How a video game and prayer put Christopher Bell on a journey to Cup

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — A video game move sent Ross Chastain to the Cup championship race, but it was a video game that helped start Christopher Bell on the path to Sunday’s title event at Phoenix Raceway.

A 5-year-old Bell was enamored with racing but after his parents bought a junior sprint car and collected sponsorship for it, Bell’s first race almost didn’t happen.

When it was time to climb into the car for the first time, he didn’t want to do so.

“I remember just being super nervous about the situation and not wanting to drive,” Bell said. 

But his mother made a deal with him.

“I’ll buy you a Nintendo game if you get in one time,” Kathy Bell said.

Bell got into the car immediately.

“As soon as I got in, I fell in love with it,” he said, recalling the memory more clearly than what Nintendo game he got. 

After he completed his first practice run, he exited the car and ran to his mom.

“Did you see me hit the wall?

“Yeah.”

“That was so cool!”

Bell never again questioned getting into a car. 

When Bell climbed from his car after winning last weekend at Martinsville, his first words were “Mom and Dad we did it!”

They’ll be here at Phoenix to see if their son can win the Cup championship in his first appearance in the title race (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). 

When Bell mentioned his parents after the Martinsville race, it was as much for the counsel they had provided during the playoffs, which have seen him twice fall so far back in the standings he had to win the final race of a round to stay alive. He did so at the Charlotte Roval and then at Martinsville to earn his spot at Phoenix.

But the trials and tribulations of the playoffs wore on Bell. 

“The biggest thing that hit me in that moment (at Martinsville) was they kept telling I was going to do it,” Bell said of his parents. “‘You’re going to make Phoenix. You’re going to make the Final.’ … So when I won the race, that was the only thing that I could think of, my mom and dad were right and we did it, we made the Final 4.”

Bell often keeps his emotions in check so such outbursts are rare, but Martinsville was special.

As they rode back home after the race last Sunday night, Bell’s wife, Morgan, was jolted by a sudden exclamation from her husband.

“He’s in the backseat going through all of his text messages and going through this phone and out of nowhere he just screams at the top of his lungs,” Morgan told NBC Sports. 

Bell said it was “just the adrenaline” that elicited the reaction.

“It was a big moment, winning at Martinsville, and advancing where I am today is probably one of my biggest moments of my life,” Bell told NBC Sports. “That just goes back the lowest of lows going into Martinsville and … getting right back to the top.”

But Bell’s performance in pressure situations is a trait of the 27-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma. 

“He has always been very, very good under extreme pressure,” Bell’s father, David, told NBC Sports. 

David Bell saw it when he coached his son in youth basketball and their team played in the finals. While the team lost, Bell’s performance stood out, his father recalls. It carried through Bell’s dirt racing experience. He won the Belleville Nationals midget race in 2013 and won the Chili Bowl Nationals in 2017, ’18 and ’19. 

He also won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2017 and made the Xfinity Series championship race in 2018 and ’19.

He faced more pressure Friday at Phoenix when practice didn’t go as well — he was 20th on the speed chart. It was as if the team had the rest of the field right where they wanted.

“That’s right,” crew chief Adam Stevens said with a smile. “We’re just setting the trap.”

Bell starts Sunday’s race 17th. With the way these playoffs have gone for him, it’s not surprising he would face challenges in the finale.

After a first round that saw him be the only playoff driver to score top-five finishes in each of those three races, things have been much more difficult.

He blew a tire on two different occasions at Texas, the second such incident causing him to hit the wall. At Talladega, he spun and was penalized for speeding on pit road, putting him in a must-win situation at the Charlotte Roval. Aided a four-tire pit call by Stevens late in the race, Bell charged to the win to move into the third round.

Bell called that the defining moment of his season to this point. 

“I think that really says a lot about our team because it would have been very easy to give up going into the Roval, which we knew was not going to be a great race for us,” Bell said, noting the struggles of Toyotas on road courses this season. “As it turned out, it was not a great race. We were back half of the top 10 car. The yellow flag came out, and we were able to perform how we needed to perform to win.”

Those good feelings didn’t last. 

Problems returned the following week at Texas in the opening race of the Round of 8. When Bubba Wallace retaliated and wrecked Kyle Larson, Bell was hit by Larson’s car and was done for the race. A week later, Bell finished 11th at Homestead. He entered Martinsville 33 points out of the final transfer spot. Again, a late four-tire pit call by Stevens helped Bell win to advance to Phoenix.

“I’m fully aware that I have the right guy on the pit box, absolutely,” Bell said.

This is just as Bell pictured when he was a child.

“He never wavered,” Kathy Bell said of her son’s desire to race. “That was the only thing he wanted to do, a professional race car driver. His dad said, ‘You need a Plan B, son,’ but he never got a Plan B.

Kathy admits she didn’t want her son to race but that changed one day.

“I was just praying about him,” Kathy said. “We had two older girls and I had wanted this little guy forever. So I finally got my little guy and he’s wanting to get in a race car. I really didn’t want him to do that. I was praying about it. … I heard clear as a bell this is my destiny for him. So I gave in and Dave said let’s do it. So we let him start racing.”

Dr. Diandra: With Chase Elliott out, these are the best Next Gen road racers

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The Next Gen racecar is the ideal vehicle for road course racers. With none of the asymmetry of previous car generations — vehicles optimized for only turning left — the new car upended the road course pecking order.

Road course ace Chase Elliott will watch this season’s first road course race from the sideline while recovering from a fractured left leg.

Elliott has won seven of the 25 Cup Series road courses races he’s run, giving him a win rate of 28.0%. That’s a little more than one win in every four races. He posts top-10 finishes 68.0% of the time.

In 2022, Elliott:

  • led the most laps (121) at road courses
  • led four of the six road course races
  • led the most laps at three of the six road course races

But he didn’t win any of them.

Tyler Reddick won on two road courses, including his first Cup Series win on the way to a three-win season. Ross Chastain, Daniel Suárez, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell each won one race.

Winning isn’t everything… but it’s a start

The unusually high number of spins and tire/wheel issues last year means that finishes don’t always reflect how well a driver ran.

For example: Elliott led most of the first two stages at Sonoma but had to back up during a mid-race pit stop to retighten a wheel. His average running position was 2.2 before the glitch and 15.9 after. He finished eighth.

Despite not winning in 2022, Elliott still tied for the best average finishing position on road courses. The graph below shows all drivers with average finishing positions below 12 in 2022.

A vertical bar chart showing the most consistent Next Gen road course racers

Of last year’s road course winners, only Reddick and Bell make the graph.

  • Three finishes outside the top 20 drop Chastain’s average finish to 16.7.
  • Sonoma winner Suárez had three top-five finishes and three finishes of 24th and worse for an average finish of 16.5.
  • Although Larson finished third at Road America and won Watkins Glen, his other four finishes were 29th or worse. That averages out to 19.7.

That’s not to say these drivers aren’t contenders for a win at any road course race. But I’m more interested in the most consistent Next Gen road course racers.

Only four drivers have average finishing positions under 10: Elliott, Reddick, Chris Buescher and Austin Cindric. Michael McDowell is fifth on the list, 1.3 positions back from Reddick. Bell is 0.7 positions behind McDowell.

Going beyond averages

To gain insight, I examined driver finishes by track, as shown in the graph below. Average positions are represented by gray bars, with symbols showing individual race finishes.

A scatter plot showing 2022 road course finishes by race for 2022's best Next Gen road racers
Symbols overlaps when a driver had two finishes in the same place. For example, Tyler Reddick won twice, so the two symbols are overlaid.

This graph shows, for example, that Elliott had four top 10s and two finishes out of the top 15. Buescher had the same average finishing position but had five top 10s and one 21st-place finish.

Given the issues the new car introduced, this graph suggested that I give each driver a mulligan. So I also calculated the average of each driver’s best five road course races and summarized them in the table below.

A table comparing average finishes for 2022's best next-gen road course racers

Let’s look a little deeper into three of these drivers.

Chris Buescher

Buescher won the fall Bristol race and his name always comes up when talking superspeedways.

But the Next Gen car improved Buescher’s average road course finish by 3.1 positions relative to 2021. Buescher not only matches Chase Elliott’s average finish but beats Elliott in number of top-10 finishes.

If we throw out both drivers’ worst finishes — a 21st-place at COTA for Buescher and Elliott’s P20 at the Roval — Buescher beats Elliott in average finish position.

Austin Cindric

Cindric won four road courses in the Xfinity Series and posted the third-best average finish at road courses in his first Cup Series season. His 2022 performance included four top-10 finishes on the first four road courses of the season.

But even excluding his 21st-place finish at the Roval, Cindric remains ranked behind Elliott and Buescher.

Like Buescher, Cindric’s average running position is significantly higher than his average finishing position. That raises the interesting question of whether drivers advancing last year did so because they were better in the Next Gen car, or because other drivers had trouble.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick finished 35th at Sonoma last year, 13 laps down. He had been running consistently in the top six before requiring a brake repair.

But Sonoma was Reddick’s only misstep. His other five road course finishes were all top 10s, including two wins. Excluding the Sonoma finish gives Reddick a 4.4 average finishing position for 2022 road courses — the best of any driver.

Reddick’s move from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI raises some questions about how his 2023 road course performance will compare with 2022. Excepting last week at Atlanta where an ailing Reddick finished fifth, Reddick has finished the same or worse than last year. And that’s with an additional year of experience in the Next Gen car.

It’s just as hard to predict winners this year as it was last year. But if you’re looking for drivers who can reliably finish in the top 10, these are the best choices.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Circuit of the Americas

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NASCAR’s three major series return to the road this weekend with races scheduled Saturday and Sunday at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series races are Saturday, and the Cup Series is scheduled to race Sunday afternoon.

MORE: Drivers expect North Wilkesboro surface to be challenging

Joey Logano, winner of last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has led laps in both COTA races and will be among the favorites Sunday.

As the first road course of the year, COTA will begin a new approach by NASCAR to stage racing on road circuits. There will no longer be a caution to end stages, but points will be awarded for the finish order. In another change, the “choose” rule will be in effect on road courses.

A look at the weekend schedule:

Circuit of the Americas (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Thunderstorms in the morning, sun later in the day. High of 86. 80% chance of rain.

Saturday: Sunny. High of 83.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. Temperature of 81 degrees with a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

Friday, March 24

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 11:30 a.m. .- 6:30 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 1:30 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Cup practice (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 8 p.m. on FS1)
  • 4:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck practice (No live broadcast)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Truck qualifying (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 9 p.m. on FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 7 – 8 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, March 25

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 2 – 10:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (42 laps, 143 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 5 p.m. — Xfinity race (46 laps, 156 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 26

Garage open

  • 12:30 – 10 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (68 laps, 231.88 miles; Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers

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NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:

FRONTRUNNERS

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.