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Bell’s Home Victory Makes Him One of 4

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 3 2019
Christopher Bell is headed to Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Christopher Bell stopped counting NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff points Saturday night, the by-product of his evolving patience and victory in the 15th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.

Bell won Stages 1 and 2 and led a race-high 101 of 200 laps around Texas Motor Speedway’s high-banked/1.5-mile oval en route to a 5.561-second margin of victory over Ross Chastain. The win punched Bell’s ticket into the Xfinity Series Championship 4 as the first of four drivers who will battle for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16.

“This is my home racetrack,” said Bell, a native of Norman, Okla., who regularly drove past TMS on Interstate 35 towing his car and trailer while cutting his racing teeth on the dirt tracks of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. “I’ve always run well here but never have been able to get an Xfinity Series win. To win my last one is special.”

The rising star of Joe Gibbs Racing at age 24, Bell will graduate to a fulltime Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride in the No. 95 Toyota Camry fielded by Leavine Family Racing next season. But first, there’s the unfinished business of adding an Xfinity championship to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series title he won in 2017.

That pursuit will continue on ISM Raceway’s 1-mile oval outside Phoenix on Saturday. “I can’t wait to go to Phoenix.  I love that track,” said Bell, driver of the No. 20 Rheem Toyota Supra. “We don’t have to think points next week. The Homestead car is sitting there. It’s been getting touched a little bit, but obviously we still have priorities in line, where now, I believe Homestead becomes the No. 1 focus.”

A Bell priority Saturday night was avoiding the nine incidents that brought out cautions _ including a red flag stoppage for 5 minutes, 38 seconds _ and sucked up 51 laps. The final yellow took out reigning series champion and pole-sitter Tyler Reddick after contact with fellow-Playoff contender Chase Briscoe on Lap 162. Bell’s lone issue was a brake-fade problem that became an afterthought once he took the lead for good from Chastian and his No. 10 Nutrien Ag Solutions Chevrolet Camaro SS on the Lap 171 restart following Reddick’s exit.

Austin Cindric finished third in the No. 22 Discount Tire Ford fielded by Team Penske, with Brandon Jones fourth in the No. 19 iK9/Musket Powder Toyota. John Hunter Nemechek was fifth in the No. 23 Romco Equipment Co. Chevrolet.

“I like where we’re at, that’s for sure,” said Bell, one of four leaders. “There were a couple of places earlier in the year that the car drove really, really nice and we just weren’t able to compete with some of the other competitors. But right now, I feel like we can be a little off on balance and still be competitive. So that’s means whenever we hit it we’re going to be really good. I feel like the No.  2 (Reddick) was really good there with us and obviously he ran into some bad luck there and crashed, but winning is always outstanding.”

Reddick’s night ended on Lap 160 when he checked-up to avoid the back end of the No. 98 Ford Performance Ford Mustang driven by Briscoe down the backstretch. By time Reddick finished spinning, he had pancaked the front clip and tore up the back end of his No. 2 Alsco Chevrolet Camaro fielded by Richard Childress Racing. 

“I didn’t get the restarts I needed and that’s what I deserve,” said Reddick, who finished 29th in a 38-car field. “You’re never safe and I proved it right there. At least we were plus (points) coming in here.”

The Big 3 _ JGR’s Bell, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer and RCR’s Reddick _ began the second race of the Round of 8 separated by 12 points in the Playoff standings.  Custer, who finished eighth in the No. 00 Thompson Pipe Group Ford Mustang, sits 52 points above the cutline. Reddick is third, 36 points above the line. Justin Allgaier of JR Motorsports holds the final Playoff spot, 18 points above the line, after his sixth-place finish in the No. 7 Suave Men Camaro.

Rounding out the Playoff contenders who will need to win at ISM Raceway are Briscoe, 18 points below the line in his Biagi-DenBeste Racing Mustang; Michael Annett of JR Motorsports, 28 points below in the No. 19 Pilot/Flying J Camaro; Austin Cindric of Team Penske, 31 points down in the No. 22 Discount Tire Ford, and Noah Gragson, also of JR Motorsports, 47 points below the line in the No. 9 Cessna/Southern Tire Mart Chevy.

In addition to Reddick, Gragson and Briscoe crashed during the final stage.

Bell ‘s win was his first in the series at TMS, eighth of the season and 16th in 72 career Xfinity starts. It also was his 20th top-10 finish of 2019. More proof that he is racing with patience?

“That’s a tough question,” Bell said. “I was fast early but didn’t feel that great. I do feel like I’ve set back more. Pavement racing is a fine line. All you can do is take your car to the edge of control and live on that edge. Tonight, I felt I stayed really calm in the car and let the race play-out and we were there at the end.”

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff said Saturday’s result will dramatically change his mindset heading to Phoenix.

“We will do some prep for Phoenix this week but do more prep for Homestead,” Ratcliff said. “Going to be a good week…an extra week to prepare. It’s not just the car prep. One of the things I felt last year hurt us is the team put so much emphasis on Phoenix that we had to win that by time we got to Homestead the guys were kinda burned out. The team gets extra rest and the engineers can put a game plan together for practice. You feel better about going in there.”

Ratcliff said the Toyota earmarked for Homestead-Miami was raced this year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile track to TMS. “Several weeks ago we looked at it,” Ratcliff said. “After Vegas, we felt like with the speed the car showed there to set that one aside and have our top choice sitting in the corner.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 3 2019
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