Christopher Bell has become a true road-course warrior
By Rick Minter / Andrews McMeel Syndication
Over the past five years, Christopher Bell has steadily built a resume that has him poised to move into a top-level ride in NASCAR’s elite Monster Energy Cup Series, most likely by next season.
He had seven wins and a championship in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series before moving to the Xfinity Series full time last year. He’s run up 14 victories in NASCAR’s No. 2 circuit, but before this past Saturday, he’d never won on a road course.
He checked off that box with an impressive win in the CTECH Manufacturing 180 at Road America, where he took the lead from road-racing expert Austin Cindric with nine laps remaining and drove away to score the victory, with Cindric, Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Kaz Grala completing the top five.
It followed two second-place finishes to Cindric by Bell on the recent road-course races at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. Bell had entered the three road-course events publicly questioning his skills at turning both left and right on the winding courses.
“I’m honestly in shock,” Bell said in his winner’s interview at Road America. “We’ve had a great road-course season. I’m really honored to be a part of Joe Gibbs Racing. To get my first road-course win is really special.”
Bell’s biggest challenge at Road America came from teammate Matt DiBenedetto, the Cup regular who nearly got his first win at Bristol Motor Speedway a week ago and was looking to build his own resume after being informed that he’s losing his ride in the No. 95 Cup car.
But for the second straight week, DiBenedetto wound up disappointed after a spirited drive.
At Road America, he started second and led a race-high 18 of 45 laps and was racing Cindric for the runner-up spot on the last lap when he drove off the track in what he described as a “rookie mistake” and finished 27th.
Bell, like Bristol winner Denny Hamlin the week before, used his winner’s interview to express his support for the popular DiBenedetto.
“I’m really heartbroken for Matt DiBenedetto,” he said. “He was really, really fast. We knew from practice that both of our cars were going to be really good and that we would be right there racing each other. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I saw him go flying off of (Turn) 14. That sucks. He’s in a tough spot right now. He needed a good run there.”
Ironically, Bell is the main driver being mentioned as a replacement in the No. 95.
Part-time Xfinity driver A.J. Allmendinger also had another good run but came up short of victory. He was battling Bell, DiBenedetto and Cindric at the front in the closing laps only to spin off the course and finish 24th.
In four starts this season in the No. 10 Chevrolet from Kaulig Racing, Allmendinger finished second at Daytona and Watkins Glen, only to be disqualified each time when his car failed a post-race inspection. He also was third at Mid-Ohio.
Overall, the Big Three of the Xfinity Series this season — Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer — came through the three road-course races in the past four events with good finishes, despite their previous lack of significant success on that type of track.
Reddick was fifth at Watkins Glen, fourth at Mid-Ohio, won at Bristol — the only non-road-course event in the past four races — and was third at Road America.
Custer, who had the best road-course record of the Big Three prior to this season, was seventh at Watkins Glen, eighth at Mid-Ohio and 10th at Road America, despite an early incident that kept him a lap down for much of the race.
Reddick said that overall he was proud of his performance at Road America and at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.
“I’ve struggled [at Road America] in the past a lot, and on road courses as a whole, so I’m glad to see an overall improvement in my finishes not only from last year, but from the start of this year’s swing as well,” he said.
Cindric, who came within one position of sweeping the recent road-course races, put on a clinic at the end at Road America by charging from 20th place to second in the final two laps.
“Chaos,” Cindric said in summing up his drive through the field. “I passed a lot of cars that just ended up overdriving corners and missing corners. …
“It was insane. I think it’s why all these people show up at Road America and enjoy this type of racing.”
Independent driver Ryan Sieg held on to the 12th and final playoff spot with an 11th-place finish. He’s 30 points ahead of 13th-place Gray Gaulding with three races left in the regular season.
PHOTO CAPTION: Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell applies a winner’s sticker to his No. 20 Toyota for the sixth time this season after his victory on Saturday at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. Stacy Revere/Getty Images for NASCAR