Christopher Bell had the patience—and the pace—to win his first NASCAR Cup win on the Daytona Road Course on Sunday.
Bell didn’t show his hand early—opting to take care of his equipment for the end. Coming to the white-flag lap, Bell passed Joey Logano in the fronstretch chicane for the lead.
In just his second start in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota—and on what would have been J.D. Gibbs' 52nd birthday—Bell extended his advantage over the final two laps by 2.119-seconds to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253.
“I just kept doing what I was doing all day long,” said Bell after winning in his 38th-career start. “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.”
The 26-year-old Norman, Oklahoman became the first racer from the Sooner State to win at NASCAR’s highest level—and had three Cup champions in his rearview mirror as he came to the finish. Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski rounded out the five.
Chase Elliott won the first stage and led a race-high 45 and 70 laps, but his four-win streak on road courses ended after trouble in the closing laps.
Stage 2 was slowed by just one caution—when Ryan Blaney turned Ross Chastain in Turn 6 to trigger the fourth yellow. Hamlin took the lead just after the restart and held serve for the second stage win.
Kurt Busch grabbed the point to start the third stage after Hamlin spun his tires on the Lap 38 restart. But the lead was short-lived after he hit the curb in the kink and sailed off into the grass. Busch dropped to 27th, then began working his way forward—but not without drama. Two laps later, he punted Keselowski, who quipped, “I think I just got dumped.” Busch’s spotter Tyler Green suggested it was payback from an incident last year at Bristol.
Bell assumed the lead but Elliott passed him two laps later. The No. 9 Chevrolet continued his charge at the point before rain forced NASCAR to call a caution. Bell and Elliott elected to pit while Logano remained on the track and assumed the lead followed by Chase Briscoe and Kurt Busch. Bell, the first driver with fresh tires, restarted 10th with 12 laps remaining.
Tyler Reddick caught fire after an accident in Turn 3 on Lap 60. Martin Truex Jr., wheel-hopped, spun and hit the No. 20 entering Turn 1. Moments later, the eighth and final caution occurred on Lap 62, when Elliott went off course after contact with Corey LaJoie. With five laps remaining, Elliott had worked his way back to fifth. He was battling Keselowski for fourth-place when he gave the No. 2 Ford a bump and wiped himself out in the process.
“I just got back in traffic, made too many mistakes and got beat,” said Elliott, who dropped to 26th and finished 21st.
Adam Stevens initially thought the No. 20 car had developed a tire rub after Bell made content with Kurt Busch battling for second. As the smoke dissipated, Bell set his sights on Logano and the lead.
“I was trying to keep him behind me,” Logano said. “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.”
Logano had never had the opportunity to judge Bell’s talent at the Cup level last year when the rookie drove for Leavine Family Racing. But behind the wheel of the No. 20 JGR Toyota, Logano expects Bell to be a contender.
"I haven't raced around him much up to this point," Logano said."A little bit last year every now and again, but not to this level. 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 (Gibbs) 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."
Now, Logano will understand how Bell earned the moniker--"the Baby-faced Assassin."
"Obviously he's an amazing talent," Logano added. "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."
For Bell—the first driver to come through Toyota Racing’s USAC driver development program and climb to the top of the NASCAR ranks—the victory is the realization of a lifelong dream.
“This is definitely one of the highlights of my life so far,” said Bell, who won the 2013 Midget championship with Keith Kunz Motorsports. “I’m just so incredibly thankful to be here at Joe Gibbs Racing with all of our partners – Rheem, DeWalt, Pristine Auction, Toyota, TRD.
“Thank you to Jack Irving and Tyler Gibbs. You guys believed in me since day one. It feels like I’ve prepared my whole life for this moment to race in the Cup Series. Last year was a huge learning curve for me, and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to run in Cup. It definitely prepared me to move for Joe Gibbs Racing.”