‘This is not a dirt car’: How Christopher Bell was made into a road course winner


The routine post-victory remarks, of which NASCAR drivers are too often guilty, include shoehorning sponsor mentions, shouting out the boys back in the shop and, curiously, an inability to thank anyone “enough.” The dialogue from Christopher Bell, though, was different.

Following a surprise win on Daytona’s road course last February, the 26-year-old driver earnestly thanked Michael Self, his road racing coach.

“Thank you to Michael for coaching me,” Bell said. “I would say he’s been a part of this success as well.”

As it turns out, Self, a former driver in the Xfinity Series and ARCA, drilled Bell on the finer points of braking and right-hand turns and instilled in him a confidence that didn’t previously exist.

“Everyone should be doing this”

Self, a native of Park City, Utah, cut his teeth on road courses, driving shifter karts and touch-and-go (TAG) karts, eventually transitioning to stock cars predominately on ovals. He fared well enough, winning eight times in what is now the ARCA Pro Series West and nine times in ARCA’s national series. He made seven starts in the Xfinity Series for JD Motorsports in 2017, with a best finish of 11th at Road America.

But even while he was forging his own driving career, he was pulled into coaching. He initially served as an instructor at Salt Lake City’s Ford Performance driving school. He was later hired as a private coach to Justin Haley and, soon after, Matt Tifft, tasked with enhancing their skillset for NASCAR K&N Series (now ARCA East and West) road races. In doing so, Self discovered Trans Am’s TA2 Series, comprehending a relevance to NASCAR that may previously have been unforeseen.

“I’d thought of Trans Am as what it was back in the seventies,” Self told NBC Sports. “You know, it was a big deal back then, but frankly, I thought the series had died out a little bit. But (Haley and HScott Motorsports) brought this car and we went down and it was our first test at Sebring … I got in the car and I was like, ‘Man, this is just like the K&N car.’

“It was the same transmission that the K&N cars run, it was a very similar tire. The car was a little bit lighter, but I was like, ‘Everyone should be doing this.’ This is very relevant to what we’re doing on the K&N side of things.”

Haley would eventually compete in 22 TA2 races from 2015-19, amassing nine top-five finishes, while also recording good results in NASCAR road races, including a Truck Series win at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2018.

His success, and work with Self, was noticed by Toyota Racing Development. With top prospect Bell in need of extensive road course training — “I didn’t even know what a right-hand corner looked like before I got in the Truck Series,” Bell admitted — TRD asked Self to run point on what turned out to be a mentally exhaustive training program.

“I just want to know if I suck or not”

Testing and eventually racing TA2 cars was at the core of Self’s plans for Bell. In addition to the testing, there’d be learning, thanks to video and data analysis.

A testing session at Mid-Ohio saw Bell joined on the track by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Brandon Jones, with JGR crew chiefs Chris Gabehart and Jason Ratcliff observing. In an early session, Bell “drove so hard, but there was no method to it,” according to Self, who used video to relay his lesson.

“This is not a dirt car,” Self bluntly told Bell. “You’re fast for no good reason, because you’re just throwing the car sideways into the corners and kind of getting it pointed and then jumping on (the gas) and coming out of the corner. That’s going to work for you for a couple of laps, but you’ve got to be way, way smoother.”

Bell went out again, tried to be smoother, but still required a lot of work. For as decorated as he was in dirt open-wheel racing, this proved to be an arduous, frustrating process. The frustration eventually boiled over, in front of Gabehart and Ratcliff and to the surprise of Self.

“I want you to tell me,” Bell asked of Self, “do I suck? I just want to know if I suck or not.”

The question stopped Self in his tracks.

“You’re Christopher Bell,” Self told him. “You don’t suck by any means. You just need to know what you’re doing, just have a method here to be fast and it’ll stick with you.”

Bell would later tell Self it was the best day of coaching he’d ever had.

“For me, when a guy like Christopher Bell tells you that, I’m like, ‘Wow,’ you know, that’s a really big deal,” Self said. “That’s really flattering to hear because for me, it was just another day of coaching.”

“I didn’t expect that to happen”

That test set the foundation for Bell’s relationship with Self, which fostered incremental improvement.

“I didn’t love road course racing at the time,” Bell said. “I wasn’t exceptional at it, but I didn’t suck at it. I just didn’t care for it.”

Bell finished fifth in his first NASCAR road course race (a 2016 Truck Series event at CTMP) but by comparison to his dominance in a seven-win Xfinity Series season the next year, finishes of ninth, 11th and 23rd in the three road races were pointed to as proof that he needed more seasoning, especially on the road courses.

He continued working with Self, traveling with him to Road America and, eventually, Circuit of the Americas, driving cars from Silver Hare Racing, the TA2 team for which Self now serves as general manager. Bell first won on a NASCAR road course in 2019 at Road America and sharpened rough edges along the way prior to his breakthrough last February.

His win wasn’t a woodshed-whipping, but the sheer statistical performance put on by Bell suggests a driver in a comfort zone on a track type miles from his origin. He averaged the race’s fourth-best running position and recorded a surplus pass differential 12 positions greater than his statistical expectation, a total besting every driver except A.J. Allmendinger.

Bell’s focus on road course training should have legs beyond the Daytona win. There are six road course races left this season and NASCAR’s interest in street courses could manifest in an expanded road course schedule in the Next Gen era.

Neither driver, nor coach are taking chances.

“We’ve already gone to COTA and had a really, really good test there, somewhere where I’m really excited for him to get back to in a Cup car,” Self said. “We’re talking about what tracks make the most sense and what fits in his schedule. I do anticipate him doing a little bit more and him being in our TA2 cars a couple more times this year.”

Road courses don’t host the kind of racing Bell signed up for when he fell down the NASCAR rabbit hole, but he pushed past his initial frustration and can now point, with pride, to the fruits of his labor.

“To win my first race at a road course, I didn’t expect that to happen,” Bell said. “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for the guys that are good at road racing because I feel like it showcases talent. The cars, especially (with the) the low-downforce package, they’re slipping, they’re sliding, you’re kind of riding the car more than you’re driving the car.

“It was just surreal, man.”

Texas Truck race results: Carson Hocevar scores first series win

Texas Truck race results
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Carson Hocevar was in front after the leaders crashed in overtime and scored his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Texas Truck race results

Rookie Nick Sanchez, who led 168 of the 172-lap race, dueled reigning series champion Zane Smith on the last lap when Sanchez’s truck hit Smith’s. As Sanchez tried to regain control of his vehicle, he was hit from behind by Hocevar. That contact sent Sanchez into Smith. Christian Eckes also was collected.

Hocevar’s first win came in his 59th series start.

Chase Purdy placed second. Stewart Friesen finished third. Ty Majeski was fourth. Jake Garcia completed the top five.


Richmond Xfinity results, driver points


RICHMOND, Va. — Chandler Smith won a stage, led a race-high 83 laps and rallied late to score his first career Xfinity win Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

MORE: Richmond Xfinity results

MORE: Xfinity points after Richmond race

John Hunter Nemechek placed second. The rest of the top five featured Josh Berry, Kaz Grala and Cole Custer. Austin Hill, who had won three of the first six races of the season, placed ninth.

Hill continues to lead the points. He has a 12-point advantage on Riley Herbst and an 18-point lead on Nemechek heading into the next series race in two weeks at Martinsville.

Chandler Smith scores first career Xfinity win with Richmond victory


RICHMOND, Va. — Chandler Smith held off John Hunter Nemechek to win his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series race Saturday at Richmond Raceway.

The 20-year-old Smith took the lead with 12 laps to go and withstood a restart with six laps to go to earn the victory for Kaulig Racing.

MORE: Richmond race results, driver points

His victory came about a month after being passed for the lead with two laps to go at Las Vegas and finishing third day.

“It obviously wasn’t in God’s works for me that and I was fine with that, I was good with that,” said Smith, who will make his Cup debut Sunday. “I knew there was something bigger and better that He was playing it out for me and I just had to be faithful and keep on trucking. Here’s proof of it.”

Nemechek was second. Josh Berry placed third and was followed by Kaz Grala and Cole Custer.

Justin Allgaier finished 13th to win the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

“Today was weird because of how we finished,” Allgaier said. “Given the same circumstances a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, 13th wasn’t going to win the Dash 4 Cash but today it did.”

Stage 1 winner: Chandler Smith

Stage 2 winner: Josh Berry

Who had a good race: A caution caught Justin Allgaier a lap down, ending his chances for a top-five finish but he was able to bounce back and win the Dash 4 Cash for a fifth time. … Derek Kraus finished 10th in his Xfinity debut. … Chris Hacker placed 14th in his Xfinity debut.

Who had a bad race: Riley Herbst had his career-long streak of top-10 finishes snapped after nine races. He placed 23rd after he was hit and spun late in the race.

Notable: This is the second time in the last four races that there has been a first-time series winner. Sammy Smith scored his first series win last month at Phoenix.

Next: The series is off until April 15 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

Daniel Suarez, Ross Chastain move on from COTA incident


RICHMOND, Va. — Daniel Suarez says he’s been trying to “work on myself” after conflicts with teammate Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman last weekend at COTA but noted that if NASCAR doesn’t make adjustments with restarts on road courses, he’ll change his driving style.

NASCAR fined Suarez $50,000 on Wednesday for hitting another vehicle on pit road after the race. Suarez hit Chastain’s car at pit entrance and hit the back of Bowman’s car while they were both on pit road.

MORE: Cup starting lineup at Richmond 

“I’ve been trying to work on myself mostly during the week, trying to clear my mind and reset,” Suarez said Saturday at Richmond Raceway. “My team, we’re good. I think the issue wasn’t really with one driver. I feel like it’s more as an industry, how we are allowing to have those kind of bump-and-run restarts at the end of the races at road courses.

“I don’t think that’s right.”

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to go by. Suarez finished 27th.

Chastain said he and Suarez have moved on from last week’s incident after talking this week.

“Every household on this earth has their moments of arguments and we had ours,” Chastain said Saturday.

“We’re family. We’re in the same house, right. It’s in our name. It’s Trackhouse. No matter what, we all think we have to put that behind and know that moving forward we’re brothers. … We’re brothers at Trackhouse and we’re going to be stronger together.”

Suarez is among the number of drivers who have raised concerns about the rough driving in the series. The Next Gen car is more durable and can take more hits — as evident in the Clash at the Coliseum to start the year when drivers barreled into the back of cars in the corners to slow down.

Add the emphasis of winning, less respect for one another and the result is the type of racing on display at the end of the race at Circuit of the Americas, as drivers charged down a long straightaway before braking hard for a tight turn and making contact with one another.

So, what can be done?

“I don’t have the answers to that,” Suarez said. “All I know is that NASCAR is working toward trying to make a better solution for some of these restarts. It doesn’t look right. This sport looks embarrassing.

“That’s not real. Just go into the corner and bump three cars to push people out of that way, that’s not real. We know that. That’s how some people got top fives and top 10s last week and some of the guys that were fast, like myself, finished 27th.

“If NASCAR does something about it, that’s amazing. If they don’t I’ll just join the party.”