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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Xfinity Breakdown: Christopher Bell Opens Playoffs By Throwing Down the Gauntlet

It’s not for nothing that there was so much talk about the Big Three during the Xfinity Series regular season. The moniker was fresh in everyone’s mind after its use during the 2018 Cup Series campaign, and Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick certainly accomplished enough to deserve to be in the top trio. It’s not like Christopher Bell ran away with the regular season championship, because he didn’t even win it — Reddick did.

He did, however, run away with a few races, and as he reminded us in the playoff opener at Richmond, his “A” game is a tad better than anyone else’s.

As far as making a statement, Bell and his No. 20 team couldn’t have made a more definitive one. Bell needed less than 10 laps of the Go Bowling 250 to dislodge pole-sitter Austin Cindric from the point, and once he did, he set up shop there to the tune of 238 laps led. Cindric led eight himself, while Brandon Jones led four.

And that was it.

Always an ace on restarts, Bell was able to scoot back away from the field when necessary. But he also had long run speed, as the lengthy green flag run to finish the race proved. Custer had a brief period where he was closing in and appeared he might be able to make a challenge, but he never quite got to Bell’s bumper and faded to finish behind Cindric in third.

Reddick was never a factor, admitting after the race that he and his team were “baffled” as to why his No. 2 Chevrolet was off the pace. A 10th-place finish may have been better than he actually deserved.

Bell’s 2020 plans haven’t officially been announced yet, but it’s widely rumored/assumed that he will be leaving the NASCAR Xfinity Series behind to take over the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing and begin pursuing his Cup Series destiny. With all due respect to Chase Elliott, he’s the most promising prospect NASCAR has seen this decade, and it’s more a question of when than if he’ll win races at the top level of the sport.

Yet Bell still has unfinished business here. He let the 2018 Xfinity Series title slip away to Reddick, and after just one postseason race, he’s firmly established himself as the 2019 favorite. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of the Big Three like a triangle with Bell sitting firmly at the top.

FULL XFINITY SERIES RACE RECAP AND RESULTS

The Good

If Bell, Custer and Reddick make it to Homestead like they should, there’s only one other spot up for grabs. If Richmond showed anything, it’s that the competition for that final place in the championship race should be intriguing.

We’ve already talked about Cindric, who managed to repeat his runner-up result from the Richmond spring race. The ROVAL should play to his road-racing strengths, and he has a pretty good history at both Dover and Phoenix.

CHEEK: CINDRIC RECORDS SECOND-PLACE FINISH AT RICHMOND

Justin Allgaier remains winless after finishing fourth, but he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since Daytona, which was 12 races ago. The worst of his luck appears to be behind him, so he could make it to Homestead on consistency alone. Chase Briscoe finished right behind him and has been just about as good over the same stretch of races, so he shouldn’t go away either.

The best part of the playoffs might be seeing which one of them prevails.

Two other good moments to mention. Bell finding a kid who was apparently a super-fan of his to give the checkered flag to after the finish was a nice touch. And whatever the Go Bowling giant bowling pin mascot is, it’s tremendous. It should be welcome in victory lane every week.

The Bad

While Bell got the win, at least some stage winners got bonus points too, right? Actually, no, because Bell won both stages as well.

That speaks to how helpless anyone was to do anything about the No. 20 car the whole evening. Speed, strategy, hoping Bell’s crew would mess up a pit stop … nothing worked.

And if you were hoping for a heroic run from one of the lower-seeded playoff drivers, Richmond offered nothing in that respect either. Ryan Sieg, John Hunter Nemechek and Justin Haley all finished outside the top 10. Each will probably need to steal a win (at the ROVAL, maybe?) to have any chance to advance.

All of this chalk means that for a playoff opener, Richmond had perhaps the least possible storylines. Dominance will do that.

The Ugly

When you are one of those playoff drivers who needs to come up with the race of your season pretty darn soon, the last thing you can afford to do is get distracted by scuffles with backmarkers. No one told Nemechek that, apparently.

While Nemechek may have been justified in being mad at Joe Graf Jr. (and we’ll never know for sure since the TV cameras weren’t exactly focused on their midpack battle late in the race) and certainly had a frustrating weekend after his car wouldn’t fire for qualifying, he needs to keep his eye on the prize. Chasing someone down after the checkered flag to wreck them and spinning yourself out in the process shows a lack of focus at exactly the time he needs it most.

Underdog Performance of the Race

This was not a night for the downtrodden to rise up, but one for the stars to shine. Sieg gets some props for finishing 12th, but he’s also a playoff driver, underfunded team or not, so he should be there or higher.

Instead, let’s show some love to Dillon Bassett, who came home with a career-best 13th-place result. It was also the best finish for anyone driving the No. 90 Chevrolet this season, so just generally a feel good story all around.

Quotable

“Man we’ve been really, really fast, really all year long, but the last three races we had an opportunity to win. We’ve been slacking a little bit, but I’m glad we got it done today.” – Christopher Bell 

“[Christopher Bell’s] pretty good, isn’t he? … It’s hard to say what he had, only he knows that.” – Austin Cindric

“Well it’s successful but also disappointing. … We just battled. We weren’t quite as good as the cars that beat us there at the end, but we were able to get ourselves into a good spot and ride there and finish it off strong.” – Justin Allgaier

Final Word

Everyone not named Bell has to step up now. That’s the takeaway from Richmond, even if it isn’t a surprising one. It’s hard to circle a track the rest of the way and say, “Yep, there’s where we’ll get him,” because he isn’t really weak anywhere. So it’s up to the rest of the playoff field to figure out how to get their best close enough to Bell’s to be ready to knock him off at Homestead. It’s not going to be easy.

Up Next

If there’s a chance for someone outside the Big Three to lock themselves into the Round of 8, the next race is it, because it’s ROVAL time. Briscoe won the inaugural running of the Drive for the Cure 250 last year, so he’s got to be licking his chops for the chance to repeat.

It definitely should be more eventful than Richmond. Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 28 on NBCSN.

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One comment

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    Much is made by Rut when an older driver shows up for his home race in NASCAR on NBCSN. Unless that driver works for another Cable Network who competes against them.
    Not one word was mentioned about Hermie Sadler who competes in this race with the State of Virginia sponsorship.
    NBCSN did the same snub job with DW on the first Throwback Race at Darlington.