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Long: Rivalry NASCAR needs but fans might have to wait to see

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The rivalry NASCAR needs most won’t take place until 2020. At the earliest.

Until then, fans will have to enjoy the limited times Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell race each other in midget cars. That might be it because their NASCAR schedules may not intersect much this year.

Bell, who won a rookie record seven Xfinity Series races last year, returns for a second season even though he said in August he was ready for CupLarson enters his sixth season in Cup. The only way they will race each other in NASCAR this year will be if Toyota runs Bell in some Cup races or Larson finds a ride for select Xfinity races. Nothing has been announced for either at this point.

If they don’t compete in the same NASCAR race this year, fans will lose. This is among the best rivalries in motorsports and is one fueled not by hate but by competition.

Saturday night’s Chili Bowl Nationals added to a growing list of Larson-Bell duels that have become must-see viewing in recent months.

“These guys race each other, but they know how to race each other,’’ said Keith Kunz, whose midget car team has won the past five Chili Bowl Nationals, including the last three with Bell. “You watch all the races for the last three or four years, they expect the slide job, they see it coming, they know how to cross over and counter maneuver. They do things that I don’t think any of us have seen anybody do in a long time between the two of them.”

That makes for edge-of-the-seat viewing when Bell and Larson race together. Just like this past weekend.

Bell passed Larson on the final lap after contact between them to win his third consecutive Chili Bowl title. Afterward, Larson lamented how he let Bell chase him down but said he was “more upset” with the contact he made with Bell in Turn 3 when trying to reclaim the lead.

“I try to pride myself and not race like that and that’s twice now that I’ve done that on the last lap,” Larson said. “Just a little desperation out of myself. Got to not do that in the future.”

Larson made contact with Bell on the last lap of the Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race in November at Ventura (California) Raceway. Bell took the lead with 12 laps to go. Larson challenged Bell but couldn’t get by on the final lap. 

And in August at Bristol, Larson and Bell dueled in the Xfinity race. With less than 50 laps to go, Bell hounded Larson for the lead while they ran through lapped traffic. During a caution that interrupted the battle, Bell radioed crew chief Jason Ratcliff and said: “This is pretty fun right here.” Ratcliff responded: “Looks like it.”

Larson won that race and Bell finished second. Larson won four of his six Xfinity starts last year. Bell finished second twice in those races and third another time. 

Both Larson and Bell were excited after Bristol about racing each other for the lead in a NASCAR event.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for that – me and Kyle to race,” Bell said that day. “It seems like whenever we’re dirt racing, we’re racing each other a lot, but we haven’t really got to race each other on pavement yet. It was really fun to be able to race really hard with him.”

Larson said after the Bristol win that he looked forward to competing against Bell for more NASCAR wins.

“It’s been the Kyle (Busch) and Kyle show at a lot of places,” Larson said, “but with Chris’ driving style and mine, I think it’s going to be the Kyle, Kyle and Chris show at a lot of these places, especially Bristol for a long time. I’m excited for him to get his Cup opportunity whenever that may arise.”

When Bell gets a full-time Cup ride will be among the key stories this season. Joe Gibbs Racing enters this year with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones. Provided that lineup remains the same for 2020, then Bell could go to Leavine Family Racing, which switched to Toyota after last year, and is aligned with JGR.

The key for Toyota is to not lose Bell as it lost Larson. With no place to put Larson, Toyota saw the talented open-wheel racer sign with a Chevrolet Xfinity team for the 2013 season, leading Larson to a Cup ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014.

When Bell reaches Cup, he and Larson could provide NASCAR fans with thrills for years.

“Me and Kyle were talking about this the other day,” Bell said on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It’s kind of weird. It seems like if Kyle and I are in the same race together we seem to elevate each other. Kyle has been my No. 1 supporter and it all started at Little Rock, Arkansas, at the Short Track Nationals back in, I think, 2012. … That was my first time I got on the national scene and Kyle was on Twitter saying this kid’s the next big thing. Basically since day one, Kyle has been trying to promote me and telling people I’m good and stuff like that.”

While there are others in Cup and Xfinity who raise each other’s level when they race one another, there hasn’t been that rivalry — friendly or not — that has been consistent. Even last year when Kevin Harvick, Busch and Truex Jr. dominated, there were few times they battled each other for wins late in a race. 

Bell and Larson often seem to find each other at the front when they race together.

It’s just a matter of getting them in the same NASCAR races this season because 2020 is too long to wait to watch these two duel for the win.

2018 Xfinity Season in Review: Christopher Bell

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Christopher Bell

CREW CHIEF: Jason Ratcliff

TEAM: Joe Gibbs Racing

POINTS: Fouth

WINS: Seven (A rookie record)

LAPS LED:  759 (Series-best)

TOP 5s: 18 (Series-best)

TOP 10s: 20 (Tied for fifth most)

POLES: Five (Second most)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Was the first series regular to win three consecutive races since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999 … Swept the Richmond races … Won the fall Phoenix race in a must-win situation to advance to the championship race.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Recorded six DNFs for wrecks, including two in the Round of 8, setting up his must-win scenario in the final elimination race … Best finish of ninth in the series’ three road course races … His Phoenix win was his only top-10 finish in the final four races … A cut tire forced Bell to pit in the last 10 laps of the championship race.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: Bell will once again be paired with crew chief Jason Ratcliff as the No. 20 team tries to avenge losing the title to Tyler Reddick.  It will be interesting to see if there’s any hangover for the team after coming up short.

Christopher Bell ‘thankful’ he gets another year with Xfinity crew chief

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In the build up to Joe Gibbs Racing’s announcement of a restructuring of its crew chief assignments for 2019, Christopher Bell “prayed” for one outcome.

He wanted to keep Jason Ratcliff as his crew chief.

Bell, who will turn 23 on Sunday, got an early birthday present when his prayer was answered.

Ratcliff will remain as the crew chief on Bell’s No. 20 Toyota in the Xfinity Series for a second year.

Together, Bell and Ratcliff earned seven Xfinity wins, a rookie record. That propelled them to the championship race in Homestead-Miami Speedway where a loose race car and a late pit stop for a cut tire relegated them to a fourth place finish in the standings.

“I was very concerned (about losing Ratcliff),” Bell said Saturday at the Xfinity Awards banquet in Charlotte. “Whenever I got paired up with Jason it was a dream come true, right? Because I’m getting arguably one of the best crew chiefs in the Cup level to come down and do my Xfinity car.”

Ratcliff, who has been a NASCAR crew chief since 2000, was paired with Bell after five seasons and 14 wins Matt Kenseth in the Cup series.

“I knew that whenever things are getting shuffled around you never really know who’s safe and who’s not safe,” Bell said of JGR’s crew chief changes. “Obviously, Jason’s going to get opportunities. People are going to want him to crew chief their Cup cars, to go to different Xfinity teams. I just prayed that Jason was going to stay with me and stick with me. Very thankful that he did.”

Though Tyler Reddick managed to claim the series title, Bell is the obvious favorite for the championship next season.

Bell admitted “it’s going to be very hard to top ’18 in ’19.

“If I can go into ’19 and continue to win races and be in the (championship) four, I’m going to be happy with that.”

When it comes to getting ready for 2019, Bell is staying active behind the wheel.

“The only offseason prep I’m doing is just racing,” Bell said. “I’ve been pretty busy. Right after Homestead I went to Turkey Night out in California (where he beat Kyle Larson) and ran a midget. From there I went to St. Louis and ran a Midget. The only thing I know how to do is just race. I don’t think me losing the championship was a matter of not being prepared, I think it was just a matter of us missing it as a group.”

Bell’s offseason prep will continue Saturday with the Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois. Bell is the defending winner of the USAC midget race, when he won with Keith Kunz/Curb Agajanian Motorsports. This year, Bell will race for Chad Boat and Tucker-Boat Motorsports.

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Joe Gibbs Racing announces 2019 crew chief realignment

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On Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced a crew chief realignment for the 2019 season for four of its teams.

Chris Gabehart will take over for Mike Wheeler as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief in the Cup Series. Wheeler and Hamlin parted ways following the season finale at Homestead. Gabehart spent the last three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief for JGR earning a total of nine wins during that time. Last year, he was the crew chief for the Xfinity No. 19 team of Brandon Jones.

Eric Phillips will also move from the Xfinity series to Cup as the car chief for Hamlin. He earned eight wins during three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief on the No. 18.

Jeff Meendering will fill the crew chief spot on the Xfinity No. 19 vacated by Gabehart and will be paired with Jones.

Meendering returns to JGR after two years with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 00 car.

Ben Beshore moves from his current role as engineer on Kyle Busch‘s car to fill the role of crew chief on the Xfinity No. 18. This team typically fields multiple drivers during the season.

“With such a short offseason it’s important to start work toward the 2019 season immediately and we are proud with the teams we have assembled now, both in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and in the Xfinity Series,” said owner Joe Gibbs in a press release. “With Chris Gabehart joining Adam Stevens, Chris Gayle, and Cole Pearn on the Cup side we believe we have the right leaders in place to benefit our entire organization.”

Former driver Mark McFarland will become team manager and crew chief for JGR’s K&N Pro series and ARCA car. In 31 starts in the Xfinity series, McFarland scored one top 10 at Talladega in 2006 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“In addition, we take a tremendous amount of pride in our accomplishments in the Xfinity Series and are excited to have Jeff Meendering and Ben Beshore join Jason Ratcliff to lead our efforts there, as well as bolster our developmental program in ARCA with the addition of Mark McFarland,” Gibbs said.

Penalty report from Richmond Raceway

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NASCAR has issued two fines for unsecured lug nut violations last weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Adam Stevens, crew chief on Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 Toyota in Cup, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Jason Ratcliff received a $5,000 fine for an unsecured lug nut on Christopher Bell‘s No. 20 Toyota. Both Busch and Bell won their respective races.

NASCAR also suspended Gregory Katzke, Jr. indefinitely for violating Sections 12.1.a and 2.11.a in the rulebook. Section 2.11.a requires any member of NASCAR “charged with any violation of the law (misdemeanor and/or felony)” to notify NASCAR “prior to the next scheduled Event or within 72 hours of being so charged, whichever is earlier.”