Christopher Bell‘s 2018 season so far can best be summarized as “checkers or wreckers.” One week after his fast No. 20 was caught up in a wreck at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bell won the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway on Friday night (April 20).
“Obviously, this is a very important race for Toyota,” Bell said. “Thankfully, we had a really good Camry. All of [Joe Gibbs Racing’s] cars have been fast for the last couple weeks now…JGR as a company could’ve ran 1-2-3 at Bristol.”
Bell went three-wide on the final restart on lap 172 with Elliott Sadler and Noah Gragson to take the lead. After a long green flag run, Gragson caught up to Bell and tried to pass in the closing laps, but Bell held him off for the win. Gragson, Bell’s JGR teammate, finished second in his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut.
“I think the word teammate kind of goes out the window whenever you’re racing for a win, other than the fact that you’re trying not to crash each other,” Bell said. “Track position, man, that’s what ultimately won me the race. [Gragson] probably had a little bit better longer run car than I did.”
Sadler, an Emporia, Va. native and Richmond Raceway season ticket holder for 40 years, took the last step on the podium and won $100,000 by beating Justin Allgaier, Daniel Hemric and Spencer Gallagher in the Dash 4 Cash.
“It’s so good running at my home track,” Sadler said. “All I could think about when we were up front and taking the lead and winning the stage was, ‘How great would it finally be to pull one off here?’ We just got a little too tight there at the end.”
It was Sadler’s fourth career D4C win, but he was more disappointed that he didn’t win. Sadler said if he could then he would trade in that $100,000 for a win at his home track.
“[I’ve] never felt this way finishing third before. Definitely never felt this way winning $100,000, which is a lot of money to an XFINITY driver,” Sadler said. “I would definitely trade in a lot of trophies for a win at this racetrack.”
Custer started the race on the pole and took off to an early lead for the first 43 laps until Bell took over the top spot. Bell was cruising to win the first stage until a caution came out for Josh Bilicki hitting the wall. A few cars, including John Hunter Nemechek, pitted under the caution so that they could stay out at the end of the stage.
On a restart with seven to go in Stage 1, Hemric got the jump on Bell to grab the lead and went on to win the stage. Custer finished third, while Jeb Burton pulled a slide job on Sadler to take away the fourth spot in the stage.
Nemechek moved into first when the leaders pitted. Hemric restarted in seventh and moved up to second in three laps. He went to the inside of Nemechek, but couldn’t complete the pass. Instead, Hemric was passed by a number of cars despite having fresher tires.
Bell’s tires were key though, as he quickly passed Hemric, and after a hard-fought battle with Nemechek, completed the pass for the lead on the outside on lap 115. Bell’s problem was that Sadler followed him on his charge to the front and moved into the lead 16 laps later.
Hemric reported with less than 20 to go in the stage that it felt like his right front tire was going down. The team had him stay out to try to ride it out until the stage break, despite Richard Childress’ advising against it.
The gamble did not pay off, and the tire blew with four laps to go in the stage. Hemric slammed into the wall and limped all the way around the track after with the green flag still out.
Sadler won Stage 2, with Gragson, Tifft, Bell, and Custer rounding out the top-five.
At the start of the final stage, Bell made it three-wide with Sadler and Gragson, and the latter escaped with the lead. The caution flag flew on lap 166 when Gallagher checked up and Allgaier spun out as a result of the logjam.
Bell, Gragson, and Sadler went three-wide on the next restart as well, with Bell emerging with the lead this time.
Bell broke out to a sizable lead over Gragson, but as the 80-lap green flag run to the end progressed, Gragson tracked his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate back down. Bell fended off the Gragson’s maneuvers to score his second career NXS victory.
Bell’s first win came at Kansas Speedway last season when he pulled a slide job on Erik Jones that resulted in two damaged JGR cars. When Frontstretch asked Bell if it was important to beat his teammate in a clean manner this time, Bell said, “My other one was in a clean manner too.”
Sadler now leads Bell in the point standings by 29 points.
Next week for NXS is the Spark Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, April 28 in the third D4C race. Bell, Sadler, Tifft and Cindric will square off for $100,000 in that race.