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Leader Bell On Shaky Ground As Trucks Hit Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 2 2017

Christopher Bell arrived at Texas Motor Speedway for Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race with a loose grip on the series points lead. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – To classify Christopher Bell’s point-lead in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs as “tenuous” is as simple as counting to 1-2-3.

With an eighth-place finish in the Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last weekend in the opening race of the Round of 6, Bell maintained his spot atop the Truck Series championship standings for the ninth consecutive race. But the 22-year-old Oklahoma native leads reigning Truck Series champion Johnny Sauter by just three points (3,083-3,080) with two events remaining in the Round of 6. Bell also enjoys a 45-point cushion on the cutoff line for advancing into the Round of 4 Championship at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway on Nov. 17.

Enter Texas Motor Speedway, where Bell will rate among the favorites in Friday night’s JAG Metals 350 Driving Hurricane Harvey Relief. Bell will be looking to add to his series-leading five wins and complete a sweep of the Truck Series races this season on TMS’ repaved/reconfigured 1.5-mile oval.

Bell, who started June’s 21st annual winstaronlinegaming.com 400 from the 21st position, went on to lead 92 of the final 98 laps. More importantly, Bell was inches ahead of Chase Briscoe when the field was frozen after a three-truck accident ended the race under caution during a green/white/checkered finish.

If Bell wins Friday night’s event at the facility located just over 150 miles from his hometown of Norman, Okla., he will become just the third driver to sweep a season of Truck Series races at TMS. Four-time series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. won both races in 2008 and Sauter accomplished the feat in 2012.

“Winning at Texas earlier in the year was huge for us and it gives us a good baseline setup to unload with this time around,” said Bell, driver of the No. 4 JBL Toyota Tundra fielded by Kyle Busch Motorsports. “The fall race is typically a little bit cooler than the summer race, so the track will be a little bit different and we’ll probably have to make some minor adjustments to our setup for that. With the (offseason) repave I feel like the field will be extremely tight _ you saw in the June race that people were able to draft and the leader wasn’t able to get away. I expect that pack will be a lot bigger this time around.”

The pack figures to feature Sauter and Matt Crafton, the only driver in NCWTS history to win back-to-back championships (2013-2014). Crafton (3,068 points) led 102 laps on Martinsville’s famed half-mile paper-clip oval and won Stage 2 on his way to a runnerup finish to first-time winner Noah Gragson. Ben Rhodes (3,049 points) currently is fourth in the standings. Austin Cindric (3,038 points) is fifth with John Hunter Nemechek (3,021 points) in sixth.

Sauter won Stage 1 of the Martinsville race and led 33 laps en route to a third-place finish. Both former champions are serious contenders to reach the Championship 4 for the second consecutive season.

Sauter easily could overhaul Bell and his three-point advantage, as the three remaining races rate as “Johnny’s Playground.” Sauter won at TMS last year, finished runnerup on Phoenix Raceway’s 1-mile oval and then scored a third-place finish at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the 2016 championship.

Crafton, third in the Playoffs standings, is only 12 points back from Sauter and 15 behind Bell. Crafton also has championship-caliber experience at the three remaining Playoff tracks. He’s won at Texas twice (spring 2014 and spring 2015) and finished top-five or better in three of his last four races at Phoenix. Crafton also won at HMS in 2015.

Grant Enfinger emerged atop the time sheet after Thursday afternoon’s second 55-minute practice with a hot lap of 29.146-seconds at 185.274 mph in his No. 98 Ride TV Toyota Tundra. The Playoff drivers were led by Cindric, third at 184.420 mph in the No. 19 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Ford F-150; Sauter in fifth at 184.332 mph in the No. 21 ISMConnect Chevrolet Silverado; Nemechek in sixth at 183.667 mph in the No. 8 ROMCO Equipment/Fire Alarm Services Chevrolet; Rhodes in eighth at 183.443 mph in the No. 27 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota and Bell in 10th in the No. 4 JBL Toyota at 183.187 mph.

Bell, who ran 37 laps during the session and 25 in the first 55-minute practice, wound up 0.332-seconds behind Enfinger’s pace. But Bell did record the best 10 consecutive lap average at 182.232 mph from Laps 13 to 22. The field of 32 is scheduled to qualify Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. (EDT).

“We didn’t have our best race of the year at Martinsville, but we were able to salvage a solid finish and maintain the points lead,” said Bell, who will make his 51st NCWTS start Friday night in an event scheduled for  147 laps/220.5 miles.  “Since one of the playoff contenders didn’t win at Martinsville, that means that at least two of the spots in the championship round will transfer off of points, so we’re in really good shape going into the final two races of the Round of 6.

“We want to run better than we did at Martinsville _ we want to win. I have no doubt that we’ll be better at Texas, because the mile-and-a-half tracks have been our strong suit all season long.”

In addition to pacing the standings for the last nine races, Bell leads NASCAR’s third national touring division in nearly every major statistical category this season. The lengthy list includes wins (five), poles (four), top-five finishes (13), top-10 results (18), driver rating (117.4), average starting position (4.8), average finish (5.9), average running position (6.2), laps-led (755) and fastest laps run (355).

Across the first 25 starts of his Truck Series career, the Toyota development driver registered two wins, 308 laps-led, eight top five-finishes, 16 top-10 results and an average finish of 10.6. He has improved in all those categories, producing those five wins, 755 laps-led, 14 top five-finishes, 22 top-10 results and an average finish of 6.2 across his last 25 Truck Series starts.

Bell is quick to attribute his rise to the top of the Truck Series standings _ and his impending graduation fulltime into the NASCAR Xfinity Series next season _ to his dirt-track background. Before racing on pavement, the self-described “dirt-track kid” was crowned United States Auto Club (USAC) National Midget Champion in 2013 and accumulated 26 feature wins on dirt in 2014, including the Turkey Night Grand Prix Midget race. Bell also enjoyed success in Super Late Models, winning prestigious races at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, South Alabama Speedway and Southern National Motorsports Park. 

“I feel like dirt racing is something that makes you…it doesn’t relate to a 1.5-mile but it teaches you such car-control and the pavement is constantly changing,” Bell said. “There’s been a lot of successful dirt racers that have gone on to NASCAR. I think it’s the best background.”

Toyota team-owner Joe Gibbs agreed, announcing on Oct. 13 that Bell would compete fulltime in the Xfinity Series for his organization beginning in 2018.

“Christopher has proven himself at every level of racing and we’re excited to have him run fulltime in our Xfinity Series program,” Gibbs said. “He has shown great maturity both on and off the track and we think he’s ready for this opportunity. We look forward to watching his continued progress in the sport.”

Bell kick-started 2017 by winning one of dirt-track racing’s marquee events, the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla., and followed by dominating and winning in the Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile layout to TMS. Bell went on to win Truck Series races at TMS, the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” and the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“All of us at Toyota and TRD are proud to see Christopher continue through the ranks as he now takes on the NASCAR Xfinity Series fulltime with JGR for 2018,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, USA. “Christopher has been a part of the TRD driver development program for many years dating back to his USAC championship in 2013 and he’s certainly been an integral part of our continued success to bring young drivers through the ranks of motorsports.

“Christopher has been successful in every form of racing and we’re confident that he’ll add his name to the list of drivers to put a Camry in Victory Lane.”

Bell delivered a down payment of sorts for Coach Gibbs and JGR by winning the Xfinity Series race on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway on Oct. 21. Bell worked his way past fellow-Camry driver Erik Jones with four laps remaining to collect his first Xfinity victory in just his fifth series start. However, the outcome was controversial as Jones called-out Bell for the slide-job pass for the lead Bell put on him with three laps remaining.

Jones let Bell know of his displeasure on-track by ramming him from behind, and then vented during his post-race meeting with reporters.

“It’s not dirt racing,” said Jones, referencing Bell’s background. “He’s not clear. I can’t just stop on the top. I didn’t expect him to drive in on the bottom so hard he wouldn’t be able to hold his lane. It’s unfortunate. I thought we were going to race for the win, and unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a race _it was more of a wreck. We’ll just have to move on.”

Bell defended his move as part of his mentality to “always race as hard as you can no matter what the series. I want to win just as bad…when I had the opportunity I wasn’t going to let that opportunity go. Those races are extremely hard to win. I felt I did a good job at that. I shot him a text and told him it didn’t work out and he was really good to me. I feel we’re on OK terms, or as good as we can be.

“Winning my first Xfinity race was special to me and to a lot of people who have supported me. A career win for me over in Kansas. Now I’m looking forward to the Truck Series because that’s my day job _trying to win a championship for Kyle Busch Motorsports.”

Bell recalled his many weekend trips from Norman down Interstate 35 to race in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex with a tinge of nostalgia.

“I feel like it’s (his success since June 2015) happened really quickly,” Bell said. “Just the fact I’ve been able to go from dirt to Truck to Xfinity and it’s only been a span of a couple of years. It wasn’t that long ago I was going down I-35 to Cowtown Speedway (in Fort Worth) and Devil’s Bowl Speedway (in Mesquite) and drive by the big track (TMS) and wonder if I’d ever get that opportunity to race there.

“Looking back, those are some of my best memories with my mom and dad…talking about the races. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to run good and I want to be the best really, really bad. There is more that comes with the NASCAR side because there’s a lot of people putting a lot of money into you to run good. So the stakes are a lot higher. But the pressure I feel is all the same.

“To have my plans in-place for next year is really nice because it allows me to focus on the task of winning a Truck Series championship without having to worry about racing for a job for next year. I’m excited to continue my relationship with Toyota and thankful that they have believed in me through thick-and-thin.

“I wouldn’t have the opportunity that I do for next year at Joe Gibbs Racing without everyone at Kyle Busch Motorsports and what they’ve (Kyle and Samantha Busch) done for me the last three years. I don’t think I could ask for a better place to take the next step in my racing career. I’m already comfortable with everyone at JGR and I think the experience I have with them this year should help me at the start of 2018.”

Stage 1 Friday night will conclude after Lap 35, with Stage 2 ending on Lap 70. FOX Sports 1 will begin its live TV coverage at 7:30 p.m. (EDT), with the green flag set for 8 p.m. The race also will be carried by MRN, Sirius XM and NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs Scenarios

Here is a look at the scenarios-to-clinch for all six Playoffs drivers in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Round of 6 heading into Texas Motor Speedway:

Christopher Bell (0 wins, 3,083 points) _ Bell, driver of the No. 4 JBL Toyota Tundra, would clinch a Championship 4 spot with a win or could clinch on points with help.

Johnny Sauter (0 wins, 3,080 points) _ Sauter, driver of the No. 21 ISMConnect Chevrolet Silverado, would clinch a Championship 4 spot with a win or could clinch on points with help.

Matt Crafton (0 wins, 3,068 points) _ Crafton, driver of the No. 88 Ideal Door/Menards Toyota Tundra, would clinch a Championship 4 spot with a win or could clinch on points with a repeat winner and help.

Ben Rhodes (0 wins, 3,049 points) _ Rhodes, driver of the No. 27 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota Tundra, would clinch a Championship 4 spot with a win.

Austin Cindric (0 wins, 3,038 points) _ Cindric, driver of the No. 19 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Ford F-150, would clinch a Championship 4 spot with a win.

John Hunter Nemechek (0 wins, 3,021 points) _ Nemechek, driver of the No. 8 ROMCO Equipment/Fire  Alarm Services Chevrolet Silverado, would clinch a Championship 4 spot with a win.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs By Round

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs began its Round of 6 at Martinsville Speedway. Here is  a look at the remaining Truck Series Playoffs rounds and which tracks line-up per round:

Round Of 6

JAG Metals 350 at Texas Motor Speedway, Friday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. (EDT).

Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway, Friday, Nov. 10, at 8:30 p.m. (EST).

Championship 4

Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Friday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m. (EST).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 2 2017
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