Friday 5: A long waiting game for Christopher Bell

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While winning on the race track, the key question for Christopher Bell is if he’s losing off it.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver heads into Saturday’s Xfinity race at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBC) seeking a record-tying fourth consecutive series victory.

Saturday’s race will be his 81st career start in either the Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series. While Bell has won 15 percent of those races, he has yet to make his Cup debut. That puts him behind many drivers who have since moved to Cup full-time.

There seems to be little doubt about Bell’s ability to move to Cup, it’s just a matter of when.

He said Wednesday that his preference is to run in Cup next year if there is an opportunity.

“I don’t feel like I need another year of Xfinity,” said Bell, who has won five of his 27 career Xfinity starts. “I think the best way for me to win at the Cup level is to get there and start trying at it.

“You know, I feel like I’m different than the guys that have been coming up here over the last couple years, and everyone is saying that they’re moving guys up too quick, and the difference is that I’m 23 years old, I’m not 18, 19 or even 20 years old. I’ve got a lot of racing experience, and right now I feel like I’m in my prime as a race car driver. If the opportunity comes to go Cup racing next year, I definitely don’t want to waste another year in my prime, so to speak, of not learning and not getting that experience of Cup racing.”

Many of the drivers he hopes to race against in Cup made their series debut after fewer Xfinity and Truck starts than Bell.

Consider the list of how many races in Xfinity and Truck that current Cup drivers competed in before making their Cup debut:

12 races — Joey Logano (12 Xfinity, 0 Truck)

33 — Erik Jones (12 Xfinity, 21 Truck)

36 — Kyle Larson (30 Xfinity, 6 Truck)

36 — Alex Bowman (36 Xfinity, 0 Truck)

46 — Chris Buescher (46 Xfinity, 0 Truck)

47 — Chase Elliott (38 Xfinity, 9 Truck)

48 — Trevor Bayne (48 Xfinity, 0 Truck)

49 — Matt DiBenedetto (49 Xfinity, 0 Truck)

54 — Ryan Blaney (20 Xfinity, 34 Truck)

57 — William Byron (33 Xfinity, 24 Truck)

58 — Austin Dillon (11 Xfinity, 47 Truck)

80 — Christopher Bell (27 Xfinity, 53 Truck)

84 — Ty Dillon (36 Xfinity, 48 Truck)

95 — Daniel Suarez (68 Xfinity, 27 Truck)

130 — Bubba Wallace (85 Xfinity, 45 Truck)

Every driver progresses at their own rate and what works for one driver isn’t going to work for another. Still, five of those drivers on the above list (Logano, Jones, Buescher, Bayne and Blaney) won a Cup race by their second full-time season.

The bottom line on what Bell does next year will be money. If there’s enough sponsorship money backing him, there will be a way to get him to Cup. Without that money, he seems headed for another year in Xfinity with Toyota’s Cup lineup seemingly set.

Cup organizations are limited to four teams and Joe Gibbs Racing already employs former champion Kyle Busch, former Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, 2017 Cup Rookie of the Year Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, who is coming off a career-best runner-up finish last weekend at Pocono.

The only other high-profile Toyota organization is Furniture Row Racing, which cut back to one team this season because of sponsorship and faces new sponsorship questions after 5-hour Energy recently announced it won’t return after this season. While reigning champion Martin Truex Jr. is a free agent at the end of the season, he said last month at Kentucky that “I don’t plan on doing anything different” for next season.

Bell said Friday at Watkins Glen that he was not aware of any plans to put him in a Cup car for a race this season.

“Right now, we’re right in the middle of closing out the regular season with three road courses in front of me, so I’ve got my hands full right now, especially going into road course season here and trying to maintain our points lead,” Bell said. “Nothing’s been talked about or said to me about that.”

He said he would be open to running a Cup car this year even if it came during the Xfinity playoffs. Bell said he believes it would still help him.

2. The mystery of Kyle Larson and road courses

Kyle Larson has an average starting spot of 5.2 in his Cup career at road courses.

His average finish in those races is 18.1.

Only once — Aug. 2014 at Watkins Glen — has Larson finished in the top 10 at a road course.

“I didn’t grow up racing anything close to a road course, but I always enjoy the challenge of competing at places like Watkins Glen,” Larson said. “We usually have pretty good speed at the road courses on short runs, but just need to be better a few laps after we fire off.

“I’ve got two poles at Sonoma now and have started the last two races at Watkins Glen on the front row in second, so we have speed but unfortunately haven’t been able to carry that speed for the whole race. Even though the tracks are fairly different, hopefully we learned a good bit about a month ago at Sonoma that we can put to use this weekend and put together a good race up until the finish.”

Larson’s frustration with road courses was evident at Sonoma in June. After starting on the pole, he finished 14th.

“I just don’t understand how I can try and take care of my tires and still be the worst car on long runs here. I don’t understand,” Larson said on the radio to his team during the race.

“That makes two of us,” Larson’s crew chief Chad Johnston responded.

To help his road course ability, Larson is running in Saturday’s Xfinity race.

3. Extra laps for many Cup drivers

Several drivers who score points in the Cup series are competing in other events this weekend at Watkins Glen International to gain extra experience on a road course.

Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace are entered in today’s K&N Pro Series East race.

Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola are entered in Saturday’s Xfinity race.

Logano won the Xfinity race at Watkins Glen in 2015 and ’16. Keselowski won this race in 2013.

This is the first time Allmendinger, who won the 2014 Cup race at Watkins Glen, has competed in the Xfinity race at Watkins Glen. He last drove in the Xfinity Series in 2013. He ran two races that season, winning at Road America and Mid-Ohio.

4. Could history repeat?

Chase Elliott seeks his first career Cup win. If he gets it this weekend, he would match his dad Bill in scoring his first career Cup win at a road course. Bill Elliott’s first career Cup victory came at Riverside International Raceway on Nov. 20, 1983.

Already Chase Elliott has matched his dad in runner-up finishes before scoring that first win. Chase has eight runner-up finishes. That’s how many his dad had before he scored his first Cup win.

5. Something to shoot for

While the Big 3 of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have seemingly won everything this year, there’s one are they’re short.

They’ve yet to score a win on a road course, restrictor-plate track, short track and a 1.5-mile track in the same season.

The last to do it was Joey Logano. He won the Daytona 500 and the fall Talladega race for his restrictor-plate wins. He was conquered Watkins Glen for the road course element and added wins at Bristol (short track) and Charlotte and Kansas (1.5-mile tracks).

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Vote for best 2018 Cup paint schemes

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It’s time to take stock of the 2018 Cup season.

That means voting in the best paint schemes of the year tournament.

The NBC Sports tournament has now reached its final four.

Here’s the bracket so far.

Bubba Wallace, RPM reinlist US Air Force as two-race sponsor

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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Richard Petty Motorsports will continue to receive support from the United States military. On Friday, they announced the US Air Force will continue as a primary sponsor in 2019 as well as a major associate sponsor throughout the season on Bubba Wallace’s No. 43.

The two races for which the Air Force will be the primary sponsor are Saturday, July 6 at Daytona International Speedway (4th of July weekend) and Sunday, Nov. 10 (Veteran’s Day weekend) at ISM Raceway. Last year during his rookie campaign, Wallace finished in the top 15 in both of those races. He was 14th in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona and 10th at ISM.

“The Air Force continues to see benefits from our partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports and driver, Bubba Wallace,” said Major Ross McKnight, Chief, Air Force National Events Branch at Air Force Recruiting Service in a press release. “Wallace Jr. and his personality align well with our target audience’s interests and the Air Force’s commitment to teamwork and technology. The combination of Bubba Wallace and the iconic No. 43 provides a continuing sponsorship opportunity that reflects our Air Force core values of Integrity, Service and Excellence, as well as has a positive impact on generating public awareness about the U.S. Air Force, our people and our mission.

“Like NASCAR, much of our work is based on science, technology, engineering and math principles combined with teamwork and training. This sponsorship is a great way to highlight that connection.”

Last year, Wallace visited four Air Force bases. He participated in drills at each and flew in an F-16 with the 77th Fighter Squadron “Gamblers” at Shaw AFB in South Carolina.

“I was really impressed with all the different aspects of the Air Force, and the different opportunities they offer,” said Wallace Jr. “I was able to visit different bases and see the Airmen in action and actually participate myself. That gets me excited and then I’m able to talk to inspiring students who are looking at a career in the Air Force. I’m pretty humbled to represent the Air Force.”

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John Hunter Nemechek, Chase Briscoe approved to run for Xfinity Rookie of the Year

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NASCAR has approved John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe to compete for the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year title in 2019, NBC Sports has confirmed.

Nemechek made 18 Xfinity starts in 2018 with Chip Ganassi Racing while Briscoe made 17 with Stewart-Haas Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.

Nemechek will compete for GMS Racing in the No. 23 Chevrolet. Briscoe will drive the No. 98 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.

When Nemechek was announced on Dec. 6 as joining GMS Racing, a team press release said he would compete for Rookie of the Year. But a NASCAR spokesperson said his eligibility had not been decided on at the time.

The Rookie of the Year title was not mentioned in SHR’s Nov. 27 press release about Briscoe going full-time.

The Xfinity rookie field next year will include Nemechek, Briscoe, Noah Gragson in JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet and Justin Haley in Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet.

Briscoe said in an Q&A on Reddit he was “honestly surprised” he was approved.

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Richard Childress Racing reveals Daytona 500 cars, sponsors and Xfinity details

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WELCOME, N.C. – Richard Childress Racing kicked off its 50th anniversary Friday at its headquarters in Welcome, North Carolina, with announcements about the 2019 season.

RCR announced Daniel Hemric will drive the No. 8 Chevrolet in his rookie Cup season. Hemric had originally been announced as driving the No. 31.

Hemric, who moves up after two years in Xfinity, drove the No. 8 in his two Cup starts in 2018.

Richard Childress Racing

Hemric will be sponsored by Caterpillar, Bass Pro Shops, Liberty National Life Insurance, Cessna and VF Workwear.

Cessna is also a sponsor at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Growing up in Kannapolis, it was all about racing,” Hemric said in a press release. “I always dreamed of having the opportunity to drive for RCR and for Richard himself. Now, two iconic numbers, the 3 and the 8, are going to be under one roof. I know it makes Richard happier than anybody, just understanding what that means for the sport of NASCAR and how our fans are going to be able to connect with that.”

RCR also confirmed NBC Sports’ report that Luke Lambert would be the crew chief for Hemric.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

The team revealed gold-themed cars Hemric and teammate Austin Dillon will drive during Speedweeks in Daytona to celebrate the team’s 50th anniversary.

Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Bass Pro Shops in the Advance Auto Parts Clash.

The scheme for the exhibition race is based on the car Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove in the 1998 All-Star Race.

Xfinity Series

Team owner Richard Childress confirmed Tyler Reddick would be the organization’s only full-time Xfinity Series driver in 2019.

The defending series champion will drive the No. 2 Chevrolet and be paired with crew chief Randall Burnett, who worked with Matt Tifft on the No. 2 in 2018.

Childress said its second Xfinity car will be the No. 21 “more than likely.”

Technical Alliance

Childress confirmed the teams that will be full members of a technical alliance with RCR in 2019.

In Cup, RCR will be joined by StarCom Racing (No. 00), Germain Racing (No. 13) and Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 43).

Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series (No. 11 Chevrolet) will also be a part of the alliance.

Childress said ECR engines would be provided for all those teams.

Charter

Childress said the team would sell a team charter to StarCom Racing that had been leased to the team in 2018.

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