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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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Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kevin Harvick. His first oval win since Kansas Speedway a year ago validates the team’s 1.5-mile speed in the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Mark it down, he wins and advances to the next round to continue his quest for a second title.

Daniel McFadin

Martin Truex Jr. keeps his foot on the throat of the competition and gets his sixth win of the year at a 1.5-mile track.

Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson is starting 13th but expect him to get to the top five within the first 20-30 laps. He needs a strong run to give him momentum heading into the Round of 8 and he gets it Sunday.

Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas – James “Jim” Watson, a fabricator for Furniture Row Racing, died Saturday night after suffering a heart attack, the team stated Sunday morning. Watson was 55.

A native of Greenfield, Wisconsin, Watson had been a member of Furniture Row Racing since February. He worked for Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-15 and spent last season with HScott Motorsports. He was a long-time racer, competing in dirt late models and asphalt super late models throughout Southeast Wisconsin.

Watson was with the team this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

He is survived by wife Laurie and daughter Brittany.

“On behalf of Furniture Row Racing we extend our deepest sympathies to Jim’s family,” said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “He was an outstanding and talented member of our racing family, whose life was dedicated to racing since his early days as a race-car driver in Wisconsin. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim’s wife Laurie, daughter Brittany and to his entire family and friends. Our No. 77 and 78 teams will be racing with heavy hearts today.”

Ryan Blaney ready to prove doubters wrong

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ryan Blaney has a bit of a chip on his shoulder this weekend.

The 23-year-old driver for the Wood Brothers seeks to hold off three former champions today at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for a spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Even though former champions Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth trail Blaney in the points, some say Blaney won’t hold them off and advance to the Round of 8.

“I’ve heard that all week that we don’t really deserve to be here, so that kind of ticked me off a little bit,’’ Blaney said Friday after qualifying.

“They just say we’ve been kind of overachieving or they didn’t expect us to be here. Those little things kind of make you a little bit irritated because our guys do just as good a job as anybody. They deserve to be here. They work their tails off like anybody else. Hopefully, we can prove that Sunday.’’

MORE: Wood Brothers lifeline started with a phone call

Blaney’s job, though, will be more difficult. He will start last in the 40-car field because his car failed inspection after qualifying. Kenseth (third), Busch (seventh) and Johnson (13th) all start in the top 15 and should be able to work their way into the top 10 to score stage points by Lap 80 when the first stage ends. Blaney will be challenged to do so and could see his advantage on each shrink. 

There’s hope for Blaney because he posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s final Cup practice. But he ranked ninth in average over 10 consecutive laps — behind Busch and Kenseth.

“There’s definitely things we can improve on,’’ Blaney said after placing third in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “(In the Cup race) everyone is going to be kind of married to the wall pretty early in a run. It might be hard to pass. Hopefully, we can work the bottom. I think the Cup cars might wear the top out, might over-rubber it where we have to move down a little bit.’’

With starting in the rear of the field, changing weather conditions (the wind is not expected to be as prevalent today as Saturday) and facing an elimination race, it would be easy for the pressure build on a driver and team.

“I really don’t feel that it’s a different weekend,’’ he said, alluding to the battle for the final playoff spots. “More people are paying attention to it because it’s a big deal. There’s four cars pretty much going for two spots. We try to approach it as any other weekend. It will be more challenging coming from the back.’’

Along with starting at the rear for the penalty, Blaney’s team had to pick last for pit stalls for failing inspection after qualifying.

His team would have had the third pick and he would have had an opening either before or after his stall, making it easier to either enter or exit. Now, he’ll be sandwiched between Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Provided both stay on the lead lap, Blaney could face challenges squeezing into his stall throughout the race.

“It doesn’t help our situation for sure,’’ Blaney said. “Those are two good cars. We’ll kind of be pitched between them all day. Dale actually sent me a text. Teams work well with each other about that. That will be tough for us. That will be another challenge.’’

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Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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It’s once again elimination time in the NASCAR Cup Series.

The playoff field will be cut from 12 to eight drivers following today’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. will be looking to earn his sixth win on a 1.5-mile track this year. He won the last visit to Kansas Speedway in May.

Here’s all the important info you need ahead of the race, which will air on NBCSN.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Jay Hernandez will give the command to start engines at 3:07 p.m. Green flag is scheduled for 3:16 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 80. Stage 2 ends at Lap 160.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 30

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 9:30 a.m. Driver-crew chief meeting is at 1 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:20 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Angie Rosner will perform the anthem at 3:01 p.m..

TV/RADIO:  NBCSN will broadcast the race at 3 p.m. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. on NBCSN with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 2:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com, starting with its pre-race show at 2 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts a temperature of 67 degrees and no chance of rain at race time.

LAST TIME: Martin Truex Jr. led the final 19 laps to win in May. He beat Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is the defending winner of this race. He beat Carl Edwards and Joey Logano last October.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for starting lineup