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 dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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