Bell earns 1st career Cup victory in wild ending at Daytona, top 5 takeaways from Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253

One lap. That’s all Joey Logano needed for this race to go under caution. We saw 12 caution laps but Logano was hoping for a 13th. That’s a big reason as to why he wasn’t the one celebrating in victory lane following Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253.

Instead, we get a second straight first time winner in Christopher Bell.

“It’s unbelievable,” Bell said. “Watching last night and seeing Ty (Gibbs) win was such a special moment. I was so proud of Ty. Obviously Joe Gibbs Racing does a great job giving everybody great equipment. I knew that going into this year that I was going to have to perform. Just really, really proud to be here.

Chase Elliott was well in control of the second event of the NASCAR Cup Series season before a wild caution flew with 15 laps-to-go. That changed the entire complexity of this race.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 21: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Elliott, hit pit lane under that caution and handed the lead off to Logano on Lap 57. He had his fair share of problems to make it back through. Bell didn’t.

In just his second start with Joe Gibbs Racing, Bell cruised to his first career victory in his 38th start in NASCAR’s top level.

“Just too many laps,” Logano said of the cautions. “I was hoping when the pace car was slowing down, he was trying to clean up the mess off of turn three, he was slowing down. Keep up the speed, click off as many laps as possible.

“Honestly, that’s what it comes down to, is one lap. Could have made the difference. You hate being that close, but at the same time I look at where we’ve come from. We had a really solid race. We were two solid stages, second and third in the stages, a second overall. That’s a great day any way you look at it.

“It’s just getting passed coming to the white flag stings a lot.

Bell, was running second before the final stop but also hit pit lane. He’d exit first but due to 11 other cars staying out on track, he’d restart in 12th. The Oklahoma native steadily maneuvered his way back up and in the closing laps, found himself in second. Unfortunately, he was still 2.4 seconds behind race leader Logano with only four laps remaining.

Bell, had the faster car and it showed. He caught and passed Logano coming to the white flag and wound up celebrating victory lane in his No. 20 Toyota.

“I was trying to keep him behind me,” Logano continued. “We gambled by staying out and then I’d say it paid off overall, but you just hate being so close and one lap away. He started catching me a second a lap and it wasn’t like I blew any corners or anything, he was just faster. We just got beat, plain and simple. We’ve got to get our long run speed faster. We made some gains and gotten better with our Shell/Pennzoil Mustang.  We’ve just got to be able to find a way to keep our rear tires on these things on the road courses. 

“We’ve identified the issue, now we can go to work. He was the one that got through with tires.  One more lap.  One more caution lap would have been enough to at least have a door-to-door finish across the line maybe, I don’t know.  It’s hard. When he starts catching you a second a lap.  Gosh, I was just trying to get all I could on that restart, trying to get out there as far as I could because I knew as soon as those guys with tires were gonna catch us really quick, but we’ve made gains with our Shell/Pennzoil Mustang on road courses, but we’re not quite good enough yet.  As you can tell, our long run speed is off.  We’ve got to keep working to get that better, but we maximized the day. 

Logano, came home runner-up in his No. 22 Ford but was hoping Bell would make a mistake while trying to catch him. See, this was just Bell’s 38th career Cup start and the first time that the Oklahoma native had been up front battling for a win in the end. Logano, was hoping the pressure would get to him.

He was equally as impressed that it didn’t.

“I was hoping him trying to chase me down, he was going to make a mistake as an inexperienced race car driver,” Logano continued. “You didn’t see it happen. You didn’t see it with Ty last night either.

“These younger guys coming in, not that Christopher is that young, but he just looks like he’s really young. He had a lot of racing experience. He’s been in these situations a lot where he’s racing for the win, whether in the midgets, whatever dirt cars these guys drive. You’ve seen him race for wins late in the race. That experience probably helped him a lot tonight.”

Bell, said he just kept doing as he was all day prior.

“I just kept doing what I was doing all day long,” Bell continued. “Whenever we took the green flag, I felt like I was really patient. Kyle (Busch) tried to go three-wide around me at the start. I knew that I was okay. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) kept asking what I needed in the car and I didn’t really need anything. Just took my time to get going, get up to speed and really proud to be here.”

Denny Hamlin finished third in his No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin, won the second stage of the race and has now won three of the four stages run in 2021.

“We were third-best to be honest with you,” Hamlin said. “The 20 (Christopher Bell) was fast there the second half of the race. Maybe I was fourth-best. I thought we were solid. Was trying to hold onto third or fourth fastest and that’s all I’ve got. I just have to get a little bit better. I have to keep getting better to put ourselves in position to win more.”

Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski rebounded from earlier race mishaps to round out the top five.

Here are my main takeaways.


Weather Caution Wasn’t Needed And Altered This Race

Rule 10.6.5 is a rule that I didn’t know existed and one that I wish would get thrown out of the rule book ASAP. “When the race is started under “dry” or normal conditions and NASCAR determines conditions are too “wet” to continue under “dry” condition equipment, NASCAR will illuminate the caution light and/or display the yellow flat at the start/finish line.”

Why is there a rule in place for this? I’d rather watch strategy play out to see who pits when. Lets see who can go the longest on slicks in the wet and who times the stops right to put on wets. It spices things up. To just have a rule in place to allow everyone to pit at the same time if they choose, well it bunches things up and takes the bigger strategy portion out of this.

I get strategy still is in play to allow some to take on wets or not, but to watch this unfold over the long run is what makes it fun.

The rule shouldn’t be in place from the get go. But, even knowing it’s in place, we didn’t need it at all when it was all said and done.

The race on Sunday started off as dry and with 17 to go, it started to rain on the 3.61 mile race track. The thing was, the track wasn’t necessarily soaked. In fact, a lot of areas remained dry. As crews on pit road readied the rain tires, the spotters and drivers were relaying on that the track wasn’t too bad. Even NASCAR said the track was still dry.

Then, two laps later, the caution flag flew to put this rule into effect. Yikes.

The track was no where near wet enough to enable this. We didn’t need a caution flag to fly for this. By doing so, it altered the entire complexity of this race. No one took on the wet tires and everyone running in the end went the duration on slicks.

Double yikes.

On the surface, it looked like it was a caution to spice the show up at the end. Chase Elliott was likely going to win this race. He had led 45 laps up until that point and with final stops behind us, he was leading.

Bell was second and the only one at that point that had anything for Elliott. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five at the time of the caution.

This yellow hurt them all dearly.

11 cars stayed out of the pits as they all plus most other hit pit road. Bell restarted 12th. Truex was 13th. Larson, Elliott and Busch restarted 14th, 15th and 16th respectively. Their track position advantage was gone.

Truex, wheel hopped Turn 1 on the restart and spun. He’d finish 12th. Elliott, went off track on the next restart then later spun when he was checked up from Keselowski in front and Hamlin got into his No. 9 Chevrolet as a result. He’d finish 21st.

“When you have those late-race cautions like that and you have a mixed bag of who stays and who goes, it’s a bit of a gamble either way, I felt like,” said Elliott. “I thought tires was the right move. Tires won the race, so I think it was the right move.

“You get back in traffic and it just gets to be so chaotic, and then just depending on who gets through and who doesn’t kind of determines how it’s going to shake out. I hate it. I made too many mistakes. We went off track and it was just a bad deal. We had a fast NAPA Chevy and I appreciate the effort. I hate it for Corey (LaJoie). He ran me off there, so I thought he was going to take the lane again, so I went to cross him over and I think that time he was actually going to give me the lane. So, go figure. But we’ll try again next week.”

Larson, also got into the tire barriers during this span and came home 30th.

Busch, had multiple issues and finished 35th, one lap down.

If this race remained green and the caution for “weather” never came out, they’d likely all finish in the top seven in the end. This caution ruined their races and put them in positions for trouble to find them. That’s a shame.



Elliott, Toyota’s Still The Ones To Beat On Road Courses

While the box score says Chase Elliott finished 21st, after seeing another race on a road course, it’s clear that Elliott is by far the best drivers on these types of circuits. Yes, his four race win streak on them came to an end on Sunday. But, if not for that fluke caution that should have never flown, he likely would have won still too.

Elliott, led the first 12 laps. He then took back over on Lap 14 after the pit stops and would actually lead 27 of the first 28 laps overall. He was so smooth and didn’t turn a wheel wrong.

After pit road and sequences put him behind a bit, he’d pass Bell for the lead on Lap 40 and look to have the win in his sights. At the time of the caution, Elliott led 45 of the first 57 laps.

You can’t deny now that Elliott is the top road racer in the game right now and it’s honestly not all that close either.

Where Elliott may be the best driver on road courses, Toyota’s have the best race cars on them. They put two of the four JGR cars in the top three of the finishing order on Sunday including a win by Bell.

Bell, was 12th in Stage 1, fourth in Stage 2 then won outright in the end.

Hamlin was third and first respectively in the two stages and finished third.

Martin Truex Jr. had the fastest car among the bunch. He went from starting 19th to finishing seventh in the first stage. He was fifth in Stage 2. If not for that late race spin, he was gearing towards a top five again as he was third before the yellow for weather.

Kyle Busch got off course on the opening lap to rebound to finish 10th in the second stage. He was in the top five in the closing laps before that ill advised yellow. In fact, all four JGR cars were in the top seven at that time.

Joey Logano says that the lack of practice time right now is making it difficult to close the gap to these guys.

“I mean, we all miss it, right?” Logano said of the lack of practice. “I actually like it. I enjoy practice. It’s fun to me. We’ll have our chance to practice on a road course when we get to COTA. Up to then, the hard part is, it’s very clear, every time we come to a road course now, it’s been the 9, then one step back is the Gibbs cars, feels like the next step back has been our car with the 22.

“It’s hard to make up that ground because you can’t just throw the kitchen sink at it because you have a bunch of theories that aren’t verified, right? On top of that, it’s hard to compare one race to the next because the temperature is different, you name it could be different.

“It’s hard to make up that difference sometimes because of the lack of practice where you can just AB something. More sway bar, less sway bar, what’s better? You can just line that up and know.

“For us, it’s nice we had the Clash last week, we tried some things there. I thought they were better. We tried some more this week. We made some gains again. So as long as we keep being methodical and inching up on it, it’s good. If you throw 10 things at it, like I said, it’s too many variables.”

Hamlin, sort of agreed. He said the on track time is helping him close the gap to Elliott for himself too.

“I think how I’ll get better is on-track time,” he said. “I think in general, the more that we run road courses, the tighter the field is going to get. Everyone is going to get better. The gap is going to shrink. Really Chase passed the 19. Those two guys got a gap fifth to 10th to 20th. That will shrink the more we do road racing.

“For me, I’m stuck at par right now. I can’t break par. I’m just right there third to fourth fastest, and that’s where I’m at. I think the more times I run, the tighter that gap is going to get.

“I think I’m catching up. I think I got 20 to 30% there today. I mean, he’s still lightning fast. I mean, honestly, when he got the lead, I beat him maybe a couple laps, but who knows. He’s probably just sitting back one-handing this thing just cruising. Who knows.

“I definitely feel like I gained a little bit today, but I still got some work to do for sure. There’s nothing I could see honestly that was, like, earth shattering, wow, he’s just killing me here. It’s a little bit everywhere. It’s just going to take time for me to figure out.”

The Busch Clash saw JGR cars look the best with Busch winning, Hamlin dominating early and Truex coming from the back to the lead before a crashing in the bus stop.

The points paying race saw more dominance out of this bunch. This is a great sign for the other six road courses on the schedule.


Hamlin’s Strong Start To The Season

Denny Hamlin led 98 laps and swept both stages in last weeks Daytona 500. If not for too good of a pit stop in the end, he would have had more of a say who won the season opener. Instead, he finished fifth.

On Sunday, Hamlin had a top three car all day. He finished third in Stage 1 then was victorious in the second stage. It was the second straight year on the DIS road course that he won the second stage. He’s now won three of the four stages in 2021 overall.

He faded a bit in the end and was running outside the top five before that weather caution. They pit for new tires and Hamlin went from 18th to finish third in the end.

It’s a stellar start to the year for him despite no victories yet.


Rebounds For Kurt Busch, Keselowski, McDowell and Allmendinger

By virtue just one car in the top five of the running order at the time of the Lap 55 caution finishing in the top 10, we saw several drivers rebound from earlier race incidents to get top 10’s themselves.

Last weeks Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell had a flat tire before we even saw the green flag. He didn’t know it then but when he got into Turn 1 on the drop of the green flag, he went off course. McDowell, would finish 25th and 22nd in the two stages. But, there he was in the top 10 in the end finishing eighth. It was the first time of his career that he had two consecutive top 10 finishes in a Cup race.

“That was way too much excitement for me,” said the Daytona 500 champ. “The FR8 Auction Ford Mustang was actually really good. We had a flat tire there coming to the green. I knew something was wrong. I should have just pitted, so I screwed that up and that hurt us a little bit. We lost track position and then missed the chicane. Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong today, but this is what our team is all about — Front Row Motorsports — we grind it out and we fought hard. We just kept the fight in it and ended up with another top 10, so pretty crazy how that all went down. It was another great run. I’m really excited to keep this momentum going. We’ve got to clean it up a little bit, but not a bad night altogether.”

Brad Keselowski had an interesting day himself. He was fourth in Stage 1 but had several mishaps in the second stage to finish 28th. He was down and out before no pitting on that final sequence under the caution. He’d restart the race in sixth and finish fifth.

“It was just one of those never-give-up kind of races,” Keselowski said. “We just fought and fought and fought and just made some mistakes, caught some bad breaks, kind of all threw together. But, in the end, just a lot of perseverance, a lot of heart, a lot of will from the entire team and put us in a good spot there at the end, so tried to make the most of it. We’re not where we need to be on these types of tracks, but we’re not gonna accept that and just run 15th-20th, we’re gonna fight our butt off and I think that’s what we did today.”

Kurt Busch had a really good car and he was overly aggressive with it. That paid off. Busch was fifth in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2. He even found the lead on Lap 38 but got off course and damaged his car. He’d fall from first to 27th but like Keselowski, didn’t pit under that caution. He’d restart third and finish in fourth.

“Man, I just crossed over that fine-line of grip and the car – it’s there, but I was just over-driving,” said Busch. “The tires at this track, with the worn-out asphalt in that infield section, is really easy to step over the line. I actually took a deep breath and just said ‘stay cool, stay cool’, and then I pounded that curb and it shot me straight out. Matt McCall (crew chief), all my guys – they had an awesome day on pit road, strategy-wise and with their stops to get us that track position and to get us back up front. If I’m going to make a mistake, it’s on me to then dig us out of that hole and stay out there on old tires. Really good points day.”

The last driver to make up ground was AJ Allmendinger. He had a top 10 car and was riding fifth at one point. But, after the second stage ended, he was speeding on pit road. He’d have to restart in the back. Allmendinger, rallied to finish seventh in his No. 16 Chevrolet.



Logano 2 Laps Away From Being 2-for-2 To Start 2021

Two laps. That’s all that separates Joey Logano from two straight wins to start the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. Logano, was leading on the final lap of last Sunday’s Daytona 500. He and his teammate Brad Keselowski collided on the backstretch of the last lap and crashed out.

A week later, Logano was once again up front in the end. The Team Penske driver took over the lead on Lap 57 when Chase Elliott pit from the lead under the “weather” caution. Logano, wasn’t even in the top five at the time, but they elected to stay out and inherit the lead.

The hope was for chaos. It nearly worked. Logano, held everyone off until Christopher Bell passed him coming to the white flag for the top spot. Logano, would finish second.

“Yeah, any way you look at it, every race we’ve run so far, we’ve been in contention to win,” Logano said. “I said it to the guys before the race today. Once again, we were in contention to win.

“We’re doing the right things. Look at the Duel. We almost won. Clash we finished third. Daytona 500 we were leading on the last lap, crash. Then you come here, you’re leading with two to go, get passed.

“We’re there. I think we’re doing a good job. When I think of the execution of this race team, we’re doing all the right things. We just got to get a little bit faster. That’s the biggest thing that I see right now. Not that we’re far off, right? We’re right there in the hunt. But I’d say we’re outperforming the car at this moment. We just got to get our car a little better.”

If they don’t crash in the ‘500, he could have won. He says if the cautions went one lap longer, he was likely to win again on Sunday on the road course.

“Yeah, just too many laps,” said Logano. “I was hoping when the pace car was slowing down, he was trying to clean up the mess off of turn three, he was slowing down. Keep up the speed, click off as many laps as possible.

“Honestly, that’s what it comes down to, is one lap. Could have made the difference. You hate being that close, but at the same time I look at where we’ve come from. We had a really solid race. We were two solid stages, second and third in the stages, a second overall. That’s a great day any way you look at it.

“It’s just getting passed coming to the white flag stings a lot. Congratulations to Christopher, obviously, his first win. That one is very special. The way he did it was very impressive. Just stings a little bit for me at the moment if I’m being honest.

“They had a great car. They were able to hang with the 9. Seems like the Gibbs cars definitely made a substantial gain on keeping up with the 9. I feel like we’ve made a gain as well, but we’re still a step behind on the long runs. Short run speeds are very competitive, our braking is competitive. We just fall off on tires too hard. Just got to figure that out.

“Anyway, identified the issue, now it’s time to go to work.”

Logano, said that he hoped Bell would have let his inexperience show in the end, but the younger driver showed while he and the younger generation are really the future of this sport. Bell, never flinched.

“I was hoping him trying to chase me down, he was going to make a mistake as an inexperienced race car driver. You didn’t see it happen. You didn’t see it with Ty last night either.

“These younger guys coming in, not that Christopher is that young, but he just looks like he’s really young. He had a lot of racing experience. He’s been in these situations a lot where he’s racing for the win, whether in the midgets, whatever dirt cars these guys drive. You’ve seen him race for wins late in the race. That experience probably helped him a lot tonight.

“Yeah, I mean, obviously he’s an amazing talent. If you’re at this level, everyone is pretty talented at this point. 30th place is really talented, I promise you that. It’s all about putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, and today they did.

“Adam Stevens, a tremendous crew chief. I worked with him for quite some time over there. I know what he’s got for a team around him. He’s going to be successful because of it, because of his talent and the talent of the team.”


Top Stat

For the first time since 1950, we’ve had 2 straight races to start the season off with 2 first time winners. It happened the first two years of NASCAR’s existence (1949, 1950) but not not again until this year.


Results

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