in 2021, driving the iconic No. 43 car.
Jones, 24, is currently with Joe Gibbs Racing, but the organization announced on August 10th that Christopher Bell would be taking his ride. Bell spent 2018 and 2019 under Gibbs in the Xfinity series, and is driving for Leavine Family Racing in 2020. His announcement to Gibbs in 2021 came after Leavine Family Racing announced they were ceasing operations after this season.
After spending his rookie season with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, Jones filled Matt Kenseth’s seat in the No. 20 car in 2018. Jones has picked up two wins in three seasons for Gibbs, finishing in the top-10 48 times and finishing in the top-five 28 times.
In four full-time Cup Series seasons, Jones has finished in the top-20 in points in all four seasons while making the playoffs twice. He failed to advance to the round of 12 both times that he made it.
Jones will be taking over the reigns from Bubba Wallace, who will be departing to a team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. In Richard Petty Motorsports’ 12 year history, the team has picked up five wins and 46 top-five finishes in 861 races. However, the team hasn’t won since 2014 when Aric Almirola took the No. 43 to victory lane at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400. In 109 races with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace picked up nine top-10s and three top-fives.
With the confirmation of Jones to RPM, it leaves just one high-tier ride available in the Cup Series. The No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports remains free, a ride where Jones was originally rumored to be a favorite.
In 2021 and beyond, Erik Jones will look to get The King and the No. 43 back into victory lane for Richard Petty Motorsports.
NASCAR’s “silly season” just got a whole lot zanier. The Eastern Speed Board covers it all in their latest edition.
The NASCAR offseason’s moves and shake-ups are often referred to as “silly season”. 2020 as a whole could well be described that way, but Joe Gibbs Racing put a particularly impactful twist on the upcoming proceedings.
JGR announced the Thursday that Erik Jones would exit the team’s No. 20 Toyota, which appears set to be filled by Christopher Bell. A former Xfinity Series standout in a Gibbs Toyota, Bell has been working with JGR satellite team Leavine Family Racing in his first full Cup Series campaign. He became available when LFR was sold earlier this week. The team’s No. 95 Toyota will run the remainder of the 2020 season before shutting down operations. This leaves Jones, a two-time Cup Series race winner and 2015 Truck Series champion, without a ride heading into 2021.
Additionally, Brad Keselowski had an incredible week on and off the track. Sunday saw the 2012 Cup Series champion win his third race of the season at New Hampshire Motorspeedway. Less than 24 hours later, it was revealed that former free-agent-to-be Keselowski would continue his endeavors in Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford for at least another year. This removes Keselowski from the No. 48 sweepstakes, as the legendary Jimmie Johnson is prepared to step away from the Hendrick Motorsports vehicle.
What’s the takeaway from everything? ESM’s NASCAR experts on the Eastern Speed Board investigate…
Turn 1: Big week for Brad Keselowski; thoughts on his new deal?
Geoff Magliocchetti: To quote Newman…the postal employee, not the driver…what took you so long?
Keselowski finishing a Hall of Fame career in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 always seemed too good to be true. Besides, as cool as it would’ve been to see him finally earn a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, it wouldn’t have felt right. Images of Keselowski in No. 48 gear would’ve been included on the same lists and galleries of Brett Favre in a New York Jets jersey or Teresa Weatherspoon in Los Angeles Sparks colors. It’s rare to see any driver end their career in the same car that began it. Keselowski has been, in another Seinfeld reference, Penske material for all of his full-time Cup career. It’s nice to see that one of NASCAR’s longest-running partnerships will continue. For Keselowski to earn his new deal after a dominant weekend joining Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as the only three-time winners this season makes it even sweeter.
Dylan Price: I think this was something that made too much sense not to happen. Brad would’ve been a fit in the 48, but he’s been putting up impressive showings in the 2 for Penske. He could ultimately bolt next year if Austin Cindric is ready and he doesn’t want to stay with Penske any longer, but I believe this was a move that made sense for both parties and I’m glad it got done.
Nathan Solomon: I’m happy to see Brad Keselowski signing an extension with Penske. He just seems like the right man for the car and it makes sense to keep him as the driver. He’s obviously been very successful driving the No. 2 car, winning a championship, and a lot of races along the way. I had a lot of trouble seeing anyone but Brad in the car. Congrats to him on the extension, and I bet he will remain at Penske for the rest of his career.
Turn 2: RIP Leavine Family Racing. How does Christopher Bell’s upcoming sub-in for Erik Jones shake up the “silly season” landscape?
Geoff Magliocchetti: Drastically, and this might only be the beginning.
First off, Leavine Family Racing will be missed. In an era more or less dominated by “superteams”, the group had formed a solid single-car foundation with their No. 95 Toyota. Their evolution from start-and-park squad to respectable racer (particularly with Bell and Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel over the last two seasons) was nothing short of impressive.
Bell’s departure and the subsequent demise of his No. 95 team alters the landscape for both veterans and newcomers alike. For one thing, if JGR wanted to bring up Harrison Burton, their satellite squad in LFR is no longer there. Ditto, perhaps, if Stewart-Haas Racing wants Chase Briscoe to drive the No. 14. Now pending free agent Clint Bowyer has one less ride to turn to if he wishes to continue his career. Sure, Bell benefits from the get-go, but it could end Jones’ career of contention before it truly begins. Look no further than the case of Daniel Suarez, who went from Xfinity Series champion at Joe Gibbs to racing for the underfunded No. 96 at Gaunt Brothers Racing in just five years.
But that might not be a problem now that Gibbs’ maneuvering has set a new plan into motion. We already have vacant spots at JGR (No. 20 Toyota), Hendrick Motorsports (No. 48 Chevrolet), and Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 42 Chevrolet, currently piloted by fill-in driver Matt Kenseth). Time will tell just how many ripples the bombshell of the Jones/Bell switch made on the Cup Series surface.
Dylan Price: First, I am very disappointed to hear that LFR is shutting down because I felt they had the potential to be the next Furniture Row-esque “come out of nowhere and win it” team.
Christopher Bell being out of a ride truly changes the “silly season” landscape. He’s one of the highest potential young drivers in NASCAR. At this time JGR views Bell as the much stronger option for the No. 20 machine. That has officially put Erik Jones out of a ride, who would make sense in a number of places. He could be a fit with the No. 48. He could also go to Stewart-Haas if a ride opens there. That could then jeopardize the future of either Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola. So, it’s safe to say that Bell losing his ride and joining Joe Gibbs just changed EVERYTHING.
Nathan Solomon: Christopher Bell wasn’t on the market for very long as, within days of LFR’s announced shut-down, Erik Jones was dumped for him. So now Jones is the free agent looking for a new ride. All the same options I mentioned ion the previous question are still on the table. There’s an opening at Hendrick and an opening at Stewart Haas. Additionally, the No. 42 will be vacant for Chip Ganassi, and that could be another option for Jones. I think a lot in “silly season” now depends on whether Clint Bowyer will get offered an extension for Stewart-Haas.
Turn 3: Keselowski’s return to Penske assured he will NOT take over the No. 48. So the question is…who will?
Geoff Magliocchetti: The favorite right now is probably Jones, but I’m going to throw a curveball here…Noah Gragson.
In some ways, Gragson’s potential ascension to the Cup Series mimics that of Keselowski’s…a talented driver at multiple levels whose aggressive racing style might rub some guys the wrong way (just ask Harrison Burton after the Xfinity Series event at Kentucky this year) but has the potential to impress both Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. while piloting a car for JR Motorsports. Gragson has certainly posted results worthy of a Cup ride. He was the runner-up in 2018’s Truck Series ledger (racing a Toyota owned by Kyle Busch) and has been a premier name on the Xfinity level with wins at Daytona and Bristol this season. A fiery rookie may be the ultimate counter to the mild-mannered, stoic Johnson, but such a contrast would be one of 2021’s most intriguing storylines.
Dylan Price: All signs now point to Erik Jones. who’s now out of a ride. I love Erik as a racer and I think he would fit well within the current trio at Hendrick Motorsports. I think he also is the kind of high potential driver that Rick and Jeff Gordon (who owns part of the 48) would really want within the organization.
With that said, I don’t think he should drive the No. 48 car. I think the car should switch back to No. 5 for Jones. Still, nothing is for certain and a guy like Matt DiBenedetto or Kyle Larson could be a surprise hire.
Nathan Solomon: There are a few options on who could drive the No. 48 next year. Erik Jones is the newest free agent, and with his time at Gibbs, I could see him driving that car. Clint Bowyer is also a free agent, but I don’t really see him driving for Hendrick, especially with his age.
The other option could be to turn to one of the guys at JR Motorsports such as Noah Gragson or Justin Allgaier. There’s also a pair of guys driving for Kaulig Racing in Justin Haley and Ross Chastain who would love an opportunity in a Cup Series car that has a chance to win every week.
Turn 4: NASCAR has instituted some new changes, including new starting lineup and restart policies as we approach the playoffs. Thoughts?
Geoff Magliocchetti: While I disagree with the full-time “choose cone” being instituted at this stage of the season (the start of 2021 would’ve been more optimal), I’m eager to see how it plays out over these crucial final stages of the season. The All-Star Race was a good place to introduce it, but we didn’t get to see it truly go into action, to see a driver pick up several spots by choosing the lesser popular lane. Such a strategy could be the ultimate difference between advancement and elimination in the playoff chases this fall.
As for the lineup, consisting of a weighted system of standings and finishing positions/top speeds from the prior event, it’s great to see some welcome unpredictability added to the opening gride while ensuring that the best cars get the optimal starting position.
Dylan Price: I think it’s the right move. It really makes sense to do in my opinion in terms of adding value to the races. As seen in the All-Star Race, it makes for much more exciting restarts and incites much more competitive racing. To put it in NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller’s own words, the sport “felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure”.
Nathan Solomon: I really enjoyed the choose cone rule used in the All-Star Race, and I’m glad it’s being adapted in most races. It allows the driver to choose where they think is the best for them and their car, not just the traditional way of odd position numbers start inside and even numbers start on the outside, It adds more strategy, and potentially on-the-fly thinking. It will make the racing better and pit road safer, as drivers will be less likely to play games on pit road to jockey for starting positions. Kudos to guys like Austin Dillon who pushed to get this added to NASCAR.
Christopher Bell’s first NASCAR Cup Series starts have come during perhaps the most unusual stretch in the circuit’s history.
The 2020 NASCAR season has been unlike any in the auto racing circuit’s history. Drivers in the premier Cup Series have raced as often as three times in seven days as they provide a sports-starved nation enticing morsels in the midst of a health crisis. To adhere to social distancing mandates, drivers are often afforded little, if any, face-to-face time with their crews as they prepare their machines for race days. Grandstands have been kept empty save for a few lucky thousands invited to Cup events at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway (this month’s All-Star Race in Bristol is expected to welcome 30,000).
Now imagine making your first starts at the Cup Series in the midst of this chaos.
Such is the case for Christopher Bell, the rookie driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota. Bell finished third in last season’s Xfinity Series rankings and won the 2017 Truck Series to earn his promotion. Most up-and-coming NASCAR stars, like Bell’s fellow Rookie of the Year candidates Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek, often race in a handful of Cup Series events before making their debuts, but Bell wasn’t afforded such a luxury. He made his debut in February’s Daytona 500 and remains, by far, the least experienced full-time driver on the entry list.
“It started off with a pretty crazy turn of events,” Bell remarked with a smile in a Friday morning conference call. “With Donald Trump coming to the Daytona 500 and getting rained out, racing on Monday and then all of a sudden we’re taking a hiatus or whatever it was. 2020 has been one to remember, that’s for sure.”
Bell enjoyed the elite backing of Joe Gibbs Racing on the Xfinity circuit, but with their Cup stable full, he’s latched on to the mid-budget endeavors of LFR. The Texas-headquartered, family-owned squad is one of NASCAR’s few single-car teams, having regularly fielded the No. 95 since 2011. It has yet to visit victory lane, but gained speed over the years thanks to a technical alliance with Gibbs. Last season saw Matt DiBenedetto drive it to a team-best three top-five finishes, including a runner-up posting in the August race at Bristol.
The season’s opening saw Bell struggle to keep the momentum alive. A multi-car pileup on the penultimate regulation lap of his Daytona 500 debut set a foreboding pace to his Cup career before a slow day marred by postrace inspection penalties actually saw him leave Las Vegas Motor Speedway with negative points. By the time the Cup Series was forced into a two-month hiatus due to the ongoing health crisis after four race, Bell already had his first last-place finish under his belt (38th after an engine failure at Fontana) and sat a humbling 32nd-place in the standings.
He credited crew chief Jason Ratcliff for guiding him through the tough stretch. Ratcliff worked with Bell during top-five postings on the Xfinity level and won 14 races with Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota stall at JGR. The two earned 15 wins together in NASCAR’s AAA-baseball equivalent. Their seven in 2018 were good enough to set a record for an Xfinity Series rookie.
“Jason is obviously a guy that I have a lot of trust in,” Bell said. “He’s an A-caliber crew chief and I was fortunate enough to get my feet wet with him in the Xfinity side and I think that was kind of our goal was to train, I call it train, together in the Xfinity Series and get to know each other and get on the same page. It was all about making this transition to Cup. The first four weeks were a disaster, but it seems like we’re getting going and getting a lot better here recently.”
When the series was able to resume in May, Bell got off to a solid start with an 11th-place posting at the second race back at Darlington Raceway before earning the first top ten of his career in his first start at another crown jewel, the marathon Coca-Cola 600. Since the return, Bell has tallied four top-tens overall and his first top-five, a fourth-place posting at the first half of a Pocono Raceway doubleheader on Saturday.
“Ever since the break, we’ve been able to come back to the race track and be pretty competitive,” he said. “I feel like the first four weeks were definitely disappointing, but after the break my team has been doing great, bringing a lot better race cars to the track and we’ve been able to capitalize on that.”
The efforts to race in a confined, timely manner haven’t afforded Bell the opportunity to try out his Cup car on the track. So-called racing gods have apparently been all-too-keen to further complicate his quest.
With qualifying wiped out, Bell and the rest of the field are at the mercy of random draws in determining the starting lineup. The top dozen in car owners’ points get the corresponding spots. The next 24 are then separated into equal pools while the final four round out the field. Bell’s brutal start has placed him in the third pool, which is awarded the 25th through 36th positions. Prior to the second half of the Pocono doubleheader, Bell had started 32nd or worse in five of the prior six races.
With the Sunday race lineup determined by inverting Saturday’s final order, Bell started 17th, which might as well been pole position based on his luck. However, disaster came on lap 39 of 140, when a crash ended his day early and relegated him to a 39th-place finish. NASCAR’s latest travels haven’t done any good toward Bell’s starting lineup luck, as he’ll start 36th for Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET, NBC). The No. 95 is 17 points behind Nemechek and his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford for the final spot in the second pool (24th).
However, even as the lineup lottery fails to smile upon him, Bell is enjoying the change.
“Honestly, I’ve really enjoyed the no practice and no qualifying,” he said. “I feel like it fits what I’ve grown up doing and if you look at our performance, we’ve run exceptionally better since we stopped practicing for whatever reason that is. I really enjoy it.”
“As a rookie going to the race track, which my starting position, I’m not starting on the pole or the front row so I’m not having to go wide open into turn one and expect the car to stick or anything. I have enough time starting in the back that we’re able to just creep up on it and I feel like I’ve done a good job of not overstepping my limits and making sure I get to that first pit stop where we can tune the car to my liking and stuff like that.”
Time will tell where Cup Series endeavors take Bell. He’s impressing in LFR’s mid-budget ride thus far and has declared that he’d be interested to see where the car would be if not for their brutal luck in the early going.
But if this is what his rookie season is like, it’s certainly safe to say any post-yellow stripe campaigns should be a Sunday drive.
Yesterday featured the opener to a big weekend of NASCAR. Starting at 9:30 am est the Trucks roll-off, then the Xfinity series goes off after them, and then the finale of the weekend is the second cup race. The first day was a big one for two underrated drivers.
Christopher Bell Finished 4th
Bell has been a highly touted rookie. Coming off a master class in the Xfinity Series last year, Bell was handed a ride and expected to fare well. Although Tyler Reddick has stolen a lot of headlines, Christopher Bell has had some speed. Piloting the 95 machine, Bell was fast at Pocono and parlayed that into a top 5 finish. Bell took over the Leavine Family racing ride from Matt DiBenedetto in order to gain cup experience before likely jumping up to a ride at JGR. His speed yesterday will make him one to watch later today. At the very least though, his success Saturday is a strong building point for the long haul.
Michael McDowell Finished 8th
Whereas Bell is a rookie with high potential, McDowell is the underdog for a team with lesser equipment. At 35 years old, McDowell is likely in the back 9 of his career starting at 18. It’s always entertaining when he has success though. McDowell is a guy people like to see succeed because he’s counted out often. Today was a good day for the 34 team and they took advantage of good pit strategy and a fast car in order to get to the front of the field. It was a good race for the Front Row team and hopefully, they can continue to replicate that success.
It’s always encouraging to see two underdogs succeed and hopefully, they continue to have success. For Bell, success could nail a top tier ride for 2021. For McDowell, success could change his career trajectory.