Christopher Bell continued the trend of first-time winners Sunday in Daytona. A week after Michael McDowell claimed his first-career NASCAR Cup Series win in the Daytona 500, Bell won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 at the Daytona International Speedway road course. It was his first-career win in his 38th series race.
“This is definitely one of the highlights of my life, so far. I’m just so incredibly thankful to be here at Joe Gibbs Racing with all of our partners – Rheem, DeWalt, Pristine Auction, Toyota, TRD,” Bell said. “Thank you to Jack Irving and Tyler Gibbs. You guys believed in me since day one. It feels like I’ve prepared my whole life for this moment to race in the Cup Series. Last year was a huge learning curve for me, and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to run in Cup. It definitely prepared me to move for Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Bell took the lead from Joey Logano as the two drivers approached the white flag in the 70-lap race. Logano finished second.
“Whenever we pitted and then we came out, I liked where we lined up, but then, the yellows kept coming, and I thought the yellows were hurting me, because I felt like I needed laps to get back up through there,” Bell said. “Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to get there, but Adam [Stevens, crew chief] up on the pit box kept telling me I was going to get there. I didn’t believe it, but he [Logano] really struggled coming out of [turn] six one time and allowed me to close the gap. I just wish my wife was here to celebrate with me.”
Denny Hamlin finished third to, along with Bell, give Joe Gibbs Racing two finishes inside the top-three.
“We were third-best, to be honest with you,” Hamlin said. “The 20 [Bell] was fast, there, the second half of the race. Maybe I was fourth-best. I thought we were solid. Was trying to hold onto third or fourth fastest, and that’s all I’ve got. I just have to get a little bit better. I have to keep getting better to put ourselves in position to win more.”
Kurt Busch was fourth after falling from the lead to outside the top-20 when he got off course with 32 laps to go.
“Man, I just crossed over that fine-line of grip and the car – it’s there, but I was just over-driving. The tires at this track, with the worn-out asphalt in that infield section, is really easy to step over the line. I actually took a deep breath and just said ‘stay cool, stay cool’, and then I pounded that curb and it shot me straight out.”
“Matt McCall (crew chief), all my guys – they had an awesome day on pit road, strategy-wise and with their stops to get us that track position and to get us back up front,” Busch said. “If I’m going to make a mistake, it’s on me to then dig us out of that hole and stay out there on old tires. Really good points day — top-five, I think, in all the stages, so that’s a good checkmark to bounce back after the Daytona 500. Thanks to Monster Energy, Chevy, GearWrench; we’re rolling now.”
Brad Keselowski finished fifth after struggling throughout the race.
“It was a front, back, front, back kind of race, but the Discount Tire Ford Mustang and the entire team, we just didn’t give up and kept working on it,” Keselowski said. “Eventually, the race came to us. We caught some breaks, for sure, and made the most of it.”
Bell’s win snapped Chase Elliott’s streak of consecutive points-paying road-course wins at four. Elliott led 44 laps but wound up outside the top-20 in 21st at the checkered flag.
Elliott was leading when rain dampened a portion of the race track, prompting NASCAR to throw the yellow flag for the sixth time with 15 laps remaining, giving teams an option to change to wet-weather tires. The rain stopped as the caution came out and most of the track remained dry, so teams, instead, took new dry-weather slick tires.
Elliott was fourth off pit road, and several drivers, including Logano, stayed out. As a result, Elliott restarted 15th. Logano restarted up front, keeping the lead until Bell got by him heading into the final lap.
“I was trying to keep him behind me,” Logano said of Bell. ”We gambled by staying out and then I’d say it paid off overall, but you just hate being so close and one lap away. He started catching me a second a lap and it wasn’t like I blew any corners or anything, he was just faster. We just got beat, plain and simple. We’ve got to get our long run speed faster. We made some gains and gotten better with our Shell/Pennzoil Mustang. We’ve just got to be able to find a way to keep our rear tires on these things on the road courses. We’ve identified the issue, now we can go to work.”
Elliott, meanwhile, struggled the remainder of the race.
Soon after the restart for the weather-related caution, Elliott, in heavy traffic, got off course after contact with Corey LaJoie and collected a significant amount of sod in his car grille openings. Elliott’s problems continued when he spun after contact with Hamlin with six laps remaining.
Elliott won the opening 16 laps stage after starting on the pole and leading all green-flag laps of the stage. Bell lad a lap by staying out during the second caution of the race that came out on lap 12. Elliott retook the lead on the restart.
Elliott, then, found himself mired in traffic during the fourth caution on lap 27. He was sixth out of the pits after his team chased a right-front tire to keep it from getting out of the way to avoid an uncontrolled-tire penalty. In addition, five drivers stayed out, pushing Elliott outside the top-10 for the restart.
Hamlin, who was the first off pit road during the caution, took the lead from A.J. Allmendinger on lap 31 and took the stage two win on lap 34.
Busch took the lead soon after the restart from the caution after the second stage and maintain the lead until getting off course. Bell led briefly before losing the lead to Elliott with 30 laps to go.
Kevin Harvick finished sixth, Allmendinger was seventh, McDowell eighth, Ryan Preece ninth, and Alex Bowman rounded out the top-10.
“There was lots of chaos,” Harvick said. ”We had a pretty solid day and were a lot better. We missed all the chaos and finished the race. Our goal was to score stage points, and we did that a couple of times. We also wanted to finish in the top-10 and we did that, so we’re gonna leave and go home.”