ONE: Christopher Bell’s Big Step Up
The worst-kept secret in the NASCAR Cup Series was made official Monday (Aug. 10): Christopher Bell is getting promoted to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20. The move was considered a mere formality after NASCAR owner Bob Leavine announced the sale of the No. 95 Toyota team Bell currently drives for.
It’s the second straight young driver owner Joe Gibbs will roll out the red carpet for after replacing Matt Kenseth at the end of the 2017 Cup season. Frontstretch’s Bryan Gable wrote a great piece yesterday about how that gamble for Erik Jones just hasn’t worked out.
Surely, though, this time will be different. After all, Bell’s won 20 races the past three years in NASCAR’s lower divisions: Xfinity and the Gander & RV Outdoors Truck series. It’s a total that matched soon-to-be teammate Kyle Busch through the end of 2019. The 25-year-old has won on every type of track — his first win in Trucks was in the dirt at Eldora Speedway — and is predestined to be the sport’s next superstar.
Not so fast. Bell’s rookie year in the No. 95 should make everyone take a breath, at least, before proclaiming there’s a new hierarchy at JGR. He sits 19th in the standings, similar to Jones in his rookie year, but isn’t the top freshman in the Cup Series. That honor goes to Tyler Reddick, who’s smoked Bell in both consistency (seven top-10 finishes) and points (he’s 86 ahead).
Fellow rookie Cole Custer has already won a Cup race, pulling an upset at Kentucky Speedway last month. As for Bell? He’s just led four laps in his entire career thus far (22 starts). Compare that to Jones, whose 310 laps led his rookie year contained a memorable 260 out front at Bristol Motor Speedway before coming up short to Kyle Busch.
Bell’s average finish of 19.9 this season ranks lower than the driver he replaced at the No. 95, Matt DiBenedetto (18.3). The difference has come in the form of rookie mistakes. He’s failed to finish twice due to crashes and flamed out at inopportune moments down the stretch. For example, a lap 106, flat-tire spin at Michigan Sunday negated two top-five finishes in the first two stages. Bell wound up 17th with what appeared to be around a fourth-place car.
The fact remains, six months in, Bell’s rookie year isn’t all that much different than Jones’s. One could make the case Jones was in slightly better equipment (his Furniture Row Racing teammate that year, Martin Truex Jr., won the championship). Bell also had zero Cup racing experience to start 2020. But barring a sudden turnaround, who greets the No. 20 crew in February 2021 is not much different, on paper, than the driver they’re leaving behind.
Bell hopes for a happier ending.
TWO: NASCAR’s Sluggish Stage Racing
No practice or qualifying? No problem for NASCAR, staging competitive races time and again during the COVID-19 pandemic. The third period (and overtime) has produced a Stanley Cup Playoff-like stock car atmosphere during the regular season.
The sport’s biggest drag this season hasn’t been the competition. It’s been how long it takes for the drivers to actually want to be competitive.
Michigan was the latest example of how the first two stages in NASCAR have turned into snoozers. In both events, not a single yellow flag flew other than the scheduled competition caution and stage breaks. Clint Bowyer led all 40 laps of Sunday’s first stage without a single lead change. By the end of stage two, there were just a pair of lead changes, neither of which came during the long-green flag run itself.
This pattern is nothing new. In five of the last six races, there hasn’t been a single caution flag other than a competition yellow in stage one. With only a handful of drivers running for points, aggression just isn’t there to run hard early in the race.
Instead, it appears a lot of teams use stage one as a test session. Feel the car out like it’s first practice, make some adjustments, then get ready to rumble on the restarts where it really matters. By the final stage, it’s a chaotic ending filled with supercharged competition.
But what does that say about the first 60-90 minutes of racing? Drivers on the playoff bubble can also take advantage of clean air and others falling asleep. Bowyer’s 40 laps unchallenged Sunday got him 10 bonus points that could make the difference on the cutline over the final three weeks. The No. 14 Ford was fast, don’t get me wrong, but Bowyer earned that by … finishing 19th the previous Sunday? It seems a little arbitrary to me.
Stage racing was a good idea in theory and there was a time it was working out well. Maybe it’s a necessary evil during this pandemic in order for crew chiefs to perfect these setups. But fans are learning the third period is really where all the action is in NASCAR these days. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose of stage racing itself? If the drivers aren’t racing harder all the way through a stage, then you wonder if complicating the point system is worth the trouble.
THREE: I Choose … More Rule Changes
NASCAR officials have made some bold moves this year in experimenting with rules. The “choose cone” is a major success story, adding an element of strategy to double-file restarts. The days of drivers slowing down in the pits and causing havoc, just so they restart in a particular groove, are finally over.
I just wish NASCAR wouldn’t stop there. You know what else needs fixing? The wave-around rule. Limit the amount of drivers that can magically get their laps back once a caution comes out. It minimizes the penalty for poor performance early in the race.
Eliminating that rule might result in tail-end of the lead lap cars restarting in front of the leader. I say … that’s great. One additional element to consider for restarts that are already can’t miss action. The “choose cone” rule already jumbles up the field enough; fans are smart enough to figure out who the leader is. Can you imagine how great it would be for someone like Kyle Busch have a flat tire, fall a lap down and actually be forced to earn it back in the hard way? You know, like they did in the old days before racing to the caution got outlawed (for safety reasons) in 2003.
Let’s hope NASCAR looks at it. There needs to be more accountability for cars who fall a lap down during the event.
FOUR: Stewart-Haas Racing Surge
SHR is thriving on the back of Kevin Harvick‘s six-win season. That said, it’s the only four-car team that currently has all four of their drivers in playoff position.
Custer has won a race and has been lit out of a cannon in recent weeks; four of his five top-10 finishes have come since July 4. Aric Almirola has 10 top-10 finishes in the last 11 races, including a career-best nine straight during that stretch. Even Bowyer has been feisty lately, as his 43 laps led at Michigan were the most laps he’s led since Atlanta Motor Speedway in June.
Does that add up to Championship 4 material across the board? Probably not. But it’s still a solid effort considering the rough patches both JGR (Jones) and Hendrick (Jimmie Johnson) have had with their fourth car.
FIVE: Chip Ganassi’s Conundrum
Finally this week, it feels like Chip Ganassi has reached a crossroads with the No. 42. It’s clear Kenseth didn’t work out as expected and there’s little chance he’ll be back in 2021. Suddenly, a car that sat on the doorstep of the Championship 4 with Kyle Larson is struggling to find the top 20.
You would think, then, Ganassi would take the plunge and just offer the ride to Ross Chastain. After all, Chastain was a CGR protege before a DC Solar fraud scheme ruined a NASCAR Xfinity Series ride before it began. So why is Bubba Wallace getting an offer instead? Has Chastain’s stock fallen that much during a winless year in NXS? (He’s third in the standings, for crying out loud.)
And what about Jones? He’s got as many wins the last three years as CGR’s Kurt Busch. It’s an intriguing last-minute entry for what may be a better option (yes, I said it) than Johnson’s No. 48 based on recent performance. (Ganassi also has secure sponsorship to keep that ride afloat.)
The decision Chip makes here will easily topple the rest of the Silly Season dominoes. So what will he do?
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