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Christopher Bell overcomes spin, battles several Cup drivers for fourth in Xfinity debut

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CONCORD, N.C. — The start of Christopher Bell‘s Xfinity Series career looked pretty bad.

There’s no other way to describe finding yourself facing the wrong direction in the frontstretch grass on Lap 3. Bell landed there after being turned by Ryan Reed exiting Turn 4.

The next 197 laps of Bell’s Xfinity debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway were stellar.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was the only non-Cup Series regular to finish in the top six in the Hisense 4K TV 300.

Bell piloted his No. 18 Toyota to fourth place, in the middle of a group of drivers that included Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

“We had to fight through a lot of adversity there,” Bell said. “We would start passing guys, and we’d have to go back and start at the tail. I’m glad it was 200 laps, because we used every single bit of it. We didn’t have a lot of luck on the restarts at the beginning of the race starting on the bottom, but we got the luck when we needed it at the end.”

Those five Cup drivers – which include two series champions – have 108 combined wins in the Xfinity Series.

At 22, Bell’s NASCAR resume includes three wins and rookie of the year in the Camping World Truck Series. He also won this year’s Chili Bowl Nationals, a prestigious sprint car event.

Before Saturday, his only experience in an Xfinity car was a six-hour test session at Charlotte at the beginning of the month.

The inexperienced Bell had his hands full after Saturday’s accident as he fought his way back from outside the top 20. At the end of the first stage, he was 18th. At the end of Stage 2 on Lap 90, he was 19th

“I really figured I’d be fine when I spun out on the (third) lap as long as the splitter wasn’t torn up when I went through the grass, and thankfully, it wasn’t,” Bell said.”I really thought I could drive up through there faster and easier than what I did. Whenever you catch mediocre cars that you’re faster than and you try to just drive by them, you get caught on the inside and start slipping.

“I would get my tires too hot and that’s all she wrote for that run. If it wasn’t for the pit stops and the outside line restarts, I don’t think I would have got up there.”

Bell said on Thursday his nerves prior to his first start didn’t match those for his first Truck race two years ago at Iowa Speedway. At 20, Bell hopped into a truck for the first time on race weekend.

“Whenever Toyota came to me and said they have some Xfinity races (for me to run), I was pretty excited that they said Charlotte was the first one because Charlotte was one of my favorite racetracks whenever we got to run the Truck race in the daytime,” Bell said. “Then having the test was huge. Being able to just get seat time and just get a feel for it at the test. I don’t think I was very fast at the test. I knew I didn’t have to be the fastest car at the test, all I needed to do was get a feel for it and get some laps and come here this weekend and show speed.”

Bell’s impressive finish came with a blemish. His car was found to be too low in postrace inspection. Penalties could be announced next week.

Bell still is competing full time in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Through five races, he is second in the 2017 points with one win. Bell will have six more chances to show off his speed in the Xfinity Series this year. His next start is June 24 at Iowa Speedway.

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NASCAR America: Landon Cassill thinks he knows how to avoid the ‘Big One’

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It is natural to consider one’s involvement in a multi-car accident at Talladega SuperSpeedway as simple bad luck when a driver did not cause the incident, but over the course of his career, Landon Cassill learned it is not that simple.

“My first few races at Talladega in the Cup series, I got caught up in the ‘Big One’ over and over again,” Cassill said. “And you heard Kyle Busch say it’s a crapshoot and it’s kind of easy to leave after getting wrecked in the ‘Big One’ and say ‘it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t cause it; I was just collected and we’ll try again next time.’ And I looked back at the wrecks I was involved in and I started watching film and I thought I can create a strategy to get me out of these things.

It is the driver’s job to protect his equipment even when circumstances are out of his control.

“So, I started running a different line. I started favoring the bottom of the racetrack. I felt when the wrecks happened, they move up before they move back down and it started to help me.”

On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. described what it takes to get to the lead and win at Talladega.

But an equally important part of the equation is how to position a car so that it does not sustain damage, and Cassill describes how that is done.

“I’m kind of on the back of the screen running the middle lane and there’s a gap at the bottom,” Cassill said. “I moved down to the bottom intentionally really to protect myself and it was just perfect timing because there is a wreck right here. Chase Elliott gets turned and you can see my car again. I’ve got lots of race track underneath me; lots of pavement to slow myself down. And now, I’m dodging racecars going 100 miles per hour, not 200 miles per hour. It’s a lot easier to drive through the wreck that way.

For more, watch the above video.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Talladega preview, Ryan Blaney interview

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and gives you one last preview of this weekend’s action at Talladega.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford. Dale Jarrett and Landon Cassill join them from Burton’s Garage.

What to expect from today’s show:

· After back-to-back short tracks, NASCAR switches gears this weekend at the biggest track on the schedule – the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway. What chaos can we expect on its 33-degree high banks? Jarrett, Kligerman and Landon weigh in. Plus, Parker jumps in the NBCSN iRacing Simulator for high-speed laps around NASCAR’s most unpredictable circuit.

· Following the news of Matt Kenseth’s return to racing, questions surround the long-term futures of both Kenseth and Trevor Bayne, the driver he’ll share the No. 6 car with. We’ll hear what Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about it during the NASCAR America Debrief Podcast.

· Dave and Ryan Blaney are just one of many father/son pairings that dot NASCAR’s history. Yesterday, Ryan revealed his Darlington throwback scheme that honors his Dad’s Cup Series career, and our Dave Burns got to speak with them about the opportunity.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Christian Eckes lands four-race deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports in Truck Series

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Christian Eckes, the most recent winner in the ARCA Racing Series, has landed a four-race deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series.

Eckes, 17, won Sunday’s race at Salem Speedway while driving for Bill Venturini. The win came in his 16th start in the series.

The native of Middletown, New York, will make his Truck Series debut June 16 at Iowa Speedway in KBM’s No. 46 Toyota. He will drive it again on June 23 at Gateway Motorsports Park, Oct. 27 at Martinsville and Nov. 9 at ISM Raceway.

“The opportunity to compete for Kyle Busch Motorsports in my NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut is a dream come true — my first chance to get behind the wheel of the No. 46 Tundra can’t get here soon enough,” Eckes said in a press release. “I can’t thank everybody at Toyota Racing, Mobil 1 and all of my supporters enough for making this possible.”

In 2017, Eckes collected four top five and nine top-10 finishes in 10 ARCA events and four top five and five top-10 finishes in six CARS Super Late Model Tour starts.

In December 2016, Eckes won the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in a narrow finish over John Hunter Nemechek.

Cody Glick, who oversees KBM’s Super Late Model program, will serve as Eckes’ crew chief in his four starts. Glick earned his first career Truck Series victory in Kyle Busch’s win from the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway last year.

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Xfinity Spotlight: Noah Gragson on impressive Xfinity debut, being Dale Jr. ‘fanboy’

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Noah Gragson admits he was a bit full of himself when he made his Camping World Truck Series debut in 2016 at ISM Raceway.

“I won a couple of K&N races, I thought I was going to be one of the top dogs and be competing for the win and that just didn’t happen,” Gragson told NBC Sports of the race where he started 14th and finished 16th.

Things started better for the 19-year-old driver in the Xfinity Series. The Las Vegas native, who competes full-time in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, made his debut last weekend at Richmond Raceway with Joe Gibbs Racing.

As part of a three-race deal, which continues this weekend at Talladega, Gragson started 11th, led 10 laps and fought teammate Christopher Bell for the win before placing second.

“I told myself before this weekend, I said, ‘Listen, these guys are good, you’re stepping up a level,'” Gragson said. “I just tried to remind myself that, ‘Yeah, I’m not the top dog. I’m going to get my ass stomped out here.’ That’s how I felt. I felt it was going to be a rude awakening. It wasn’t. I don’t know what was different, but I just felt a lot more comfortable. … I just felt like it came to me a little bit more. I was on my game.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Noah Gragson celebrates his first Truck win at Martinsville in 2017. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: When I last interviewed you two years ago, I asked how you viewed NASCAR growing up. You said you “didn’t respect” it because you “didn’t think it was hard.” Now that you’re more than a few years into your career, how hard is it? How easy is it compared to what you thought it would be?

Gragson: Like I said a couple of years ago, I thought NASCAR was just driving in circles, and not in a disrespectful way. I didn’t know, I wasn’t educated on the sport. It’s just what I figured. You never know until you try it. … Being in it now, understanding everything that goes into it, I didn’t know there was this much preparation that goes into a weekend. That’s what I’ve been really trying to focus on this last year, I’ve been trying to change up the way I prepare before I go the race track. Just being on top of it and not having to ask questions and already knowing the answer to those questions is the biggest thing I feel like. With enough preparation and the right preparation, you won’t have to ask any questions when you get to the race track. … It’s a lot tougher Monday through Friday than I ever figured it would be.

NBC SportsIf you could have picked any three tracks to get your Xfinity start at, would these (Richmond, Talladega, Dover) have been those tracks?

Gragson: Talladega I can assure you wouldn’t be. I’m still a little timid, a little nervous about going to Talladega. Richmond I really liked. I think I had a good idea that I would run somewhat decent just at Richmond. I really like that track, just on video games. I was hoping it would kind of translate to real life and I think it did. If I could build a top-three schedule, probably Richmond, Iowa and maybe like a road course. I also like Dover quite a bit. I feel like I run really good there on “NASCAR: Inside Line” in a Cup car on Xbox. Hopefully it’ll translate to real life.

NBC Sports: With the resources you have at Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports who have you been talking to the most about what to expect this weekend at Talladega?

Gragson: I haven’t really talked to anybody pretty much yet. I was going to talk to Kyle Busch maybe a little bit. He hasn’t run the Xfinity cars in a while, so I might talk to him just about some small stuff, but also probably Joey Logano. I’m working with his management team, Clutch Studios and Clutch Management. They’ve been a help to me. Joey helped me a little bit before Richmond along with Kyle Busch. I would talk to those two guys and then Eric Phillips, my crew chief and what not, try to get a game plan before we go.

NBC Sports: In your pre-race interview at Richmond you said you were more nervous than the first time you leaned in to kiss a girl. Did you wake up with that feeling Friday or did it creep in over the course of the day?

Gragson: I think it just creeped in over the course of the day and then you walk over to driver intros and everything is going off and then it hits you when you’re walking back to you car and you’re like, ‘Damn. This is real. I’m going to be making my first Xfinity start. This is a pretty cool deal, this is a big opportunity.’ You’re standing there and you’ve got everybody around you. A lot more than a truck race for sure. Just all that hype and that pressure comes together and like I said, yeah, it hits you and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is big. I better go make something happen here.”

Noah Gragson drive his No. 18 Toyota in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Who did you learn the most from just by racing around them over the course of the night?

Gragson: Probably Tyler Reddick. In practice I was following him. I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was kind of at a road block where I just didn’t know where I needed to be on the race track and I went up behind him in practice and I followed him and I changed up my line a little bit closer to what he was doing and boom, I picked up a couple of tenths and we were back on pace. … I don’t think anybody knows that, but that’s probably the thing that helped me the most.

NBC Sports: Has anyone delivered you ice cream via Twitter lately?

Gragson: Breyers did. Breyers sent me some, which was really cool. … They sent me vanilla, a couple things of vanilla ice cream. Which was super cool. They saw my tweet and they said ‘We’ll get on it’ and they sent me some, which I didn’t actually think they were actually going to do, but I got a package. I was all fired up. I love some ice cream.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you because of social media?

Gragson: Probably getting followed by Dale Jr. After that whole wasabi deal last year. So I did that and he liked the tweet and retweeted it and he followed me and I was a total fanboy. … When he followed me I was losing it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Dale Jr. just followed me.’ It was so awesome, so I took a screenshot. Just getting those guys to follow me is really, really cool.

NBC Sports: Which social media platform is your favorite?

Gragson: Probably Tinder. No, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. JK on that one. I like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Probably Instagram, then Twitter and Snapchat.

NBC Sports: Why that order?

Gragson: Snapchat use to be my favorite but it’s trash now. They messed up the whole story deal. You’d be better off trying to find a Wama on (video game) “Fortnite” than finding a story on Snapchat. … It’s really, really tough to navigate Snapchat now and I really do not enjoy it. I feel like it’s taken away a lot of my viewership, their new update.

(Writer’s Note: Earlier in the interview Gragson discussed his schedule for the week, which involved mailing merchandise purchased by fans).

NBC Sports: You talked about your new merchandise and selling it. Are your merchandise sells your primary way of measuring how large your fan base is? If not, what is?

Gragson: Probably the amount of likes I get on Instagram helps me kind of gauge. I really pay attention to the insights and data, the numbers and what not to my posts. I feel like with Instagram they have a really good way for people to see what their engagement is and other insights. I really pay a good amount of attention to that. I kind of notice when some posts get viewed more than others. Just the timing of it and what not. That’s really the biggest thing.

NBC Sports: At any point does it feel like social media is too controlling of your life, too overwhelming?

Gragson: No, I don’t feel that way. Some might not agree. It’s not bad.

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