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Christopher Bell leaving comfort of Kyle Busch Motorsports for Joe Gibbs Racing

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Christopher Bell‘s last NASCAR race of 2017 didn’t go well for the 22-year-old driver.

Driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota, Bell started third in the Xfinity Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but his engine gave out on Lap 78.

He finished 36th for the first DNF in Xfinity career, which only eight races old.

Bell’s spirits weren’t low for long.

“It’s disappointing to blow up, but once I got out of my firesuit and I looked at my phone, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m still a champion’,” Bell told NBC Sports Thursday during an event for NASCAR’s national touring series champions at Top Golf in Charlotte.

The night before his engine blew, Bell clinched the Camping World Truck Series championship. It’s his first NASCAR title in his second full-time year in the series.

The native of Norman, Oklahoma, reached the championship race in both of his full-time seasons driving the No. 4 Toyota. This time around, Bell reached the Championship 4 off five wins, 15 top fives and 21 top 10s.

Bell will accept his championship tonight at the Xfinity and Truck Series Awards Banquet in Charlotte. Bell expects his champion’s speech will be the “most uncomfortable part” of the evening.

“Just trying to concentrate on what I want to say,” Bell said. “I don’t want to spell it out and not make it heart-felt whenever I get up there. At the same time I need a guide to follow along and I think I’ve got a pretty good guide.”

Christopher Bell, right, and team owner Kyle Busch after Bell clinched the Camping World Truck Series title. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

While he drove the No. 4 for KBM this season, his guide in the cockpit was crew chief Rudy Fugle. It was Fugle who taught Bell what he needed in a race car to win races.

Bell only won a single race in his rookie year with Jerry Baxter.

“Before Rudy, I didn’t really know what I needed,” Bell said. “I just was looking for lap time. Looking for lap time in practice is different from what you need to be able to race. I feel like Rudy did an excellent job of teaching me that.”

Now comes the next level.

Bell will compete full-time for JGR in the Xfinity Series next year driving the No. 20 Toyota after his eight races in 2017, which included a win at Kansas Speedway in October.

Bell has been partnered with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who has spent the last six seasons in the Cup Series. The last five of those were with Matt Kenseth. Together they won 14 races.

Ratcliffe has been a NASCAR crew chief since 2000 when he worked with Casey Atwood in the Xfinity Series.

“I haven’t been around Jason very much,” Bell said. “I was able to have lunch with him a couple of weeks ago and this week I got to spend a little bit of time with him and kind of go over his priorities and my priorities going into next year. He’s a super switched-on guy. There’s nobody else I’d rather have. To be able to use his expertise, his knowledge, he’s been there, done that. That’s been really good for a young driver like myself and I’m going to lean on that a lot next year.”

What are Ratcliff’s priorities?

“From him going Cup racing for so long, he was able to prioritize where you need to be good, what we need to focus on,” Bell said. “He’s really big on restarts, qualifying, making sure I maximize pit road speeds and stuff like that. Those are areas we need to really focus on.”

Through his eight Xfinity races and his Kansas win, Bell feels he validated JGR’s choice to hire him full-time next year, where he will be teammates with Brandon Jones and Ryan Preece.

Those eight races helped Bell get a grasp of the lower downforce in Xfinity cars, the series’ longer races and its deeper fields of talent.

“I feel like that took a lot of pressure off me going into 2018, knowing that I can do it,” Bell said. “Proving to myself that I can do it. Also proving to JGR. They took a chance on me by hiring me to run the full season. I’m glad I was able to win early on in my Xfinity career and prove to them I can do it.”

With his move up the ladder in 2018, Bell will be leaving Kyle Busch Motorsports, his racing home of four years as he transitioned from dirt racing to pavement.

“I’ve been at Kyle Busch Motorsports a very long time now,” Bell said. “I think that’s something that most people don’t understand. I’ve been pavement racing for four years now, four years off-and-on. All four of those years I’ve spent at Kyle Busch Motorsports. So I’ve gotten to know almost every single person in that shop by name and have a relationship of some kind with the majority of the people in that shop, so that’s what I’m going to miss the most about the Truck Series.”

Bell still has time before his Xfinity career gets fully underway in Daytona. He has a slate of dirt races on his schedule, including the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in early January.

After that, “it’ll be time to get serious.”

Silly Season Scorecard: Holiday edition

Photo: Richard Petty Motorsports
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Richard Petty Motorsports’ announcement Friday that it will switch to Chevrolet and partner with Richard Childress Racing in 2018 will help make it a good holiday season for both organizations.

The move continued what has been a long and eventful Silly Season in Cup. And it’s not finished with still some rides remaining.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands about two months before cars are back on track at Daytona International Speedway.

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Ray Black Jr. joins Rick Ware Racing and will drive the No. 51 car (announcement made Nov. 22)

Aric Almirola joins Stewart-Haas Racing and will drive the No. 10 car (announcement made Nov. 8)

Darrell Wallace Jr. joins Richard Petty Motorsports and will drive the No. 43 car (announcement made Oct. 25)

Jeffrey Earnhardt returns to the No. 33 car at Circle Sport Racing (announcement made Oct. 15)

Kasey Kahne joins Leavine Family Racing and will drive the No. 95 car. (announcement made Sept. 19)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Matt DiBenedetto remains with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

William Byron will drive the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— Nos. 23 & 83: BK Racing has not announced plans for its cars for 2018.

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing has not announced plans for this car for 2018.

— No. 34: Front Row Motorsports informed Landon Cassill on Oct. 9 that he would not be returning to the team next season. The team has not announced its driver lineup for next season. 

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch said Nov. 29, a day before the Cup Awards in Las Vegas, that he is not too worried about his situation and expects to be with the team. “I think that my best chance to win races and to win championships is to be with Stewart-Haas Racing,’’ he said.

— No. 77: Furniture Row Racing sold the charter to this team. This car will not compete in 2018.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. He does not have plans for 2018.

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick announced Nov. 17 at Homestead that she plans to drive only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next year before retiring. She has not completed a deal to run either race so far. 

Michael McDowellWill not return to Leavine Family Racing with Kasey Kahne joining the team next season. Has not announced 2018 plans.

Landon CassillSearching for a ride after being informed he will not be back at Front Row Motorsports. He said Oct. 10 that he did not have sponsorship to bring with him at the time.

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Rheem to sponsor Christopher Bell, Ryan Preece in Xfinity Series

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Rheem will sponsor Joe Gibbs Racing across two cars in the Xfinity Series next season, sponsoring Christopher Bell and Ryan Preece.

The company will be on Bell’s No. 20 Toyota for 23 races and Preece’s No. 18 Toyota for 10 races.

Rheem, which manufactures heating, cooling, water heating, pool/spa heating and commercial refrigeration products, sponsored Richard Childress Racing cars for the last three seasons in Xfinity.

Rheem has sponsored Xfinity teams every year since 2008.

“We’re thrilled to partner with Rheem,” team owner Joe Gibbs said in a press release. “They have built a winning company in their industry with many of the same attributes we hold valuable at our race team. Rheem has a long history in our sport and they understand what it takes to be successful. We think Christopher (Bell) and Ryan (Preece) will represent them well both on and off the track.”

Bell enters his first full-time season with JGR after winning the Camping World Truck Series championship with Kyle Busch Motorsports. The 21-year old driver made eight Xfinity starts this season and earned his first win Oct. 21 at Kansas Speedway.

Preece’s 10 races for 2018 come after he made four starts for JGR this season and finished in the top five in each, winning at Iowa Speedway on July 29.

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Kyle Busch dominated 2017 Cup pole winners with career-best total

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Martin Truex Jr. finished the 2017 Cup season with the championship and his name at the top of almost every significant stat category, including laps led, top fives, top 10s, race wins and stage wins.

But there was one stat that Truex wasn’t even close to leading the series in.

When it came to the number of poles Truex claimed in his title campaign, the No. 78 Toyota bested the field just three times in the season’s 34 qualifying sessions (out of 36 races).

It was Kyle Busch‘s eight poles, a career-best, that led the series. Joe Gibbs Racing led all teams with 12 poles.

Busch led Kevin Harvick (four), Kyle Larson (three), Truex and Brad Keselowski (two) among the 14 drivers who won at least one pole.

Busch’s previous career-high was three, twice (2013-14).

He started from the pole at Dover I, Pocono I, Kentucky, Indianapolis, Pocono II, Watkins Glen, Chicago and New Hampshire II.

Four of his poles came in a five-race stretch, including three straight at Indianapolis, Pocono II and Watkins Glen. He won twice from the pole, at Pocono II and New Hampshire II.

Harvick’s four poles (Atlanta, Texas I, Coke 600, Southern 500) are the second most in his career, following his eight in 2014 when he won the title. Sixteen of Harvick’s 21 Cup poles have come in the last five seasons. He didn’t win any from 2007-2012.

Larson’s three poles (Auto Club, Michigan I and Sonoma) brought his career total to four. His first came in 2014.

Truex’s three poles (Loudon I, Dover II and Kansas II) fell short of his career-high of five from last year. He has 15 poles in his 12 full-time seasons.

Keselowski’s two poles (Las Vegas, Michigan II) bring his career total to 14.

Two drivers, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones, won their first Cup poles.

Jimmie Johnson failed to earn a pole for just the second time in his full-time career, which began in 2002.

Here’s the full list of 2017 pole winners.

Kyle Busch – Eight
Kevin Harvick – Four
Kyle Larson – Three
Martin Truex Jr. – Three
Brad Keselowski – Two
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Two
Denny Hamlin – Two
Joey Logano – Two
Matt Kenseth – Two
Ryan Blaney – Two
Chase Elliott – One
Erik Jones – One
Kurt Busch – One
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – One

Matt Kenseth after potential final Cup start: ‘I did the best I could every week’

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While Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave one of his last TV interviews as a Cup driver in the middle of a loud throng of crew members and fans, Matt Kenseth‘s was typical of the 2003 Cup champion.

After finishing eighth, the 45-year-old driver spoke to NBC’s Kelli Stavast in a much quieter part of pit road by himself.

A week after his emotional win at Phoenix, Kenseth said he “didn’t think about much in the last 20 laps” of the Ford EcoBoost 400, likely the last race of his NASCAR career.

The only thing on his mind was “getting by the 2 car” of Brad Keselowski for one more position.

“Obviously, last week was a magical week or race – to win that race and then this week has been really fun,” said Kenseth, who won his 39th Cup race last Sunday. “The pre-race stuff was really fun. I was glad Katie (wife) was able to get down here and all and having the kids here, my dad, my sister and everybody.

“It was really fun, obviously, what DeWalt did with this paint job and Habitat for Humanity, but doing my rookie paint job was cool as well. So it was a really cool day.”

Kenseth and Earnhardt each drove the paint schemes from their 2000 rookie years. Before the race, Kenseth and Earnhardt’s cars were placed together on the starting grid so the long-time friends could take in the moment together.

Two hundred and sixty-seven laps later, Earnhardt finished 25th, three laps down. Kenseth took his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota to his 327th top-10 finish.

His Phoenix win gave him 181 top fives.

Kenseth was asked what he hoped his legacy, which spans more than 20 years on the NASCAR circuit, would turn out to be.

“Some people are going to like you, some people aren’t,” Kenseth said “Some people are going to respect you, some people won’t. So I mean, whatever people think, they think. I did the best I could every week. Didn’t always do the right thing, that’s for sure, but raced as hard as I could and at the time I always felt like I was trying to do the right thing and gave it my all every time I went to the race track, so that’s all I could do.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.