Christopher Bell reaches purpose with first NASCAR Cup win

Christopher Bell’s pre-season goal was simple.

“I just want to be a factor in the races,” he told NBC Sports.

Too many times his parents called him after the races last year to ask how his day went because he was so far back on the field that they rarely saw him on TV.

Bell started this season as a factor – just not the way he imagined. His push-pull turned Aric Almirola and caused an accident involving 16 cars on the first laps of the Daytona 500. Bell admitted that “after that, I wanted to crawl into a hole”.

On Sunday, Bell avoided the accident during the last 10 rounds of rock’em sock’em. He used his fresher tires to catch Joey Logano and overtake the former cup winner to complete the final two laps of the Daytona Road Course and take his first cup win.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Bell. “I didn’t expect to win my first race on a street.”

Nobody did. Although Bell won the 2019 Xfinity race at Road America, road racing isn’t seen as his forte. He missed an extension on the Daytona Road Course because he was banned from the Busch Clash last week. He was the only driver in the top 5 on Sunday who didn’t run in the clash.

Sunday was the payoff for Toyota Racing Development, which Bell has nurtured in the ranks of NASCAR for years.

This is one of the reasons Kurt Busch said ahead of the season that the bell “is the guy with the greatest pressure. He has a main trip, an A + team. … It’s time to shine. “

Toyota’s investment and Bell’s potential were the reason Joe Gibbs Racing Erik Jones chose Bell even though Bell struggled with Leavine Family Racing last season.

“(Last year) was one of the toughest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career,” said Bell. “I won a (preliminary night) Feature) Race in the Chili Bowl and that was it for the rest of the year. That is obviously against the cup boys and also on the dirty side. (Last year) was a very, very low point for me. It’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life when I can come back in ’21 and win that early on a street circuit in the Cup series. “

He got the opportunity because Chase Elliott, trying to win his fifth straight point on a street circuit, got stuck in traffic after the pit stop. Elliott led 44 of the first 57 laps, but opted for fresher tires on lap 57. A couple of cars stayed outside. Elliott restarted as 11th. Elliott never finished fifth before a late-night incident.

Logano was one of those who didn’t box. He took the lead when Elliott pitted. Logano extended his advantage to more than three seconds before Bell closed.

“I was hoping he would try to chase me down, he would make a mistake as an inexperienced racing driver,” Logano said of Bell. “You did not see it.”

Bell’s teammate Denny Hamlin wasn’t surprised.

“Once he got to the track position, he was very, very fast,” Hamlin said of Bell. “I noticed that he (Elliott) could honestly be closer than me when he was leading. He’s definitely doing some good things. “

Bell took the knowledge gained earlier in the race and later used it to his advantage – for example to know what it is like to drive with older tires.

Crew chief Adam Stevens kept Bell on the track when most of the field pitted on lap 12 of the 70-lap event. Bell restarted at the front with three laps remaining in the first stage. He finished Stage 12 and couldn’t stop many cars with fresher tires.

“I stayed there and tried to score stage points,” said Stevens. “The whole field was behind us and we were run over. We were able to recover from that. We learned our lesson that if you do a good five or six laps, most of the field will get tires. “

That’s why Bell pitted on lap 57. The quick work of his crew got him out in 13.1 seconds. He started again in eighth. It was about getting through traffic cleanly to get to Logano, while Elliott saddled in traffic after a pit stop of 14.8 seconds.

Bell’s victory completed a unique weekend sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing as a first-time winner. Ty Gibbs won Saturday’s Xfinity race on the Daytona Road Course in his first career start.

More importantly, Sunday’s win brought Bell into the playoffs. With teammates Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch each awaiting the playoffs, Joe Gibbs Racing should have all four cars in the 16-team playoffs this season.

“To be in the playoffs with him already is a big deal,” said Gibbs.

It could make Bell quite a factor later this season as well.

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