No one would have ever suggested before the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series started that Christopher Bell didn’t have what it takes to win the championship this year. Quite the contrary; thanks to his seven wins in 2018, he was seen by many as the favorite to finish the job and claim the title before the engines were even fired up at Daytona.
But for anyone who might have doubted him, Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway proved that he and his No. 20 team don’t have to win going away as they often do. Bell didn’t lead the most laps (or even the second-most), nor did he win either of the first two stages. It was clear that his car was too loose too often early on, and it wasn’t 100% clear he had the fastest car even when he found long-run speed as the race went on.
That last part was the most important because when Bell wins, he typically dominates. That was certainly the case earlier this season at Atlanta when he swept all three stages. With his talent and the resources of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s almost certainly going to happen a few more times in 2019.
What plays out on the weeks that the No. 20 bunch aren’t quite completely firing on all cylinders is a lot more telling. At Bristol, they missed the setup a bit, something that Bell found a little surprising. They kept at it, they executed during pit stops, and Bell took advantage when a break put him in position to grab a victory that didn’t seem as obvious as some, particularly since he had never previously won at the Last Great Colosseum.
That’s the sign of a true championship operation: the ability to take what looks like a top five and turn it into a race win. It’s not a surprise to see by any means, but it may very well turn out to be one of the days that prove more telling than the ones where Bell is clearly the class of the field.
Let’s hear it for competitive, clean racing. The Alsco 300 had five drivers lead 19 or more laps, and while it’s not hard to think of other races that had more back and forth trading of the lead, Bristol gave fans the kind of side by side action that they crave. Multiple drivers remarked that it was difficult to pass, but it was possible to run low or high for big chunks of the afternoon, and the traction compound mostly did its job to set that up.
With no Kyle Busch around, we also learned that some of our assumptions from the first few weeks of the season are probably true. Bell is the man to beat. Tyler Reddick is just a fraction of a step behind him, but he’s good enough to ensure to keep Bell honest. Cole Custer, Justin Allgaier and a handful of other drivers are going to figure into the battle for the checkered flag on any given week.
It was also fun to have Clint Bowyer team with Kevin Harvick as the race analysts in the FOX Sports 1 booth. Given how quotable Bowyer is, it’s surprising he doesn’t do more TV, and by his own admission, it took him some time to really get into the groove. When he did, though, he mixed insight with humor, and his banter with his teammate was more natural than some of the similar stuff we hear from Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon on the Cup Series broadcasts.
Sticking with TV for a moment, the Alsco 300 gave us one of the worst cases of bad timing for a commercial break you could possibly imagine. In the final stage, with less than 80 laps to go, Allgaier, Bell, Reddick and Custer were all within a few car lengths of each other and competing hard to decide the top four spots. FS1 stepped away for ads anyway, and by the time the broadcast returned, Allgaier, who won both stage one and stage two and led the most laps on the day, was in the garage. To make matters worse, it was reported that he had an engine failure, which turned out not to be the case (though it was a mechanical issue that ended his day).
This isn’t an overall indictment of Fox Sports or its NASCAR coverage in general, but that’s something that is almost unforgivable. We all understand the broadcast needs to have a certain number of commercial breaks in it, and there’s never going to be a way to make sure things don’t happen when they occur.
That said, there has to be some sense of the moment involved. When four cars are duking it out for the lead, that’s probably not the best time to step away. At the very least, considering Fox Sports has some side by side commercials that still keep showing the race, that has to be one of those spots.
On a more personal bad note, honorable mention goes to Brandon Jones, who was having a quiet but not horrible day in his JGR Toyota until he decided to stay out when the leaders pitted under caution with 38 laps remaining. Since Bristol tires are now apparently invincible, the choice didn’t hurt him nearly as badly as you may assume, and it took Bell more than 20 laps to run him down. The problem came after that, when he hit the outside wall, cut a tire down and had to pit while the race stayed green. He finished 14th, which doesn’t sound bad until you consider that only 11 cars finished on the lead lap.
Speaking of which …
The Alsco 300 offered up spirited battles between the top cars all day long, but it also showcased just how big a chunk of the regular Xfinity Series field can’t keep up on the short tracks. More than half the entrants were lapped before lap 30, which is kind of ridiculous even on Bristol’s high-banked half-mile circuit.
There were so many lapped cars that it was almost literally impossible for them to stay out of the way when the leaders came around again. Lappers never really affected the outcome, nor did they cause any wrecks that took fast cars out of contention unless you’re optimistic enough to think Ross Chastain was going to be running up front near the end. But they did cause some very close calls, and there doesn’t appear to be an easy solution for their sheer quantity as Xfinity Series fields have already dwindled over the past few years.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Bristol wasn’t the greatest place for underdogs, who mostly finished laps down to the powerhouse teams. One who didn’t was Justin Haley of Kaulig Racing, who came home seventh for the second straight week.
It was also Haley’s third straight top-10 finish, something the 11 car has only managed once before in its existence when Ryan Truex barely pulled it off last season at Charlotte, Pocono and Michigan. That ride has also never ended a season higher than 14th in points, but Haley is currently 12th and has a 40-point cushion over the next closest driver, so barring a bad string of races later in the year, he’s got an excellent chance to improve upon that.
Dash 4 Cash Update
With no Cup Series drivers allowed for roughly a month, we’re converting the ‘Double Duty Interlopers’ section to discuss the Dash 4 Cash results. Bell obviously won the extra $100,000 for winning the race, while Reddick just missed it in second, Chase Briscoe was at least in the discussion by finishing fourth, and Michael Annett was mostly a non-factor while coming home eighth.
For next week, Annett is out and Custer is in by virtue of his third-place result, making for an even stronger Dash 4 Cash group in week two.
“It was a good day, but it was a shame we thought Stage 1 ended one lap too soon. We should’ve gotten that stage point.” – Tyler Reddick, commenting on a misunderstanding by his spotter that caused him to ease up with one to go in stage one, thinking he had already won it and handing the win to Allgaier instead
“The first half of the race, we were definitely in that fifth-place area, but there in that last run, the last 20 laps, I thought that we were honestly the best car.” – Chase Briscoe
“It was a lot of fun. That’s definitely what I expected.” – Harrison Burton, on making his first career Xfinity Series start at Bristol
Okay, so it would have been nicer to see the cars be able to pass in both grooves instead of just running in them, but baby steps. This Bristol race never turned into a single-lane conveyor belt, and there was some seriously good stuff in the final stage. Plenty of people on social media commented that they would prefer it if there was more tire fall-off, but the lack thereof contributed to arguably the best battle for the lead all day, when Jones dueled Bell on older rubber and nearly pulled off a crossover move to stay in front.
No one did anything ridiculously dumb, there was definitely some bumping but no egregiously bad behavior, and it was a fun afternoon overall. If there’s just a tick more passing possible a few months from now, we could be in for a spectacular show.
Fancy two short track races in a row? Hope so because Richmond Raceway is up next, on Friday night so we don’t even have to wait a week to see the Xfinity drivers get back at it in the second Dash 4 Cash race.
It’s not going out on a limb to say Bell is the favorite as he won both Xfinity stops at Richmond last season. A third straight would give him not only another $100,000 bonus but also give him three victories in 2019 while the rest of the series regulars combined have two. Should be interesting to see if anyone can slow his momentum.