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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Kyle Busch takes the blame for wrecking Martin Truex Jr.

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle Busch left Bristol Motor Speedway with no regrets about his team’s comeback effort but one major regret about an attempted pass that he misjudged by about 6 inches.

“I crashed the 78,” Busch said plainly about his Lap 432 contact that sent Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota hard into the wall. “That was my bad. Totally misjudged that one coming off the corner. I clipped him there and sent him for a ride.

“He knows that wasn’t intentional at all. We’ve worked really, really, really, really good together these last two to three years, so that shouldn’t ruin anything between us.”

Truex was running second when the crash occurred. He angrily threw his HANS device and kicked the car after coming up short of winning his first short-track race in NASCAR’s premier series but had cooled down after a care center visit.

“(Busch) probably didn’t obviously do it on purpose, but it’s hard Bristol racing,” Truex said. “Probably could’ve shown a little bit more patience. He was a lot faster than me at that point in time. He just caught me and probably another lap or so he would’ve went right by. Half his fault, half my fault for following (leader Clint Bowyer) so long. I should’ve knocked his butt out of the way because he held me up for 15-20 laps and burnt my front tires off screwing with him. Played too nice and got the crappy end of the stick.”

Busch and Truex are de-facto teammates because they are closely aligned through their affiliations with Toyota Racing Development, and this was the second major tangle between the two teams over the past two seasons. Last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Busch and Truex wrecked while racing for the lead, and an altercation between their teams led to the suspensions of two Furniture Row Racing pit crew members.

Adam Stevens, crew chief for Busch, said he hadn’t talked with Cole Pearn, crew chief for Truex but said the Indianapolis incident “never crept into my mind all night.

“I would assume they’re upset,” Stevens said. “They got wrecked out of a race. I’d be upset. That’s all there is to it.”

Busch said no damage control would be necessary.

“Cole’s really cool, Martin’s really cool,” he said. “I think they’re fine. Maybe I’ll send them a ‘Sorry’ cake to the Denver shop for the guys having to work extra. They’ll probably throw that (car) away anyways, but it ruined their day of being able to get a win or even a second.”

It didn’t ruin the day for Busch despite having endured a wild chain of events in Saturday’s 500-lap race. His No. 18 Toyota slipped out of the traction compound and spun while running the inside lane on the third lap, causing a 15-car crash.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver fell two laps down, but his team managed a repair job that allowed him to climb back into the top five in the final 100 laps.

That was just me and this team and never giving up and being able to drive up through the field like that,” Busch said.

The damage, though, prevented his team from filling his fuel tank swiftly, which cost Busch several spots in the pits on every stop. That was costly on a restart with 23 laps remaining, and he spun after getting sandwiched between the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Chris Buescher.

“We had a shot to come back there and win the race realistically,” Busch said. “We certainly were going to way overachieve, but we just didn’t get to.”

“I’m proud of the effort,” Stevens said. “I’m proud of the car we put on the racetrack. Had we been able to put fuel in it, in a timely manner, it would have been a whole different race. … Hard to win a race when you’ve got to pass every car on the lead lap every run. Frustrating, but it shows what the team is capable of, I guess.”

Kyle Larson finishes second in ‘most frustrating Bristol race’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — A night after earning his first NASCAR win at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was back to business as usual for Kyle Larson in the Cup Series.

Larson had to settle for another second-place finish to a guy named Busch.

Larson earned his fifth runner-up result of the season and his second at the half-mile track. But instead of placing behind Kyle Busch like he did in April, Larson was left looking at Kurt Busch‘s rear bumper.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has placed second six times since his last win in the 2017 regular-season finale at Richmond. Three of those runner-up results have been to Kyle Busch.

“I mean, I’m happy to finish second,” Larson said. “That’s probably 12 to 15 spots I feel like better than where I deserved to finish. Our car was just really bad. I got lucky all night lining up in the right lanes.  I could gain three or four spots every restart. Just fight to hang on there. Then I’d be terrible at the end of the runs.

“Probably the most frustrating Bristol race I’ve had just ’cause I never really felt like I had a shot to win.”

After starting from the pole, Larson led three times in the first 63 laps but only led two laps the rest of the way.

He placed sixth in Stage 1 and fought to place fourth in Stage 2.

Larson found himself in 10th on the next to last restart with 22 laps to go. On the final restart, with 13 laps to go, he was in fourth.

Larson quickly moved into second after Clint Bowyer failed to get up to speed on the restart.

“Fourth is the second-best place to start besides the leader,” Larson said. “I knew I would get out to second. I hadn’t been around Kurt on the short runs there to see what he was doing.  Was hoping maybe he would run the bottom for a couple laps.

“He went straight away to the top.  I knew it was going to be tough to pass him.  I knew if I got close to him, I’d have to use the bumper a little bit.  I never even got close enough to get to him there.”

Larson, who clinched a spot in the playoffs on points, gave the traction compound applied to the bottom lane in each turn a positive review.

“It didn’t really matter where I ran,” Larson said. “Everybody that passed me either passed me on the top or the bottom, then drove away from me in each lane.

“I would say the lanes are pretty equal and consistent. Just hard to pass. When you get down there, you can have more lap time down there, but then your exit gets kind of tight because they hang on your outside.

“Yeah, Bristol is still a bad‑ass place.  I think they’ve done a good job with figuring out exactly where they need the (compound).”

What drivers said after Bristol

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Kurt Busch — Winner: “It’s awesome to do it at Bristol. I love this place. We now have won six times here and I have great teams that have always helped me win. This group of guys, Billy Scott, my crew chief, this is his first win and to be able to do it with Ford and Monster and Haas Automation is just what it’s all about is executing as a team and we had good restarts when we had to, and then you’ve got to get clever and start throwing everything at it.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 2nd: “I think if I had a better car, tires probably would have showed what they are really capable of. This was just a really frustrating day. Our DC Solar Chevy was not very good from Lap 1 to Lap 500 there, but we fought and got a second-place finish out of it. So, I was happy about running second, but just disappointed because I had a lot of confidence going into this race and thought our car was really good. But, we were probably a 12th to 15th-place car, I thought. Just lined up in the right re-starts just about every time and was able to gain some spots on every re-start and maintain. And then would be terrible there towards the end of the run. Frustrating, but we were able to fight; so that’s good for our team to be able to do that. Our pit stops, aside from the first one, were really good. So, I’m happy about that that. So, we’ll just continue to fight to get our cars a lot better.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 3rd: “Yeah, not quite enough of something. I don’t know, just got tight there after the run that we had the lead and once we got it freed back up, but we kept getting the bottom on all the restarts and it was just hard to go forward and what not. But, man, that thing was really fast there at the end. It felt like we were making up some ground on those guys.”

Joey Logano — Finished 4th: I wouldn’t say we’ve been in a little slump, but we kind of have been. We’ve been consistent and run in the top 10 and that’s just kind of where we’d run. We had a couple wrecks here recently with Pocono and Watkins Glen and a top 10 last week felt OK. I felt like we had a better car than a top 10 last week and then this week we had a car that could win if circumstances played out right, which it didn’t, but, overall, I’m proud of the speed we had on the short run.

Erik Jones — Finished 5th: “The run before last, we could’ve got up front when Kyle (Busch) and I were kind of running through the field. We were probably the best car, but you know there at the end, I didn’t have enough. I was too tight. I think our Sport Clips Camry was just lacking a little bit all night. We were close, but we could never find that last little bit to get up there and compete for the lead. I’m wore out. We worked hard all night trying to get ourselves a shot. It just wasn’t quite enough.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 6th: “I just clearly didn’t do a good job on the restarts. When I had the lead I thought I got a good jump and about the time I shifted Kurt (Busch) hit me in the door and it just lit the tires up. He didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just a product of it. I don’t know. Then when I was on the bottom I spun the tires real bad and they all got around me. It’s disappointing. You get a car that good and you get that close you hate to not come home with it, but, all in all, for as terrible as we started the weekend and as bad as our yesterday was, to lead laps or even be in the top 10, I was pretty surprised to be honest with you. In the grand scheme of things it was a pretty good run for us, but you hate to give them up like that.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “We just struggled as the track got colder and rubbered in. I was really happy with our car in the first stage, but we just kind of lost it from there. It was a decent comeback for us. We were gonna restart sixth and the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) pitted and that kind of hurt us, but it was a decent night.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 8th: “We had a really good race car, just had that loose wheel and lost those two laps. Almost got the lap back under green and that would have probably have gotten us a couple more spots there, but still got it back through wave arounds and lucky dog. Just proud of my guys, we had a good race car, but the car was good.”

JIMMIE JOHNSON — Finished 9th: “We had a decent night. I guess the No. 41 (Kurt Busch) won by staying out. We kind of lined up on the inside and felt like we had to come in for new tires with 20 to go or something. Just a solid night. We will take it. Of course, we want more, but it was nice to have a good consistent run all night long.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 11th: “Jack asked me in the driver’s meeting how my car was and I told him it was a 10th to 15th-place car and if we could get it to turn we’d be better than that. Early in the race it turned and we drove up into the top 10 and were running about eighth. I had the speeding penalty and kind of overcame that and got back up to seventh or eighth and then that last restart it was all about what lane you were gonna be in. We were gonna be in the top 10, but Jimmie (Johnson) pitted and I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ So I started on the bottom and cost us a few spots and ended up 11th.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 12th: “Unfortunately, qualifying didn’t go as planned but I wasn’t too concerned about it because our practices went well. Once the race started we battled tight and loose conditions, but by halfway, we were balanced fairly well. The biggest issue we had was being able to maneuver through all the rubber on the track. Our Chevy either plowed or shook itself loose. I think we’re all looking forward to the off weekend so we can recharge and get ready for Darlington. It’s my favorite race on the Cup schedule and I want to win it for so many reasons. We’ve got to win to get into the Playoffs.”

David Ragan — Finished 17th: “I was disappointed when we got spun and went a couple laps down. Bristol is a tough race and you really have to have 500 really clean laps and we had one mistake early and lost a couple of laps, so we were fortunate to get back one lap down and our team did a nice job making adjustments and I feel like we had a top 12 to 15 car, but a top 20 finish. We learned a few things and it was a good night for us. It was a lot of fun representing the Shriners in the car.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 20th: That was just a misjudgment on my behalf, I crashed the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) so that was my bad totally. Totally misjudged that one just coming off the corner and knowing there was still plenty of laps left, I wasn’t even in a hurry and I just misjudged it by four or six inches, whatever it was and I clipped him there and sent him for a ride. He knows that wasn’t intentional at all and we’ve worked really, really, really, really well together these last two or three years and that shouldn’t ruin anything between us.

Ty Dillon — Finished 21st: “Bristol is called The Last Great Colosseum for a reason. It’s a battle every single time you race here. Tonight, wasn’t the night we had hoped for. My GEICO Camaro ZL1 struggled through the corners on both ends, and we just couldn’t find the balance that we needed. This team is working hard week in and week out to get better. We are going to keep making gains and building on the data we’re collecting.”

William Byron — Finished 23rd: “We had something go wrong early on and just were off the pace the whole time. It was disappointing. I thought we were going to have a good day, but something went wrong. We will figure it out.”

MARTIN TRUEX JR. — Finished 30th: “I’ve seen the replay real quick, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it. It’s hard racing at Bristol. The corner exit’s really slick where the VHT wore out. There’s some real slick patches. I’m sure he (Kyle Busch) hit one of them. Probably didn’t obviously do it on purpose, but it’s hard Bristol racing. Probably could’ve shown a little bit more patience. He was a lot faster than me at that point in time. He just caught me and probably another lap or so he would’ve went right by. Half his fault, half my fault for following the 14 (Clint Bowyer) so long. I should’ve knocked his butt out of the way because he held me up for 15-20 laps and burnt my front tires off screwing with him. Played too nice and got the crappy end of the stick.”

Paul Menard — Finished 36th: “The wheel is broke – broke the center section out of the wheel, which we’ve never seen before, so kind of just disappointed. We had a really fast Ford. We started fourth and felt like if that first caution hadn’t come out we could have been leading the race by Lap three, but on the restart I just had a really bad vibration, trying to stay out of everybody’s way up by the fence and finally the wheel broke. We’ve got to figure out why the wheel broke. What came first, the chicken or the egg, hitting the wall or the wheel breaking, but we’re scratching our head about that one.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 37th: “We started pretty far back with our Love’s Ford and really I was stopped and not in it at all, and then about five seconds later got blasted from behind. I’m not really sure. It seemed like a long time before the other cars got slowed down, but it’s so disappointing to be out so early, and not of your own doing. It’s just heartbreaking. Five hundred laps is a long race and I think I did a total of 10 laps between the two races this year in 2018, so I’m just really frustrated, but this is racing and that’s what happens sometimes. I’m not really sure what led to the 18 (Kyle Busch) being spun, but all I know is there is a lot of cars not paying attention and a lot of spotters not paying attention for that to happen like it happened.”

BUBBA WALLACE — Finished 38th: “I just got run over from behind after I got checked up. I was talked to AJ (Allmendinger) in there (the infield care center) and said ‘Sorry man, I run over you at the beginning.’ He was like ‘No, you are fine.’ He said he was sitting there for a solid second and a half and got run over again. Just poor spotting up top and some rookie drivers out back I guess.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 39th: “At this point, it is what it is. I’m just sorry for Kroger Clicklist and everybody that is partners with this race team. I appreciate the hard word out of everybody and all of our partners. We had a lot of Kroger Clicklist guest here. We had a lot of just partners in general, Bush’s Beans home race, so hopefully, Chris (Buescher) can get a strong run, but I’m ready for an off week.”

Results, stats for the Cup race at Bristol

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Kurt Busch held off Kyle Larson in a 13-lap shootout to the end of the Bristol Motor Speedway night on tires that were nearly 40 laps older. This was his sixth career win at Bristol. It came in a week with rumors swirling about his status with Stewart Haas Racing.

Larson held on to finish second. He also finished second in the spring Bristol race to Kyle Busch.

Chase Elliott finished third to earn his fifth consecutive top-10 finish.

Joey Logano and Erik Jones rounded out the top five.

All of the Big 3 drivers experienced trouble. Kyle Busch was involved in a Lap 2 incident, Kevin Harvick had a loose wheel on Lap 185 and lost two laps, while Martin Truex Jr. wrecked after contact by Kyle Busch on Lap 432. Kyle Busch finished 20th, Harvick got back on the lead lap and finished 10th with Truex in 30th.

Click here for complete results