Story By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – To hear Christopher Bell describe his race in Victory Lane, you’d never know that he had just won it.
“I felt pretty sloppy there as a driver sometimes,” Bell said after leading 143 of 163 laps in winning Saturday’s Rinnai 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “Running the yellow line (at the bottom of the track) is so hard.
“I don’t know, I would just struggle on the longer runs there.”
Struggling, of course, is a relative thing. After the only caution for a racing incident slowed the field on Lap 156, Bell held off Cole Custer by .191 seconds in a three-lap dash for the finish. The victory—including a sweep of all three stages—was Bell’s first of the season, his first at Atlanta and the ninth of his career.
Bell also baptized the new Toyota Supra with its first win in NASCAR competition, as Toyota picked up its 150th victory in the Xfinity Series.
After rain washed out qualifying, Bell started third in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota according to 2018 owner points, grabbed the lead on the first lap and held it for the entire first stage. That set the tone for the entire race. The 24-year-old Oklahoma driver surrendered the top spot only under caution on pit road or during the one cycle of green-flag pit stops late in the race.
Custer surged from fifth to second after the final restart on Lap 161, but Bell managed to keep the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford behind him.
“He took the air away from us (on the final lap),” Custer said. “I thought I was going to have a run going down the backstretch. We just have to build on that—we’ll be a threat all year.”
In fact, with Justin Allgaier finishing third, the Xfinity Series returned to form after a scramble at Daytona that saw Michael Annett pick up his first victory. Bell, Custer and Allgaier are three drivers expected to contend for the series championship.
Starting third in the preferred bottom lane, Allgaier thought he had a chance for the win, but Custer slipped past him on the restart lap.
“We were just a little tight today,” Allgaier said. “All day long we didn’t get the balance exactly where we wanted it, but the guys did a fantastic job. We had great pit stops. That last run, we got the inside, and I thought we were going to be OK.
“I chose to go to the middle, thinking I could get the run on the back and let Cole by me, but still, a great race. Hats off to C. Bell. He had the best car all day.”
Brandon Jones overcame a pit road penalty to finish fourth, with reigning series champion Tyler Reddick coming home fifth and Jeffrey Earnhardt sixth, a career best.
Earnhardt restarted next to Bell on Lap 161, but the slick top lane was at a clear disadvantage.
“It was really hard on the outside lane,” Earnhardt said. “But the Toyota Supra was super-fast today. They (JGR) put me in a heck of a car. We came up short on the win. We showed we belong here, and we’re going to run up front the rest of the races.”
Reddick had cut Bell’s two-second lead to less than .300 seconds before the final caution.
“It made for a good finish, that’s for sure,” Bell said. “Man, the 2 (Reddick) and the 00 (Custer) really both of them were pretty good on the long runs. Our Supra was really good.
“I feel like the last five 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.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series Race – 28th Annual Rinnai 250
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Saturday, February 23, 2019
1. (3) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 163.
2. (1) Cole Custer, Ford, 163.
3. (7) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 163.
4. (9) Brandon Jones, Toyota, 163.
5. (12) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 163.
6. (8) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota, 163.
7. (6) Ryan Preece(i), Chevrolet, 163.
8. (13) Justin Haley #, Chevrolet, 163.
9. (4) Noah Gragson #, Chevrolet, 163.
10. (5) Austin Cindric, Ford, 163.
11. (18) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 163.
12. (16) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 163.
13. (11) Brandon Brown #, Chevrolet, 163.
14. (15) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 163.
15. (28) Chase Briscoe #, Ford, 162.
16. (35) Gray Gaulding, Chevrolet, 162.
17. (22) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 162.
18. (17) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 162.
19. (23) Alex Labbe, Chevrolet, 162.
20. (10) John Hunter Nemechek #, Chevrolet, 162.
21. (19) Josh Williams, Chevrolet, 161.
22. (21) Bayley Currey(i), Chevrolet, 159.
23. (20) Ray Black II, Chevrolet, 159.
24. (29) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 159.
25. (30) Stephen Leicht, Chevrolet, 159.
26. (2) Chad Finchum, Toyota, 158.
27. (27) David Starr, Chevrolet, 158.
28. (33) Timmy Hill, Toyota, 157.
29. (32) Joey Gase, Toyota, 156.
30. (25) Matt Mills, Chevrolet, 154.
31. (24) Tommy Joe Martins, Toyota, 152.
32. (14) Vinnie Miller, Chevrolet, Transmission, 94.
33. (36) Mike Harmon, Chevrolet, Electrical, 90.
34. (26) Josh Bilicki, Chevrolet, Ignition, 87.
35. (37) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, Brakes, 45.
36. (31) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, Vibration, 42.
37. (34) John Jackson, Toyota, Suspension, 14.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 139.456 mph.
Time of Race: 1 Hrs, 48 Mins, 0 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.191 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 3 for 16 laps.
Lead Changes: 11 among 5 drivers.
Lap Leaders: C. Custer 0;C. Bell 1-42;C. Custer 43;C. Bell 44-82;C. Custer 83;T. Reddick 84-91;C. Bell 92-122;B. Jones 123;N. Gragson # 124-132;C. Bell 133-156;T. Reddick 157;C. Bell 158-163.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Christopher Bell 5 times for 142 laps; Noah Gragson # 1 time for 9 laps; Tyler Reddick 2 times for 9 laps; Cole Custer 2 times for 2 laps; Brandon Jones 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 20,00,7,2,19,23,18,22,8,98
Stage #2 Top Ten: 20,00,2,19,18,22,1,98,8,23