Friday 5: Christopher Bell taking a step in goal to ‘conquer’ Xfinity Series

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Three weeks ago, Christopher Bell said that he wanted to “conquer” the Xfinity Series and “be the guy that everyone says that (they) have got to beat.”

The 23-year-old series rookie is quickly becoming that driver.

In the past two weeks, Bell beat former Cup champion Kyle Busch at Kentucky and Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire for victories.

At Kentucky, Bell started in the rear after spinning in qualifying. Busch led 111 laps but finished third to Bell.

At New Hampshire, Bell held off a charging Keselowski late to earn his third series victory of the season. Bell won’t take full credit for the win, noting he took four tires on his last stop and Keselowski took two. Still, Bell won.

What has it meant to beat Busch and Keselowski in consecutive races?

It makes me happy,” Bell said after the New Hampshire win. “You see all this crap going around the Internet where Cup guys shouldn’t be allowed in Xfinity. Well, why? Why shouldn’t they be allowed in Xfinity?

“Ever since I was a kid growing up sprint car racing, I strived to go race with the World of Outlaws because they were the best. I strive to race with Kyle Busch and Keselowski and all those guys. I love racing with the best. I want to be the best.”

Bell, who won the Truck Series title last year, has shown he has the talent to go with the strong rides with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series and now Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series.

Even with those benefits, he’s winning races and that’s what one has to do in such equipment if they hope to land a premier ride in NASCAR’s top series someday.

“I think if you look at Christopher’s background, he’s excelled in every series he’s ever been in, won races, so I wouldn’t say he’s outperformed (expectations), he’s doing exactly what we thought he would do,” said Steve de Souza, executive vice president at Joe Gibbs Racing, whose primary duty is overseeing the organization’s Xfinity program.

Heading into Saturday’s race at Iowa Speedway (5:20 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Bell is six points behind series leader Daniel Hemric. Bell’s three wins and three stage victories give him a series-high 18 playoff points with eight races left in the regular season.

Earlier this month at Daytona, Bell said how he needed to be better.

“I want to conquer the Xfinity Series and win more races and finish my job here,” he said. “I want to be the guy. I want to be the guy that everyone says that I’ve got to beat the 20 car. That’s what I want, and I pride myself on every step along the way I’ve become the guy to beat. I just don’t feel like I’m there yet in these Xfinity cars.”

He admits his season had not gone quite how he hoped up to that point.

“I’ve got a lot of great runs going, but it’s kind of similar to my first year in Trucks,” Bell said at Daytona. “I’ve crashed some. Got taken out some. The finishes are either really good or DNF’s. I’ve just got to put the races together and hopefully it comes together pretty quick.”

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff sees Bell developing the habits that will carry him to more success.

“I think that we started the season capable of winning races and Christopher is – he’s doing a good job of communicating what he needs with the race car each and every week,” Ratcliff said at New Hampshire. “The guys are building better race cars at the shop, so I think it’s everything all around – his ability, the race cars, the pit crews are just coming together when it counts.”

2. Team of the Decade Race

With Hendrick Motorsports in the midst of a 36-race winless streak (the second-longest winless drought in its history), Joe Gibbs Racing is pulling away in the duel to win the most Cup races this decade.

Since 2010, Joe Gibbs Racing has won 77 races. Hendrick Motorsports is next with 61 wins. Team Penske is third with 44 victories and is followed by Stewart-Haas Racing, which has 43 victories, and Roush Fenway Racing at 21 wins.

Here’s the full list:

WINS BY ORGANIZATION SINCE 2010

(308 races)

77 – Joe Gibbs Racing

61 – Hendrick Motorsports

44 – Team Penske

43 – Stewart-Haas Racing

21 – Roush Fenway Racing

19 – Richard Childress Racing

18 – Furniture Row Racing

10 – Chip Ganassi Racing

6 – Michael Waltrip Racing

3 – Richard Petty Motorsports

2 – Front Row Motorsports

2 – Wood Brothers Racing

1 – JTG Daugherty Racing

1 – Red Bull Racing

3. Pocono: The start of something good for Kyle Busch

Last July, Kyle Busch scored his first career Cup win at Pocono. Since that win, Busch has run 36 races (a full season) and his stats over that time are staggering.

In the last 36 races, Busch has a series-high 10 wins, a series-high seven poles, a series-high six runner-up finishes, a series-high 28 top-10 finishes and a series-high 1,967 laps led.

He’ll go for a sweep at Pocono this weekend. He’s entered in both the Cup and Truck race. This will be his fifth and final Truck race of the year. Cup drivers with more than five years experience are limited to seven Xfinity and five Truck races a season.

4. Looking to win again

Past the halfway mark in the Cup season, here are the drivers who scored at least one win last season who are still looking for a victory this year: Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

5. $658 million in renovations

With the announcement Thursday that International Speedway Corporation will renovate the infield at Talladega Superspeedway at a cost of about $50 million, it marked the fourth major project ISC has done on one of its tracks since 2013.

Daytona International Speedway’s upgrades were estimated at $400 million for redoing the frontstretch grandstands, suites, concourses and such.

Upgrades at ISM Raceway (Phoenix) are expected to cost $178 million. That will include additional stands, a new infield fan area, a pedestrian tunnel to the infield and more. The project will be completed before this fall’s races.

Talladega Superspeedway announced upgrades that will cost about $50 million that will include new garages for Cup teams, a new fan area between the garages that allows easy access for fans to that area and a new victory lane, among other upgrades

Richmond Raceway will spend an estimated $30 million that features new Cup garages that will have a fan viewing walkway, a fan area, a new media center and a new pedestrian tunnel. That project is set to be completed in September.

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Who is hot and cold entering Cup elimination race at Kansas

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After a wild finish Sunday at Talladega, the Cup playoffs chug along this weekend with the second playoff elimination race.

The series heads to Kansas Speedway, where the playoff field will be cut from 12 to eight drivers.

Here’s a look at the drivers – playoff eligible and not – who are on hot and cold streaks entering the weekend via Racing Insights.

Who is Hot

Aric Almirola
• Won at Talladega (4th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2, 1 lap led); passed Kurt Busch in Turn 4 on final lap when Busch ran out of gas.
2018 Season-Good
• Advances to Round of 8 for first time in career
• Ended a 149-race winless streak
• Finished in top 10 in 3 of last 5 races
Kansas-Good
• Finished 9th in back-to-back Kansas races, including May
• Started 25th, 17th in Stage 1, 20th in Stage 2, finished 9th in this race one year ago; involved in multi-car accident on Lap 198

 

Joey Logano
• Finished 5th at Talladega (5th in Stage 1, 9th in Stage 2)
2018 Season-Very Good
• Finished in top 10 in 3 straight races and 7 of last 9
• Finished in top 5 in 2 straight races and 5 of last 8
Kansas – Hot and Cold
• Last 5 Kansas races: Finished 3rd twice and 3 finishes of 21st or worse
• Finished in top 5 in 7 of last 10 Kansas races (2 wins)
• Started 17th, 22nd in Stage 1, 21st in Stage 2, finished 21st in this race one year ago; involved in multi-car accident on Lap 198

 

Clint Bowyer
• Finished 2nd at Talladega (2nd in Stage 1, 2nd in Stage 2)
2018 Season – Good
• Finished in top 10 in 3 of last 4 races and 4 of last 6
• Last 8 races: 5 top 10s and 3 finishes of 23rd or worse (2 DNFs)
Kansas – Terrible
• One top 10 in the last 10 Kansas races (9th in May 2017)
• Started 9th, 14th in Stage 1, 11th in Stage 2, finished 19th in this race one year ago; involved in multi-car accident on Lap 198

 

Denny Hamlin
• Finished 4th at Talladega (8th in Stage 1, 5th in Stage 2)
2018 Season – Great in round 2
• Finished in top 5 in the last two races of 2018
• Finished in the top 5 in both races in the round of 12 after failing to finish in the top 10 in any of the three races in the round of 16
Kansas – Good
• Finished 5th in back-to-back Kansas races
• Last 8 Kansas races: 4 top 10s and 4 finishes of 15th or worse
• Started 4th, 3rd in Stage 1, 1st in Stage 2, 5 laps led, finished 5th in this race one year ago; penalized for speeding entering pits on Lap 163 while running 1st

 

Who is Cold

Brad Keselowski
• Finished 27th at Talladega (34th in Stage 1, 10th in Stage 2, 21 laps led); pit on Lap 41 from 6th due to a loose wheel; pit for fuel coming to green in overtime
2018 Season – Bad
• Finished 14th or worse in the last three races
Kansas – Bad
• Last 7 Kansas races: 4 top 10s and 3 finishes of 13th or worse (14th in May)
• Finished 13th or worse in 3 of last 4 Kansas races
• Started 10th, 11th in Stage 1, 3rd in Stage 2, 18 laps led, finished 13th in this race one year ago; penalized for speeding entering pit on Lap 163 while running 3rd; penalized for speeding in pits on Lap 239 while running 7th
1.5-mile tracks – Too early to tell
• Won last the 1.5-mile race at Las Vegas (opening race of playoffs)

 

Ryan Blaney
• Finished 29th at Talladega (6th in Stage 1, 6th in Stage 2, 6 laps led); pit for fuel coming to green in overtime
2018 Season – Bad
• Finished outside the top 10 in 2 straight races and 3 of last 4
• Last 13 races: 6 finishes of 7th or better and 7 finishes of 11th or worse
Kansas – Very Good
• Top 10 in four of the last six Kansas races, top 5 in three of the last five
• Started 40th, 4th in Stage 1, 8th in Stage 2, 3 laps led, finished 3rd in this race one year ago; qualified 3rd but had time disallowed

 

Kyle Larson
• Finished 11th at Talladega (22nd in Stage 1, 33rd in Stage 2); started in the rear due to unapproved adjustments; spun from 11th on backstretch on Lap 104 with flat tire
2018 Season – Bad
• Finished outside the top 10 in the last three races of 2018
• Last 9 races: 4 finishes of 7th or better and 5 finishes of 11th or worse
Kansas – OK recently
• Finished top 10 in two of the last three Kansas races
• 29th or worse in four of the last six Kansas races including two DNFs
• Started 13th, 38th in Stage 1, 39th in Stage 2, finished 39th in this race one year ago; DNF – pit from 3rd on Lap 65 with engine issue; lost engine on Lap 77 while running 37th

 

Ryan Newman
• Finished 25th at Talladega (12th in Stage 1, 34th in Stage 2); pit on Lap 75 from 22nd with loose wheel; involved in multi-car accident on last lap
2018 Season – Bad
• Finished outside the top 10 in 4 straight races and 8 of last 10
Kansas – Very Bad
• Finished 12th or worse in 4 straight Kansas races (30th in May)
• DNF in 3 straight Kansas races
• Started 18th, 13th in Stage 1, 19th in Stage 2, finished 33rd in this race one year ago; DNF – penalized for speeding entering pits on Lap 176; involved in multi-car accident on Lap 198

 

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Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Kansas

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NASCAR returns to the Midwest this weekend for its second visit of the year to Kansas Speedway.

The Cup Series holds its second-round elimination race Sunday.

The Xfinity Series begins its second round Saturday.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race:

Cup – Hollywood Casino 400 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

There are 40 entries.

Kyle Weatherman is entered in StarCom Racing’s No. 99 Chevrolet. It would be his fifth start for the team this season.

Kevin Harvick won at Kansas in May from the pole, beating Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano. This race last year was won by Truex from the pole. He beat Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Kansas Lottery 300 (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC)

There are 42 cars entered. Two cars will not qualify.

Angela Ruch, niece of Derrike Cope, is entered in RSS Racing’s No. 38 Chevrolet. It would be her second start of the year.

Bobby Earnhardt, son of Kerry Earnhardt and grandson of Dale Earnhardt, is entered in MBM Motorsports’ No. 66 Dodge. It would be his first start of the season.

There is no driver attached to J.P. Motorsports’ No. 55 Toyota.

Last year, Christopher Bell won his first career Xfinity race after passing Erik Jones with four laps to go.

Click here for the entry list.

Bump & Run: Which drivers will not advance to Round of 8?

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Brad Keslowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman enter Kansas outside the transfer spot to the next round. Who are the four drivers you think will not advance this weekend at Kansas Speedway?

Nate Ryan: Probably these four. Blaney and Keselowski could advance on points but will need to run well and get some major help from those above the cut line. Larson and Bowman will advance only by winning, and the odds of that are only realistic for Larson.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski. Kyle Larson was strong at Kansas in May and should provide a valiant run but he’s in essentially a must-win situation and it will be hard to beat Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. at that track.

Daniel McFadin: Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson.

Dan Beaver: Blaney, Larson and Bowman effectively need a win to advance and they have not shown enough consistent strength on the 1.5-mile tracks to get that done at Kansas. Keselowski and Truex have – and after two frustrating weeks, they will do enough to get into the next round. That leaves Clint Bowyer as the odd man out. Kansas may be his home track, but it has not been particularly welcoming since 2013.

After nearly winning at Dover and then winning at Talladega, how do you rate Aric Almirola’s championship chances?

Nate Ryan: Still fair to middling. He will likely run well at Texas and possibly Phoenix but Martinsville (three top 10s in 19 starts) will be a challenge.

Dustin Long: Better than it was two weeks ago but still not among the favorites.

Daniel McFadin: 65 percent. Phoenix and Kansas are among his top nine tracks in average finishes, but he’s finished in the top 10 at Texas once and Homestead twice (in 2010 and 2012). Almirola hasn’t finished in the top 10 at Martinsville since 2014.

Dan Beaver: Almirola has not been able to sustain momentum for very long in 2018. Unless he wins at Kansas, he’ll enter Round 3 with less than 10 bonus points and that is going to make it difficult for him to advance. Almirola’s odds of winning a championship are low.

Do you rate Aric Almirola’s title chances better than any of the Big 3 drivers? Why or why not?

Nate Ryan: No. It still seems better than 50-50 odds that Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all advance to the championship round, partly because of their playoff points cushion but also because the five remaining tracks (three 1.5-mile ovals) lay out well for the trio.

Dustin Long: Still a gap between the Big 3 and the rest of the playoff field.

Daniel McFadin: Less. Kevin Harvick is the biggest threat at Phoenix and he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 there in the last 10 years. And with 1.5-mile tracks in the form of Texas, Kansas and Homestead, you have to believe the Big 3 are the favorites regardless of how well Almirola is doing.

Dan Beaver: Almirola had a couple of strong runs at Homestead with Richard Petty Motorsports including a fourth in 2010. He has only three top-fives this year – none of which came on 1.5-mile tracks. He won’t be able to outrun Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch in the finale.

What did you think of the Talladega race?

Nate Ryan: It was unlike anything at that 2.66-mile oval in nearly a half-century – look no further than the 15 lead changes being the fewest since 1973. Based off fan and driver reaction, NASCAR assuredly will take steps to improve the stability of the cars for a return to pack racing and nonstop drafting in 2019.

Dustin Long: An unusual race because of rule changes this season that made the cars so hard to drive. At the end it was still the same Talladega — chaos.

Daniel McFadin: It was by far the most fascinating Talladega race in recent memory, despite the fewest lead changes in a Cup race there since 1973. Seeing the Stewart-Haas Racing cars pull ahead of the field by at least a dozen car lengths at times was an echo of plate races there when Y2K was a threat. I’m completely game for a superspeedway race where the field isn’t one giant blob that’s only broken up by large crashes.

Dan Beaver: I’ve learned to never be surprised by anything that happens at Talladega. The four-car domination by the Stewart-Haas drivers was interesting, but it wasn’t very entertaining to watch. 

NASCAR America: Only one playoff win for the Big 3

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The Big 3 of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to win 17 of the first 23 races this season.

Since then, they have one victory in the last eight.

Busch has the only playoff win among the Big 3. He led the field to the checkers at Richmond, but that is not representative of his recent results. During Round 2 of the playoffs, he has recorded an average running position of just 11.95. Martin Truex Jr. has been worse in that regard with an average running position of 16.70.

“Those numbers are not as eye-popping as we saw from this trio earlier in the season,” Nate Ryan said on Monday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Especially I look at Kyle Busch. … This is a guy who had one good race – the race he won at Richmond – through the first half of the playoffs.”

Busch and Harvick still have a substantial advantage in playoff points to ease their path to Homestead. Busch has 55 playoff points; Harvick has 53. But Truex was made painfully aware last week that his 38 playoff points are not a sufficient safeguard. He spent much of the Talladega race below the cutoff line in terms of points-as-they-ran.

Equally disturbing for the Big 3 may be that parity has returned to the series.

The five playoff races have been won by five different drivers – all of whom are in championship contention. Brad Keselowski won at Las Vegas, Busch has his Richmond win as a highlight, Ryan Blaney won on the Charlotte Roval, Chase Elliott won at Dover and Aric Almirola won last week at Talladega.

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