Daytona 2021 Becomes The Home Of First-Timers

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 22 2021

Christopher Bell leads Joey Logano en route to his first ever Cup Series victory. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Winless seasons such as the one Christopher Bell experienced in 2020 can adversely affect a race car driver’s confidence and breed self-doubt, but those feelings are easily erased by a victory.

Such was the case for Bell on Sunday at the Daytona Road Course when the 26-year-old scored his first-ever NASCAR Cup victory in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253. Bell’s 2.119-second victory over Joey Logano meant that for just the third time in NASCAR Cup Series history the season’s first two races were won by drivers claiming their inaugural victory. Michael McDowell opened the season a week earlier with his first Cup victory in the Daytona 500. The other two years in which the feat was accomplished were 1949 and 1950. 

“This is the happiest moment I’ve had in a very long time,” Bell said. “2020 was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career. I think I won a race at the Chili Bowl and that was it for the rest of the year. That’s, obviously, up against the Cup guys and on the dirt side. 2020 was a really, really low point for me. To be able to come back in ’21 and win in the Cup Series this early on a road course is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”

After two full seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series where Bell collected 16 victories, he moved into the Cup Series full time last year with Leavine Family Racing. In his first Cup season, he recorded seven top-10 finishes, two of those in the top five.

“We had a lot of speed at certain places last year,” Bell said. “If you look at the road courses in particular, I was really fast. We just had issues. We just could not get off of pit road and maintain our position. We would always lose track position somehow, some way. We just didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. Now at JGR I’m very thankful that we do.”

Towards the end of last year LFR announced it was shutting its doors. Joe Gibbs Racing released Erik Jones from its No. 20 Toyota and inserted Bell into that car for 2021. Bell was paired with veteran crew chief Adam Stevens, who had served in that same position for six years with Kyle Busch.

“I’m so used to having a veteran,” Stevens said. “The things that he knows and understands about racing and race weekends … are different than what Bell knows and understands. We have to spend a lot of time talking about how we’re going to operate and what makes a good weekend, what makes a bad weekend. We spent a lot of this off-season talking about building a foundation. He enjoys the task at hand.” 

  Like four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, who possesses the record for six straight road course victories, Bell’s background includes USAC dirt track racing and the Oklahoma native believes that played a role in Sunday’s victory. 

“Whenever you go road racing, you’re always kind of at the limit of the car,” Bell explained. “You’re sliding around, you’re slipping. It’s all about getting the most out of your equipment in every corner. 

“I think dirt racing teaches you the car control of how to pick up little bits of speed here and there, just being unorthodox about it in some places. I definitely think dirt racing gives you the skill set needed to be a good road racer.”

  With three laps remaining, Bell trailed Logano by 2.251 seconds, but he then began reeling in the 2018 NASCAR champion. With the two speeding towards the frontstretch chicane and the white flag, Bell dove inside Logano as they entered the chicane and snatched the lead.

“Getting passed coming to the white flag stings a lot,” Logano admitted. “I was hoping … he was going to make a mistake as an inexperienced race car driver. You didn’t see it happen. 

“He has a lot of racing experience. You’ve seen him race for wins late in the race. That experience probably helped him a lot tonight.”

Bell and Stevens believed they would visit victory lane this year, but neither expected the win and a playoff berth to come this early in the season.

“It definitely changes the whole season, how you approach the season, what your obstacles might be,” Stevens said. 

The Cup Series moves to Homestead this weekend with the Dixie Vodka 400 scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. on Fox.  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 22 2021
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