Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International was a popular one, with Chase Elliott scoring his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 99th start. This was the win everybody knew would come at some point, but it did not transpire until Watkins Glen — which, for many, made the wait all that sweeter.
With Elliott now having one win under his belt, how many can he score this season? Can he make a run at the Championship 4 and Homestead-Miami Speedway? What is the ceiling for the No. 9 team this year?
Christopher Bell has been a rising star in NASCAR throughout the past few seasons. After winning the Camping World Truck Series title in 2017, he made the jump to the XFINITY Series this season and currently has four wins in 2018. Many believe he is ready to make the jump next year to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The only issue is, where can he go, and can Joe Gibbs Racing retain him?
Is there a chance Bell stays in XFINITY like team owner Joe Gibbs has said he would, or will he leave the team and go elsewhere for an opportunity to race at NASCAR’s top level?
Q: What do you think the ceiling is for Chase Elliott? How many more wins will we see out of him this season? -Gary J., Roanoke, Va.
A: We have all been waiting for Elliott to break through and get that elusive first win for three seasons now. It finally happened, and now some expect him to win a bunch of races throughout the rest of the season. I agree with that assessment.
What can be the ceiling for Elliott? He’s due for more wins, and there is no telling how far he can go this year. Hendrick Motorsports’ struggles have been well-documented all season long, but the team is starting to turn things around slowly but surely. Elliott and William Byron have been among the series’ best the last two weeks, not just within Hendrick, with Byron scoring two consecutive top-10 finishes and Elliott winning at Watkins Glen.
Not only did Elliott win last week, but he now has also won at least one stage in the past three weeks, which is a huge boost for his playoff points as well. With this hot streak in mind, he will win two to three races in total this year, and will also make a run to the Championship 4. Last season, he was one spot away from making it there, but this could be the year he shines and breaks out for that multiple-win season he’s long been expected to have.
Q: What do you think Joe Gibbs Racing should do with Christopher Bell? Another year in XFINITY or try and find an affiliate for him to run in Cup? -Tina K., Fairmont, W. Va.
A: Joe Gibbs Racing is in a tough position right now with Christopher Bell. With four XFINITY wins this season, the Norman, Okla., native seems ready and poised to win the title this season or at the very least make it into the Championship 4 at Homestead. Seems poised for a move to Cup, right?
The issue here is the limited rides available for him in Cup. He seems ready for the big stage, but there’s unfortunately not many, if any, rides available right now.
Joe Gibbs said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week that they “have to keep him” and cannot let him go to another team, but what can they do? Gibbs already expects Bell to be back in Xfinity in 2019, and he does not expect him to move up to the next level just yet. This is a similar situation to what William Byron and Erik Jones have had to deal with the last two seasons.
With Bell, there really is no room at JGR right now on the Cup level. The only scenario getting him there next year is if Denny Hamlin was released when his contract expires, or even before it this year, but I doubt Hamlin gets released. With Fedex being a full-time sponsor, unless they back out, Hamlin won’t leave. Plus, Hamlin is a championship contender every year, even if this year has been a rare valley for him.
There have been rumblings that Leavine Family Racing could switch to Toyota with a Joe Gibbs Racing alliance, which would allow for Bell to step into the ride held by Kasey Kahne right now. However, team owner Bob Leavine has quickly shot down those rumors and has said they are working on extending Kahne’s contract. However, they are talking with Toyota about a manufacturer change for the 2019 season, and it could lead to a JGR alliance.
So here’s the question: Does Bell get some seat time there in a second car, or does another team snag him? Or does he stay in XFINITY? My gut says he is going to be in XFINITY again next year. Gibbs has said that is where he will be, but then again, what can we believe these days?
If Bell wins the series title, it’s going to be hard to keep him there, though. He is definitely ready for Cup, or will be by year’s end. He will run some Cup races next year, though, whether full- or part-time. By 2020, I expect him full-time in Cup for somebody. If JGR cannot keep him, someone else will get him. He is way too talented to stay down in the lower series for long. There should not be a rush to move him up, but no matter when he arrives in Cup, he will be a threat for many, many years into the future.