Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – A win would be nice, but for Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Christopher Bell, a lead-lap finish would be almost as welcome.
Part of a much-ballyhooed NASCAR Cup Series rookie class, Bell has started the 2020 season with more than his share of rotten luck. In the Daytona 500, his No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota crashed out four laps short of the overtime finish.
At Las Vegas, Bell finished 10 laps down after a flat tire sent him into the outside wall, leading to a 33rd-place finish. Last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, a bolt shot through his radiator, and his engine expired from overheating.
Bell completed just 80 of 200 laps at Fontana and finished last (38th), lowering his average finish through the first three races to 30.7.
As a consequence, the rookie battle against Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, John Hunter Nemechek, Brennan Poole and Quin Houff is the furthest thing from Bell’s mind at this point.
“I haven’t seen a checkered flag yet, so it’s been pretty easy to not compare myself to other guys just because I haven’t finished – well, I finished at Las Vegas, but I crashed,” Bell said. “We’re focused on finishing a race first before we start worrying about where we stack up with everybody.”
After starting the season on a superspeedway and moving to two downforce tracks, Bell has found the new short-track package at one-mile Phoenix Raceway a welcome relief.
“It was cool,” Bell said after opening practice on Friday. “It was a totally different mind-set—totally different game than what we had the last couple weeks with intermediate practices. That was nice.
“It was a fresh breath of air to work on the race car during practice and not wonder… you always work on the race car… but not look at the speed charts there and know it’s pretty real. You don’t have to worry about who’s drafting and who’s not drafting.”
NEW VARIABLES COULD MAKE FOR AN EXCITING MIX IN SUNDAY’S NASCAR CUP RACE
The PJ1 traction compound is applied lower in the corners.
The NASCAR Cup Series cars feature a much smaller spoiler and substantially lower downforce.
That adds up to an unknown—and potentially volatile—recipe for Sunday’s FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“The tires are wearing out quicker,” driver Ty Dillon said after shaking down his No. 13 Chevrolet in practice. “You can’t just go out there, be mindless driving, and get the car to run the fastest lap. Things are coming back into play in taking care of your tires again, being a smart driver with your equipment.”
Denny Hamlin also thinks the traction compound will be more of a factor on Sunday than it was in November, when his eleventh-hour victory at the one-mile track secured a spot in the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“It will play a factor,” Hamlin asserted. “I will be interested to see how it plays out in (Saturday’s) Xfinity race and see if those guys make their way up there. In the Cup race, we always seem to find lines that the other series really don’t. There’s enough experience where people know and trust it.
“I think it will be a factor, especially with it being slightly lower (toward the inside of the corners… It will be part of the racing for sure. I don’t think you’ll see much of it in practice. Not until the race, early to mid-stages will you see people go up there and using it.”
How much different the racing will be with all the new variables remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however. The Cup cars were on average seven-to-nine miles per hour slower in Friday’s practice than they were in advance of last year’s March race.
That’s not a bad thing. The lower downforce reduces cornering speeds and elevates the prospect of competitive racing throughout the field.
ROSS CHASTAIN EAGER TO HAVE RYAN NEWMAN BACK IN NO. 6 CAR
Ross Chastain is happy to fill in for recuperating Ryan Newman as long as he is needed in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
On the other hand, Chastain would be just as happy if Newman were able to return to the car sooner rather than later.
Newman has been sidelined since suffering a head injury during a vicious wreck on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500 in February. Though he hasn’t been cleared to race medically, Newman is spending the weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
“Just as guys and as people, it’s just good to see him and see him walking around,” Chastain said after qualifying 24th in Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series time trials. “As a person it’s just good to see him. He has a lot of information in that noggin of his. He has degrees that I probably can’t even spell. He understands these race cars and has given me a lot of information.”
Chastain has no idea how much longer he’ll be needed in the No. 6 Ford.
“We’re just happy he’s alive,” Chastain said. “I want him in the car tomorrow—if he could get in it. He already told me he could drive it without the (seat) insert. If I wasn’t back in time for practice, he said he would practice it.
“I don’t think they would allow that. I think we all know that. I want him back as soon as possible. It has been a great experience and a lot of learning on my side, but I would love for him to be able to get back in the car right now.”