Bell dominates to win Atlanta Xfinity race
HAMPTON, Ga. – Christopher Bell nailed it in Atlanta it on Saturday.
The Norman, Oklahoma native completely crushed the competition at Atlanta Motor Speedway en route to the victory in Saturday’s Rinnai 250 for the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
It’s also a milestone victory for Toyota, as Bell gave the new Supra its first NASCAR victory and the 150th overall victory for the manufacturer.
Despite how strong he was, Bell was not quick to say it was a perfectly executed day on his part.
“I don’t know about that one. I felt pretty sloppy there as a driver at sometimes,” Bell said. “Running the yellow line is so hard and I don’t know, I would just struggle on the longer runs there. Like I said, I knew that I was struggling on the bottom of 1 and 2 and I knew I was going to have to move up there if we didn’t get that last yellow, so I was pretty thankful that yellow came out so we could put some tires on it.”
Bell led 143 laps en route to his ninth career NXS victory in a race that saw only one on-track caution. That caution came when John Hunter Nemechek spun on the backstretch with eight laps to go.
But Bell had the stronger mount, and held off the challenge for the victory.
Bell said had he not gone to the high side on the last restart, Custer “probably would have” had the momentum to make a run.
“Man, the top is just so good over there in (turns) 1 and 2,” Bell said. “Even there on that long run coming to five to go, I knew I was going to have to move up to block the 2 car (Tyler Reddick) at some point. Just really struggling there. Man, very thankful and very fortunate to be able to drive this Rheem Camry – or sorry, this Rheem Supra. It’s the first Supra win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, so that means a lot to me to be able to become the first driver to win in this.”
Custer finished second, and said he thought it was a “fun race.”
“I thought the end was pretty good,” said Custer. “I thought I might get it for a second. We just didn’t have enough there and Bell kind of took my line there in the last lap. It is a great start to the year in our first race with the Jacob Companies Mustang. We got a new crew chief and it was huge for us to start the year strong. I feel like we will be a threat all year.”
Justin Allgaier finished in third, with Atlanta’s Brandon Jones in fourth and Tyler Reddick in fifth.
Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ryan Preece, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson and Austin Cindric rounded out the top ten.
CHRISTOPHER BELL, No. 20 Rheem Toyota Supra, Joe Gibbs Racing
Finishing Position: 1st
You told us last year at Daytona that you really wanted bragging rights in the Supra. How important is it to get bragging rights as the first Supra winner over Kyle Busch?
“That’s really really big It all just boils down to the fact that you don’t get to be a first-time winner very often. There’s a very good possibility Kyle (Busch) is going to win one of the next three (races) and I beat him to Victory Lane. I’m all smiles right now.”
Were there any nerves or concerns for you today?
“I mean all day long I knew that my weakness was late in the runs. I felt really really strong from green flag to basically the last 10 laps. I just started struggling really bad. When the 2 (Tyler Reddick) started gaining on me a little bit, I felt like I could make time if I moved up to the top late in the run. I was just about to move up to the top and see if I couldn’t pick up a little bit of speed to hold off the 2 car. Late in the runs, the competition was really good. I mean the 00 (Cole Custer) and the 2, they both were really strong late in the runs, so that had me a little bit nervous there. Obviously on a late-race restart, you’re kind of a sitting duck, right? I tried to just accelerate as early as I could and make sure that nobody got a run on me.”
Would you rather the late-race caution not come out?
“It probably didn’t matter to me either way. I knew that I was going to have my hands full if the yellow didn’t come out and that I was going to have my hands full on the restart if the yellow did come out. It probably didn’t matter to me either way.”
Were you worried at all about saving gas those last few laps?
“I don’t really know how much more I had whenever Tyler (Reddick) was catching me there. He was about to give me a run for my money, that’s for sure. To answer your question, I really was not in save mode those last 10 or whenever he was catching me.”
Do you worry about the outside lane at all because it seems like there’s so a big difference between the two lanes, especially in this race?
“I’ll be honest, I was more worried about the 7 (Justin Allgaier) behind me. Being in the second row is a pretty big advantage because the leader sets the pace and the guy in second has to stay with the leader, but then the second row can always have a gap there and roll momentum on you. That was my biggest thing was just trying to keep my gap to the 7 tightened up and then not let him accelerate before I did and let him get momentum on me. To your point, I was not really worried about the guys beside me, I was more so worried about the 7 behind me.”
How did the deal come together with Kevin Swindell in the DIRTcar Nationals?
“It actually worked out really good. Kevin was looking for a driver this year because Spencer (Bayston) had come up with other opportunities. He really wasn’t wanting to do a full schedule and I think he had some sponsorship money available to him if he could run me in the car. It worked out perfect for me because obviously I’m not looking for a full-time ride. We kind of got together and Kevin said that he’s going to race whenever I’m available to race and we’re off to a great start. Obviously sitting second in Outlaw points right now is pretty freaking cool. Really excited about that. Our next race will probably be either the April off weekend or one of the off weekends in May.”
The dirty air didn’t seem to trouble you when you weren’t running first, but Cole Custer said he had trouble with it. What was the difference there?
“I don’t know if it’s the surface here or what, but really from my truck career to my Xfinity career, dirty air at this race track has been not near as bad as what it is at other race tracks. I don’t know if it’s the tire and track combination or what. I’ve never really had a big problem with dirty air here, but definitely on fresh tires I could see why he would be struggling behind me.”
Are you disappointed that you had this good of a day and this good of a car, but you didn’t have any Cup drivers racing in the event?
“I mean don’t know. I told Jason (Ratcliff) a little bit – me and him were talking a little bit yesterday and I felt like I wanted to be dominant, right. Obviously winning is great, but I wanted to be really good and we were really good until right there at the end of the race. If there were any Cup drivers there, we might have gotten beaten there at the end. We’ll just have to – I’ll have to get better as a race car driver and just try and pick up on my weaknesses, that’s for sure.”
Do you think if you didn’t go to the high side on the last restart Cole Custer would have the momentum to make the run?
“He probably would have. Man, the top is just so good over there in (turns) 1 and 2. Even there on that long run coming to five (laps) to go, I knew I was going to have to move up to block the 2 car (Tyler Reddick) at some point. Just really struggling there. Man, very thankful and very fortunate to be able to drive this Rheem Camry – or sorry, this Rheem Supra. It’s the first Supra win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, so that means a lot to me to be able to become the first driver to win in this. I’m really happy for all of our partners at Rheem, Toyota, everyone at Toyota Racing Development. Thank you, the Supra is awesome. Looks great and it’s fast too. A lot of fun and man, I’m just honored to be here.”
Where was Tyler Reddick stronger than you before that last caution?
“I don’t really know where – well actually I do know where on the race track or at least I can tell you where I was struggling. My car was really good from lap 0 to 30 or 35 or whatever that number was. The last five, 10, I started struggling really bad just getting my car to stay connected to the yellow line. The rear end would start moving quite a bit. I’d start slipping my tires quite a bit – my rear tires. I’m assuming that’s where he would make up time on me. I would just have to slow down so much to stay connected to the yellow line.”
History-making day and a perfectly executed day…
“I don’t know about that one. I felt pretty sloppy there as a driver at sometimes. Running the yellow line is so hard and I don’t know, I would just struggle on the longer runs there. Like I said, I knew that I was struggling on the bottom of 1 and 2 and I knew I was going to have to move up there if we didn’t get that last yellow, so I was pretty thankful that yellow came out so we could put some tires on it.”
Those last few laps were pretty exciting for us, how about for you?
“It made for a good finish, that’s for sure. Man, the 2 (Tyler Reddick) and the 00 (Cole Custer) really both of them were pretty good on the long runs. Our Supra was really good. I feel like the last 5 or 10 laps, I died. Very thankful there to get the yellow and put some tires on it, but it would have been fun to race it out with Tyler there.”
Is it nice to start the season with a win in just the second race of the season?
“Yeah, it means a lot to be able to come over here and win in the second race and what I call the first true race of the season. Hopefully it means something and we can build on this and try and help our long run speed.”
Is it pretty cool to be the driver that got the 150th win in a Toyota in the NASCAR Xfinity Series?
“There’s always these marquee wins, right? The first win, the 100th win, the 150th now, so it’s really special to become the first driver to win in a Supra. You don’t get to be a first timer very often.”
JASON RATCLIFF, crew chief of No. 20 Rheem Toyota Supra, Joe Gibbs Racing
Were you worried at all about saving gas those last few laps?
“I could tell by looking at the lap times that you know we had some long green runs in the last seven to eight laps of the run, the 2 (Tyler Reddick) and early in the race even the 00 (Cole Custer) would make a little ground on us. I felt like there at the end though if Christopher would have moved up in (turns) 1 and 2, he would’ve been making a couple tenths up all day, so I felt good about it. He (Tyler Reddick) was closing in on us, but I wasn’t overly concerned. I felt like with five or six to go, he would’ve been able to do what he needed to finish it.”
Was the car change with the Supra anything more than changing the bodies?
“Not really. The guys did a good job this winter of converting everything over. Probably late December or early January we had one in the tunnel and it was just as good as the Camry. We had no concerns coming to the track with it. I feel like now we get a few races under our belt with it and we’ll get a better feel for it and hopefully just continue to grow with it. It’s first time out, obviously it looked pretty strong, but for the most part, it was just some man hours back at the shop making the change. The car looks awesome and it’s fast, so we’re looking forward to a good season with it.”
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