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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Chase Briscoe fastest in first of two Xfinity practices at Daytona

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Chase Briscoe turned in the fastest speed (196.455 mph) in the first of Friday’s two NASCAR Xfinity Series practices at Daytona International Speedway.

Defending Daytona Xfinity race winner Tyler Reddick was second-fastest (196.344 mph), followed by John Hunter Nemechek (196.202), Ross Chastain (196.002) and Justin Haley 195.135.

Click here for full results of the first practice.

Today’s second and final Xfinity practice runs from 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. ET.

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Kyle Busch Motorsports adds Canadian teen for three Truck races

Kyle Busch Motorsports
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Kyle Busch Motorsports has a long history of developing young drivers such as Erik Jones and Christopher Bell.

Now, KBM has gone north of the border for its latest addition to the fold, 17-year-old Canadian teenager Raphael Lessard.

Lessard, a native of Saint Joseph de Beauce, Quebec, is slated to drive the No. 46 Toyota Tundra in three Gander Outdoors Truck Series races for KBM this season: Martinsville (March 23), Dover (May 3) and Bristol (August 15). He turns 18 in July.

“Driving for KBM I will be assured of having one of the best vehicles in the Truck Series and that will allow me to go for the win every time out,” Lessard said in a media release. “KBM is a team of winners, and I intend to take full advantage of the great situation I find myself in.”

Raphael Lessard (Photo: Kyle Busch Motorsports)

The move to Trucks is a promotion for Lessard, who competed for KBM’s Super Late Model Program in 2018. He captured two wins: the Short Track U.S. Nationals at Bristol last May, and the Red Bud 400 ARCA/CRA Super Series race at Anderson (Indiana) Speedway last July.

In 16 combined starts for KBM last season, Lessard recorded two wins, three poles, seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 2018 across the CARS Super Late Model Tour, the Southern Super Series and the ARCA/CRA Super Series.

“Raphael was really fast in our Super Late Models last season and added a couple of marquee wins to KBM’s resume,” team owner and NASCAR Cup driver Kyle Busch said in a media release. “We expect that he’ll be able to step right in and be competitive as he makes the jump to the next level.”

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Friday’s schedule at Daytona, including Truck season opener

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The Gander Outdoors Truck Series opens it season tonight to complete a busy day at Daytona International Speedway.

The day features two afternoon practice sessions each for the Cup and Xfinity Series.

Then it’s on to NextEra Energy Resources 250 race for the Trucks at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All times Eastern)

9 a.m. – 6 p.m. – Cup garage open

9:30 a.m. – Truck garage open

10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

12:05 p.m. – 12:55 p.m. – Xfinity first practice (Fox Sports 1)

1:05 p.m. – 1:55 p.m. – Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

2:05 p.m. – 2:55 p.m. – Xfinity final practice (FS1)

3:05 p.m. – 3:55 p.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

4:40 p.m. – Truck qualifying (single vehicle/two rounds)

6:15 p.m. – Truck driver/crew chief meeting

7 p.m. – Truck driver introductions

7:30 p.m. – NextEra Energy Resources 250 Truck race (100 laps/250 miles) (Stages 20/40/100) (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Friday 5: Racer shares his struggles with depression, anxiety

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The challenge to race hasn’t always been about sponsorship and equipment for Cody Ware.

The 23-year-old suffers from depression and anxiety.

He wrote in a Facebook post last year that when he took a hiatus from racing and went back to school in 2015, his struggles got “so bad that I actually tried to kill myself.”

As Ware prepares to start his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, starting 37th for his family’s team, he is speaking about the mental health struggles he’s faced..

“I think most of my day-to-day struggles come internally,” he said. “The biggest step for me making the plunge into full-time Cup racing was to make sure I could mentally and emotionally handle it. Being on medication every day, it’s a constant struggle between fears and doubts and uncertainty, always kind of wondering to myself if I could get through a full 36-race season in Cup. I feel like with friends and family on board … I think with all that, it will be a good experience.

“This isn’t my story, this is a story that needs to be talked about for everybody. This is an issue that I think is way more prevalent in the country that is not discussed at all. I think that the more people have a voice and use their voice to talk about mental health and the stigma around it, that will help more people than I can even imagine. Even if all I’m doing is starting a conversation, then I’m accomplishing what I want to do.”

Ware follows a number of athletes and former athletes who have spoken about mental health struggles. NBA player DeMar DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression and anxiety in February 2017, telling the Toronto Star: “It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day.”

Shortly after that, NBA player Kevin Love wrote in The Players’ Tribune about a panic attack he had during a game in 2017 and how therapy sessions have helped him. “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see,” he wrote.

Last August during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Brian Dawkins detailed his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts he had early in his NFL career.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness — more than 40 million people. Young adults age 18-25 years have the highest prevalence of a mental illness compared to adults 26-49 years and those age 50 and older.

Ware says he was about 17 years old when he acknowledged “that I had a problem” but it wasn’t until a few years later that he said he “started actually trying to fix the problem.

“That’s kind of been the big part for me the last few years, making the conscious effort to keep fighting that fight,” he said. “It’s not something that I can just take some medication and be done with it. It’s a battle every morning when I wake up to really deal with those problems.”

He acknowledges setbacks he’s had.

“Back in 2017, I had a few issues on social media where I said and did some things that I should not have and that obviously, as it should, caused a lot of backlash on myself personally,” said Ware, who accused a fellow racer of infidelity after a disagreement over who was responsible for a crash.

“I think hitting rock bottom (after that) was the best thing that happened to me because that really gave me the wake-up call of ‘hey, this is only going to get worse, and you’re never going to come back from it unless you do something about it right now.’ That really set the stage where I’m still having to deal with a lot of that now. I own it, and I accept it and all I can do now is show that I’m making an effort to improve myself and also talk about my story.”

2. Dueling takeaways

With 21 cars per race and the inability for cars to build momentum in the bottom lane, much of the field ran single-file in both qualifying races Thursday night.

Competitors say they don’t anticipate that being as prevalent in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with a 40-car field (provided several cars are not eliminated by an accident or multiple accidents).

One driver who tried to do something in Thursday’s second qualifying race was Chase Elliott. In the final 10 laps, he often went to the bottom lane by himself and attempted to pass a car and move back to the high line. He climbed from 10th to sixth late but when he tried doing the same thing to take fifth, he lost momentum and fell back, finishing eighth.

“If they’re going to ride around the top all day long, I’ll be happy to try the bottom, at least make something for the great people that are watching up here in the stands,” Elliott said afterward.

The biggest move was Joey Logano’s maneuver from fourth to first on the final lap. He got a great push by teammate Ryan Blaney, giving Logano the momentum to go to the bottom. Blaney followed. The top three — Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola were not aligned as tight on the high line.

Logano side drafted Almirola, stalling him and still had the momentum with Blaney behind him to shoot into the lead.

“I knew I wanted to do it into (Turn 1), so I went for it,” Logano said of his winning move. “You kind of cross your fingers, hope it was good enough to break that plane where (Bowyer) couldn’t pull me back in the side draft. I was able to break that plane, come on up.

“That was a big moment once I was able to clear him. I didn’t want to get that far ahead, but I was. Being two‑wide didn’t give Bowyer a good enough run to get back to me.”

As for the single-file racing throughout the Duels, Logano said:

“It’s all driver mentality, right? It’s what everyone is thinking. I think what kind of leads the top to be strong is a few different things. 

“I think one of it is the side draft is more effective to the right side of a car. You’re able to slow down a car more from being on the right side than you can the left side. A lot of it is because of the shark fins. That’s just a theory in my mind. Seems like that is how that works.

Once that is in a driver’s head that the bottom is not going to work, you have five guys that think that, when they get to the lead they move to the wall, at that point the wall is going to be the fastest way around. It’s the best way to defend the lead.  You see those cars go up there.

I personally don’t think the bottom is that bad. When you can only get two, three, maybe five cars with you, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to do it. You have to have six, seven cars that are really committed to each other.”

3. No change needed

A question that has come up this week is if NASCAR needs to do something to help the stability of the cars to give drivers more confidence at Daytona.

Denny Hamlin said nothing needs to be changed.

“I think the cars are plenty stable and really more stable than I’ve felt them, especially when I kind of think back 10 or 15 years ago,” he said after finishing fourth in the second qualifying race Thursday. “These cars drive way better. If there’s mistakes made, it’s usually drivers, not the air or the car that’s making those mistakes.”

4. Axe the All-Star Race also?

Kevin Harvick said this week that the Clash should be eliminated — possibly foreshadowing that the Daytona 500 might not open the season in the future.

Harvick notes the cars crashed in the Clash and the payout from the race and questions the value to teams. He’s right. The Clash should go. In the last eight years, 70 percent of the cars in that event were involved in a crash. Sunday, 17 of the 20 cars were involved in the last accident before the rain came.

But why stop with the Clash? As NASCAR looks to make changes to the schedule, why not get rid of the All-Star Race? It’s a non-points event like the Clash. Eliminate both and NASCAR can tighten the schedule.

Harvick, though, says the All-Star Race should say.

“I still think that we have to have a weekend where we can show off as a sport,” Harvick said of keeping the All-Star Race. “That is really, when you look at the All-Star events, it needs to be something to where we can go to a city and have them embrace the All-Star event so you have pit stop competitions and unique parties.

“You go to a place like Nashville and have an All-Star race, you don’t have to make up formats because you are going to have a heck of a race with a great atmosphere and a market that you can have all kinds of events and excitement and enthusiasm.

“I went to the Super Bowl this year. You look at the Super Bowl and it doesn’t look like our Daytona 500. There is not as much going on here as there was there. When you look at the All-Star race and the (NBA) All-Star event that will be in Charlotte this weekend, their All-Star events move around, the Super Bowl moves around. You get enthusiasm from not doing the same thing over and over and over.”

As for the idea of an event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the group that promotes racing at Nashville Fairgrounds are working on a proposal to present to the city to upgrade the track for future NASCAR events.

5. One that got away

For as much as drivers celebrate their wins, they remember the defeats as much, if not more.

For 2017 Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, he thinks back to the 2005 season-opening race as one that got away.

I wanted to make a move on Jeff Gordon on the back straightaway on the last lap,” Busch said. “As I went to look out to make the pass, because I had a good run from the guys behind me, it was a line of Chevys. I was in a Ford that year. It was Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. behind me and I think it was Jeff Burton and a line of guys were ready to go with Dale Jr. I was going to get hung out to dry.

“I came back to second. That one stayed with me for a while.”

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