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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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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