BRISTOL, Tenn. – Christopher Bell entered the 2019 NASCAR season as one of the elite young prospects in the sport.
The star will rise for the 24-year-old native of Norman, Oklahoma, after Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity Series Alsco 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Bell led the final 17 laps in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota en route to his first Bristol victory. Bell also earned the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus awarded to Xfinity regulars.
“That’s pretty cool,” Bell said. “Bristol is definitely a race track that I really enjoy. It’s probably P1 [position one] on my favorites list.”
The Gibbs team now has five Xfinity victories this season. Kyle Busch, who was not eligible to compete Saturday because of the Dash 4 Cash program, has three of those wins while Bell has two.
“Joe Gibbs Racing has a really, really good package here at Bristol, but for whatever reason we struggled to find it,” Bell said. “I didn’t feel good basically all of practice. We didn’t qualify good, and as soon as they dropped the green flag for the race I was really, really loose.
“The longer the runs went, the better I got. I’m just very thankful to be here at Joe Gibbs Racing driving for such a wonderful team.”
Cole Custer earned the pole Saturday morning with a lap of 15.168 seconds at 126.503-mph in the Haas Automation Ford. Defending series champ Tyler Reddick joined Custer on the front row in his pink Dolly Parton Chevrolet.
After Custer’s Ford suffered damage early in the race, he bounced back in style and challenged Reddick for the second position in the closing laps.
“You just need the perfect scenario to pass somebody,” Custer said. “You have to have the perfect run to get next to him, and then you have to have no lappers on the inside.
“We just couldn’t get it to happen. I think we had the best car at the end, but it’s just a matter of having the track position.”
Custer settled for a third place finish behind Reddick. Rookies Chase Briscoe and John Hunter Nemechek rounded out the top five.
“Obviously, this is by far our best weekend from start to finish,” Briscoe said. “We showed that we can be a top four contender. There at the end, I felt like that I honestly had the best car. It’s just so hard to pass when they get like around the top.”
The upper groove of the track proved slippery in the early laps, prompting drivers to cling to the bottom and use the Bristol TrackBite traction compound. After 50 laps, drivers were able to find more of a cushion on the high side.
A two-car incident involving Jeff Green and Ross Chastain brought out the first caution flag on lap 44. Just three more cautions followed. There were 11 lead changes among five drivers.
Justin Allgaier, a five-time winner in 2018 with JR Motorsports, won the first 85-lap stage after Reddick made a mistake by backing off the throttle one lap early.
With five laps left before the end of the second stage, series veteran Jeremy Clements spun off Turn 1 while trying to hold off the leaders and remain on the lead lap. Allgaier grabbed the second stage win under the caution flag.
Bell stormed to the front with an aggressive slide-job pass on lap 226.
A few moments later, Allgaier was forced to take his car behind the wall with 72 laps remaining due to engine failure. Allgaier, who led 136 laps, slammed the door to his transporter after exiting his car. He finished in the No. 30 spot.
Brandon Jones, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, held the lead from lap 264 to 282. After Jones fell back with tire issues, Bell went to the lead and held on.
“Jones did a great job,” Bell said. “This place for whatever reason suits his driving style. He did a good job on the restart getting out front there. He just wasn’t good enough to hold me off. I knew I was going to have to do kind of the slide job and then hopefully take the top away which I was able to do.”
The 37-car field featured a mix of young drivers and veterans, including 77-year-old Morgan Shepherd who finished 35th.
Knoxville’s Chad Finchum, who entered the day 25th in points, was boosted Saturday by an associate sponsor deal with Kingsport Speedway. Finchum won the 2016 NASCAR K&N event at Bristol driving for the Abingdon-based Martin-McClure Racing team. He finished 20th Saturday in the Amana Toyota.
Harrison Burton, the 18-year-old son of former Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, recorded a 10th place finish in his Xfinity Series debut. Saturday was the first leg of an eight-race Xfinity deal that Burton signed with the Gibbs team on Monday of race week.
“It was definitely an up and down day,” Burton said. “It was a crazy experience to come out and race these cars. I felt like I was at home so that was good and I had a lot of fun doing it.”
Bell led a total of 57 laps while also qualifying for the next Dash 4 Cash event at Richmond Raceway.
“The last 25 [laps] were really probably some of the calmest laps I had out there except I was pretty loose,” Bell said. “The longer we ran, my car just kept getting better and better and better. That was kind of the motto of our weekend.”
So how did Bell feel about earning his Bristol victory and capturing the gladiator sword that goes to all BMS winners?
“I never really had a truck race here where I was competitive, so that being aside I’ve had three Xfinity races now,” Bell said. “The first race last year I was really, really competitive before crashing and then the second race I was close. I ran second.
“No, I’m not really surprised that it took me that long to win.”