Bell gets first Cup victory as Gibbs’ team surprises again
Published 8:31 pm Sunday, February 21, 2021
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Christopher Bell chased down Joey Logano on the winding Daytona road course Sunday for his first career Cup victory and a coveted spot in NASCAR’s playoffs.
Bell won in his second race driving for Joe Gibbs Racing to give the team a pair of surprising victories at Daytona International Speedway. Ty Gibbs, the 18-year-old grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, won the Xfinity Series race Saturday night in his first career national series start.
Bell’s victory wasn’t quite as stunning, but he still delivered far earlier than expected in his return to JGR. He was loaned to Leavine Family Racing last year for his rookie season, but Gibbs pulled him back to JGR this year.
It gave Bell a competitive Toyota but a victory, this soon, was a big ask.
“This is one of the highlights of my life,” Bell said. “I’ve prepared my whole life for this moment to race in the Cup Series, last year was such a learning curve for me. I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to run in Cup and it definitely prepared me to go to Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Bell had an underwhelming rookie season driving for Leavine with just seven top-10 finishes in Toyotas not quite as strong as Gibbs’ four-car fleet. Now driving some of the best cars in NASCAR, Bell joined Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell as surprise first-time winners to start the season.
It’s just the third time in NASCAR history the first two races of the season were won by first-time winners. It was previously done in 1949 and 1950 — NASCAR’s first two seasons.
Bell and McDowell now have two of the coveted 16 playoff berths, a troubling trend for mid-pack teams that need all 26 regular-season races to point their way in to the championship picture. Race winners earn automatic berths and the remaining spots are decided by the point standings.
“To have Christopher in the playoffs, that’s a big deal,” Joe Gibbs said. “We don’t take that for granted.”
McDowell, meanwhile, backed up his Daytona 500 win with a career-best road course finish of eighth.
Bell, had to chase down Logano, who had built a decent lead on the field but couldn’t fend off Bell once he’d caught him. Logano finished second; last week he and teammate Brad Keselowski crashed each other racing for the Daytona 500 win.
“I hate being that close,” Logano said.
Denny Hamlin was third to give Gibbs two cars in the top three. Kurt Busch finished fourth and Keselowski wound up fifth for a decent Team Penske rebound.
Keselowski and Logano before the race had their first interaction since they crashed on the final lap racing each other for the Daytona 500 win one week ago.
“We’re as good as we can be,” Keselowski said.
Kevin Harvick finished sixth and AJ Allmendinger, in his first Cup race since the 2018 season finale, finished seventh. It was the highest finish in three Cup races for Kaulig Racing, an Xfinity Series team formed in 2016 that wants to be full-time Cup next season.
Ryan Preece was ninth for a pair of top-10 finishes at Daytona. JTG-Daugherty Racing no longer has a charter to guarantee Preece a spot in the field every week, and without it the team can’t promise it will race every week this season. With this start, Preece is currently seventh in the points standings.
Chase Elliott again had the most dominant car but his streak of four consecutive victories in points-paying road races was snapped. He led a race-high 45 laps and was out front when caution for rain 15 laps from the finish forced Hendrick Motorsports to make a strategic call.
Elliott traded track position for new tires, pitted from the lead and fell to 15th. He worked his way up to fifth but spun when he ran into the back of Kurt Busch. Elliott finished 21st.
“Cautions like that kind of makes for a mixed bag, who stays and who goes, it’s a bit of a gamble,” Elliott said. “I thought tires was the right move. But you get back into traffic and it just gets to be so chaotic and just depending on who gets through (traffic) and who doesn’t and it determines how it shakes out.”