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Happy in Xfinity, Christopher Bell sees no Cup openings yet at Gibbs

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Christopher Bell doesn’t know what he will be doing next season yet in NASCAR, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver surprisingly seems unworried about his timetable for reaching the Cup Series.

“If I ever make it to Cup,” Bell told reporters Friday afternoon

Wait, “if”?

“I mean, yeah, unless you know something I don’t,” Bell said with a smile.

It was a decidedly different tone from Bell, who made some headlines eight months ago when he talked openly about wanting to be in Cup by 2019 because he didn’t “want to waste another year of my prime” in Xfinity.

But Bell, 24, spent much of his media session Friday singing the praises of his enjoyment of racing the Xfinity Series and seemed content if he remains on the circuit for another year. Is there a new attitude this season?

“Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how to word this,” he said with a laugh. “So obviously I want to go to Cup, right? But I never meant that phrase as, ‘I don’t want to be in Xfinity,’ because I love the Xfinity Series, and like I just said, I love the cars and feel they race well.

“Ultimately I get to drive race cars for a living, so that’s really cool.”

The status and career path of Bell has been an open question that has drawn much scrutiny. Officials from Toyota Racing Development, which has invested millions in helping groom the dirt racing prodigy, have said numerous times that Bell will remain in the Toyota camp for his inevitable promotion to Cup.

That’s prompted speculation because there are only five viable Toyota seats – four of which belong to Joe Gibbs Racing, which is fielding Bell in the Xfinity for the second consecutive season.

The only JGR driver in a contract year is Erik Jones, who recently told NBCSports.com that he is working on an extension with the team. The only other option would be Leavine Family Racing, whose No. 95 Toyota is filled by Matt DiBenedetto this season.

Bell said he hasn’t asked about his 2020 schedule yet and is unconcerned.

“It’s still early in the year,” the Norman, Okla., native said. “Normally, I don’t figure out where I land until August-ish. So we’re definitely early in the year to know where I’m going to be.”

And when he does know, he isn’t expecting to take Jones’ spot or anyone else at Gibbs.

“I never really pictured Erik being my hole,” Bell said. “If you look at the Gibbs camp now, I can’t picture anyone being my hole because all four cars are running exceptional now. Watch any of the races, all four are right in the top five. I don’t know where I’m going to land. I’m just enjoying the ride now.”

But is the conjecture distracting for the rising star who set an Xfinity rookie record with seven victories last season and has a win this season?

“It’s cool, right,” Bell said. “I’m honored that people want to know where I’m going to go. That’s better than people not caring. That’s really cool. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t say distractions because it kind of goes in one ear and out the other, so it’s not anything I have input in or can control that. The only thing I can control is finishing races and hopefully winning races.”

And enjoying himself.

“Honestly, I love these Xfinity cars,” he said. “They are a ton of fun to drive. And a lot of fun to race, too. I feel like the Xfinity races have been excellent.”

 

Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

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Kligerman’s Talladega car to honor Toyota Racing Development’s 40th anniversary

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NBC NASCAR analyst Parker Kligerman will be back behind the wheel at Talladega Superspeedway for this Sunday’s GEICO 500.

Kligerman will be driving the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota Camry, which will carry a special paint job commemorating the 40th anniversary of Toyota Racing Development.

“We’re proud to honor TRD’s American racing heritage as the organization continues to help build some of the best Toyota engines across all of motorsports,” Kligerman said in a media release. “This paint scheme honors so many great victories over the years.

TRD and Toyota have been involved in all types of racing – from dirt tracks, to the drag strip and pavement ovals – and we can’t wait to see TRD-powered Toyotas in victory lane for years to come.”

Kligerman is looking to improve upon his 15th-place finish in this year’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“It’s a race of attrition, and these super speedways even the playing field,” Kligerman said. “If we can avoid the big crashes, drive a smart race and just be around at the end, our chances are just as good as anyone’s.”

Added TRD president David Wilson, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since TRD first started in American motorsports. We’ve had a rich history in motorsports with over 1,300 TRD-powered victories across 35 series and we look forward to many more.”

Gaunt Brothers Racing team owner Marty Gaunt has had a relationship with TRD that dates back to 2004.

“It’s such an honor to highlight TRD’s 40th anniversary on our Camry,” Gaunt said. “TRD is a leader in technology and innovation – not just in NASCAR but in many different forms of racing. No matter what team, driver or manufacturer you root for, TRD has helped make the racing product better.”

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NASCAR America: What are the top five upset wins at Talladega?

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Of his 76 career NASCAR Cup wins, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt earned a record 10 victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brad Keselowski has the most wins – five – of active drivers at the 2.66-mile facility, NASCAR’s largest racetrack.

On Thursday’s NASCAR America The MotorSports Hour, Krista Voda and analysts Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger recapped the top five upset wins at ‘Dega:

No. 5: 1981 Talladega 500 – Ron Bouchard beats NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a wild three-wide finish. Bouchard’s winning margin was 2 feet. He would also go on to win the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

That was Ron Bouchard’s lone win in the Cup Series,” Voda said.

No. 4: 1988 Winston 500 – Phil Parsons earns the only win of his NASCAR Cup career, defeating runner-up and Hall of Famer Bobby Allison by .21 of a second.

Phil Parsons, stealing a win, in the black Skoal Bandit car, the classic Skoal,” Kligerman said. “The hair’s even better on Phil, it’s a blonde mullet.”

No. 3: 2006 UAW-Ford 500: Brian Vickers took out Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch on the final lap and wins under caution.

Brian Vickers tries to make a move on his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, and takes out Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Kligerman said. “How did he make it out of Talladega alive?

No. 2: 2009 Aaron’s 499: Brad Keselowski earns his first career Cup win in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen at Talladega. Carl Edwards tried to block Keselowski and force him below the yellow line at the bottom of the track. Keselowski wasn’t having any of it, held his ground, made contact with Edwards’ car – sending Edwards into the catch fence – and then held on to defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 of a second.

You’re not supposed to go below the yellow line, Brad Keselowski said ‘I’m not going below the yellow line,’” Allmendinger said. “Carl Edwards went up in the grandstands and bounced back. I remember driving by there and said ‘wow, that was big.’”

Added Kligerman, “The reason (Keselowski) didn’t go below the yellow line is a year prior, Regan Smith got the win taken away for going below the yellow line. So (Keselowski) listened to that.”

No. 1: 2013 Aaron’s 499: This race went four laps into overtime before Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 for the organization’s first-ever Cup win. 

It was a long day,” Kligerman said, “It was basically nighttime (in victory lane) with rain delays and tornado warnings. It was a crazy day but that’s an exhilarating win for that team.”

Ragan comes into Sunday’s race “as a long shot, according to Vegas, 100-to-1 odds. Somebody’s got to take that bet,” Voda said. “David Ragan is a name you always have to pay attention to at Talladega.”

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NASCAR America presents The Motorsports Hour at 5 pm ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents The MotorSports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with Parker Kligerman, AJ Allmendinger and Krista Voda.

We’ll cover multiple forms of motorsports, including NASCAR, IndyCar, Supercross and more.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.