Christopher Bell's win shakes up NASCAR playoff chase early in season

AP photo by John Raoux / Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell stands on his car and celebrates in front of the grandstands at Daytona International Speedway after winning Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series on the road course.
AP photo by John Raoux / Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell stands on his car and celebrates in front of the grandstands at Daytona International Speedway after winning Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series on the road course.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Give him a good ride, and NASCAR driver Christopher Bell can win.

But in his second race with a new team? That seemed unlikely.

Bell defied the odds Sunday as he earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory - in just his second race since Joe Gibbs Racing pulled him back into its inner circle - to close out an unpredictable week at Daytona International Speedway.

Michael McDowell was the surprise winner in the season-opening Daytona 500, with his first Cup Series victory coming in his 358th start, and then Bell earned an earlier than expected first trip to victory lane by chasing down Team Penske's Joey Logano on the road course at Daytona. It's just the third time in Cup Series history the first two races of the season were won by first-time winners, with the first two years of NASCAR (1949-50) the other times it happened.

More important: Bell and McDowell have snagged coveted berths in the 16-driver playoff field, a troubling trend for mid-pack teams that need all 26 regular-season races to point their way into the championship picture. Race winners earn automatic berths, with the remaining spots decided by the points standings.

"The dynamic has changed dramatically," Penske driver Brad Keselowski said. "We're very early in the season, and it's now turned into a points race for those last few spots. If you don't win, you're in a lot of trouble because it's not looking like you're going to be able to get in the playoffs."

Logano had a commanding lead Sunday, but Bell, on fresher tires than the 2018 season champion, reeled him in and passed him with just more than one lap remaining.

"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."

The 26-year-old Oklahoman is a longtime Toyota development driver who was the 2017 season champion for the third-tier Truck Series - that was with Kyle Busch Motorsports; the team owner is a Cup Series driver for JGR - and has won 16 events driving for JGR in the second-tier Xfinity Series. There are only four Cup Series seats in the organization, though, and they were full last season when it was time to move Bell to the big leagues.

He was instead loaned to Leavine Family Racing for his rookie season in 2020, and although it was also a Toyota team, the one-car operation wasn't nearly as strong as JGR's stable. Team owner Joe Gibbs last summer decided not to renew the contract of Erik Jones, who said he was blindsided by the move, and instead brought Bell back into the fold with two-time Cup Series champion Busch, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and 2017 season champ Martin Truex Jr.

It put the pressure on Bell to deliver, and he did after a rocky opening a week earlier. Bell was running at the front of the Daytona 500 pack when he gave Aric Almirola too big of a shove and triggered a 16-car crash on just the 14th lap of "The Great American Race."

Bell's win bookended a statement weekend for JGR's young drivers. Ty Gibbs, the team owner's 18-year-old grandson, won the Xfinity Series race Saturday night in his first start in a NASCAR national series event.

Front Row Motorsports' McDowell, meanwhile, backed up his Daytona 500 win with a career-best road course finish of eighth.

Logano for the second week came up empty, but without the dramatics of his last-lap crash with teammate Keselowski as they raced for the Daytona 500 win. Logano finished second.

"I hate being that close," he said.

Hamlin was third, Chip Ganassi's Racing Kurt Busch was fourth and Keselowski wound up fifth.

Keselowski and Logano before the race had their first interaction since the Daytona 500 crash - Logano called it "a healthy conversation" - and the teammates will now try to move forward.

Said Keselowski: "We're as good as we can be."

Hendrick Motorsports' Chase Elliott again had the most dominant car, but his streak of four consecutive victories in points races on road courses was snapped. The reigning Cup Series champ led a race-high 45 laps and was out front when caution for rain 15 laps from the finish forced a strategic call by his team.

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.