Christopher Bell wins maiden Cup race with late pass in O’Reilly Auto Parts 253

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has begun with two first-time winners after two races. A week after Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 for his first career win after fourteen years, sophomore Christopher Bell triumphed in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 on the Daytona International Speedway road course after passing Joey Logano for the lead on the penultimate lap.

Defending race winner Chase Elliott started on the pole alongside McDowell in his best career starting position. Justin Haley (failed inspection twice), Erik Jones (engine change from the 500), and Garrett Smithley (unapproved adjustments) were sent to the rear.

Four of the drivers in the grid also ran the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January, with Elliott finishing eighth overall in his debut. Xfinity Series driver and road course ace A.J. Allmendinger, the best finisher of the quartet in the endurance race, started thirty-fourth in his first Cup event since 2018. Austin Dillon, who did not run the 2020 Cup RC race after a positive COVID-19 test, and Cody Ware were team-mates for the 24 and respectively started the 253 in third and twenty-first.

Stage #1

McDowell’s day quickly took a nosedive when he overshot the hard-left turn one and fell out of the top twenty, which was exacerbated by his right-front tyre going down prior to the green flag; after just one lap, the tyre came off and resulted in a debris caution. Kyle Busch, who won the Busch Clash on the road course a week prior, suffered damage to his right front after making contact with Chase Briscoe and going through the grass in the opening-corner scramble. The two rejoined the race for the restart after meeting minimum speed.

Elliott and Dillon led the field as the race resumed on lap three, though Denny Hamlin took second from the latter. Briscoe spun in the frontstretch chicane and hit the “turtle” rumble strip, though no caution was called, while Quin Houff exited the race to address a mechanical issue. Joey Logano moved up to third two laps later.

By lap ten, only Hamlin and Logano were within ten seconds of Elliott. Meanwhile, Busch and McDowell climbed into the top thirty.

Brad Keselowski pitted for a punctured left-front tyre after locking up his brakes while racing Ross Chastain through the frontstretch chicane. Jones (left rear) and Matt DiBenedetto (right rear) also had their own tyres go down, the latter of which resulted in a yellow flag on lap 11.

Elliott was the first off pit road while Bell stayed out to inherit the lead for the lap 14 restart. William Byron received an uncontrolled tyre penalty for his stop. As Elliott continued to lead on the restart, Bell faced a challenge from Keselowski that caused the latter to go into the infield grass.

As Elliott drove off to the steage win with Logano finishing a distant second, Keselowski and Hamlin battled for third throughout the final lap; Hamlin would win the spot. Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Dillon, Kevin Harvick, and Chris Buescher rounded out the top ten.

Stage #2

Ty Dillon was penalised between stages for having a crewman over the wall too soon, while Houff formally retired with an engine failure. Elliott continued to lead as the second segment began.

Allmendinger reached the top five by lap 23 while Truex took second from Logano. Keselowski missed the Bus Stop chicane and had to serve a stop-and-go penalty.

On lap 27, Ryan Blaney collided with Chastain, the latter hitting the outside wall in turn six to produce a caution; during the period, Tyler Reddick‘s car slowed after stalling. A poor stop for Elliott after a tyre rolled away gave Allmendinger the lead for the lap 30 restart ahead of Larson. Besides becoming the first driver of the race besides Elliott to lead a green-flag lap, Allmendinger enjoyed his first Cup laps led since he had nine in the October 2018 race at Kansas.

Hamlin passed Allmendinger for the lead on lap 31. Allmendinger slid through the order when Ku. Busch, Truex, and Logano overtook him. Truex hounded Busch for the runner-up spot before left-front tyre wear forced him to fall back. Hamlin, who finished second in the 2020 RC race, scored the stage win while Busch edged out Logano for second. Fittingly, last year’s event also saw Elliott and Hamlin respectively win the first two segments.

Bell, Truex, Elliott, Byron, Custer, Allmendinger, and Ky. Busch also finished in the top ten. Since Allmendinger is running for the Xfinity championship, he did not receive stage points.

Stage #3

Daniel Suárez and DiBenedetto elected to stay out while Ku. Busch beat Hamlin out of the pits. A speeding penalty relegated Allmendinger to the back for the green on lap 38.

Busch, Bell, and Truex quickly swarmed Suárez to take the top positions as they exited the International Horseshoe. After a lap, Busch got loose and hit a kerb in the Dogleg, causing him to spin through the West Horseshoe grass and sink to twenty-seventh. As a result, Bell inherited the lead with Elliott in tow.

Elliott took first with 30 laps to go, and Busch subsequently spun Keselowski in turn one. Bubba Wallace suffered a speeding penalty when he pitted to clean his grille, while Anthony Alfredo received a pass-through for missing the frontstretch chicane. Aric Almirola spun on lap 45 and dropped out of the top ten, while Blaney hit pit road to address a left-rear tyre rub.

By the 21-to-go mark, Elliott was pursued by a Joe Gibbs Racing contingent as Bell, Truex, and Ky. Busch followed while Hamlin fought with Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Larson. Truex pitted a lap later as part of the ensuing wave of green-flag stops. Elliott did so on lap 52 and retained his lead ahead of Bell.

Reports of light rain, including the formation of a rainbow over the speedway, began circulating with 16 laps left. On track, DiBenedetto’s brake caliper broke, leading to him missing the chicane before heading to the garage.

On lap 56, NASCAR called a caution for rain, providing teams with the option to switch to wet tyres if needed. While strategising between slick or rain tyres also took place during Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race and NASCAR has thrown yellow flags in lower-series events for the same reason, skepticism surrounded the decision. Over the radio, Busch commented he did not “know why we had a yellow, I think it’s because of the show.”

“Disagree with throwing a yellow when it rains a little,” tweeted IndyCar Series driver Scott McLaughlin. “That’s the fun part about Road Course racing making the right decision under green can make or break your race – don’t think they should throw a yellow unless it’s a monsoon…”

Eleven drivers led by Logano chose not to pit while Bell exited pit road first and Elliott had another bad stop. The race resumed with 12 laps remaining and Logano cleared Briscoe out of turn one. Reddick and Elliott were forced off course through the International Horseshoe; although Elliott recovered and barely avoided hitting an advertisement board, Reddick was not as lucky as he drove into one which destroyed his front end, causing a fire and caution.

A pair of Fords in Logano and Briscoe paced the field to the green with ten to go, while Ku. Busch rebounded from his off-road excursion to restart third. As the field entered turn one, Truex spun after wheel-hopping and colliding with Bell, forcing Byron others to go off course to avoid him. While Truex’s incident did not result in a yellow, Corey LaJoie hitting the wall in the West Horseshoe after contact with Elliott did.

Yet another restart commenced with eight to go as Logano and Busch occupied the front row. Logano cleared Busch out of turn one as Larson initiated a battle with Busch for second before an attempted pass on the inside in turn six sent him into the tyre barrier. Ky. Busch hit the wall on the frontstretch, and neither incident resulted in a caution.

As Busch faced pressure from Bell for second, Keselowski drove through the grass while fighting with Elliott behind them. Elliott eventually spun after a bump from behind by Hamlin, snapping his hopes of a fifth straight road course win. Also adding to the turmoil was Briscoe’s hood coming up, and he stayed on track before getting the black flag and pitting. Another downed tyre for Ky. Busch eventually resulted in him being penalised for speeding.

As chaos unfolded behind them, Logano led Bell and Busch. On the penultimate lap, Bell caught Logano as they went through the Bus Stop and ran side-by-side through NASCAR turns three and four. Bell cleared Logano in the frontstretch chicane to take the white flag. He gained breathing room as the two exited the infield and stormed off to his maiden Cup victory in just his second start for JGR. The win also completes a Toyota sweep of the weekend with Ben Rhodes and fellow JGR driver Ty Gibbs respectively winning the Truck and Xfinity races.

“This is definitely one of the highlights of my life so far,” Bell began in his post-race interview with Fox Sports. “Just so incredibly thankful to be here at Joe Gibbs Racing. […] I 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 and it definitely prepared me to move to Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Whenever we pitted, we came out, I liked where I lined up. But then the yellows kept coming and I thought the yellows were hurting me because I felt like I needed laps to get up through there. Honestly, I didn’t think I was gonna get there, Adam (Stevens, crew chief) on the pit box kept telling me that I was gonna get there. I didn’t believe it[.]”

McDowell and Bell notching their first career victories in consecutive weeks marked the first time such a feat occurred in the Cup Series since summer 2019 with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland) and Haley (Daytona). However, it has never occurred in NASCAR’s modern era; excluding the series’ inaugural season in 1949, the lone instance before 1972 came in 1950 with Harold Kite (Daytona Beach) and Tim Flock (Charlotte, no relation to the current speedway).

“[Bell’s] the one that got through with tyres. One more caution lap would have been enough to at least have a door-to-door finish across the line, maybe, I don’t know,” Logano commented. “[…] Just trying to get all I could on that restart, trying to get out there as far as I could because I knew soon those guys with tyres were gonna catch us really quick. We’ve made gains with our Shell Pennzoil Mustang on road courses. We’re not quite good enough yet as you can tell, our long-run speed’s off. We got to keep working to get that better but we maximised the day.

“I hate being that close but congratulations to Christopher; it’s his first win, I know it means a lot, and it’s always a special one. I’m happy for him, but not so happy for myself at the moment.”

Despite leading a race-high 44 of 70 laps, Elliott ended his day in twenty-first. Speaking with Fox, he explained, “When you have those late-race cautions like that, you have a mixed bag of who stays and who goes. It’s a bit of a gamble either way. I thought tyres was the right move, tyres won the race so I think it was the right move, but you get back in traffic and it just gets to be so chaotic and then it, just depending on who gets through and who doesn’t, kind of determines how it’s gonna shake out.

“Too many mistakes: went off track and… yeah, just bad day. We had a fast NAPA Chevy and I just appreciate the effort. I hate it for Corey, I thought he was gonna take the lane again so I went to cross him over and I think that time, he was actually gonna give me the lane, so go figure. Try again next week.”

Ku. Busch fought back to finish fourth, while Allmendinger finished seventh in his Cup return; it was Kaulig Racing‘s maiden top ten as a premier series team. McDowell rebounded from his poor start to finish eighth, marking the first time in his Cup career that he had top tens in consecutive races; Ryan Preece also achieved this as he finished ninth. Scott Heckert of Live Fast Motorsports finished twenty-eighth in his top-series début.

Race results

Finish Start Number Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Status
1 12 20 Christopher Bell Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 70 Running
2 11 22 Joey Logano Team Penske Ford 70 Running
3 4 11 Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 70 Running
4 17 1 Kurt Busch Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
5 15 2 Brad Keselowski Team Penske Ford 70 Running
6 5 4 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 70 Running
7 34 16 A.J. Allmendinger* Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
8 2 34 Michael McDowell Front Row Motorsports Ford 70 Running
9 6 37 Ryan Preece JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
10 36 48 Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 70 Running
11 30 17 Chris Buescher Roush Fenway Racing Ford 70 Running
12 19 19 Martin Truex Jr. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 70 Running
13 13 41 Cole Custer Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 70 Running
14 37 43 Erik Jones Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet 70 Running
15 27 12 Ryan Blaney Team Penske Ford 70 Running
16 35 99 Daniel Suárez Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 70 Running
17 26 10 Aric Almirola Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 70 Running
18 16 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
19 38 96 Ty Dillon* Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota 70 Running
20 33 6 Ryan Newman Roush Fenway Racing Ford 70 Running
21 1 9 Chase Elliott Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 70 Running
22 31 38 Anthony Alfredo Front Row Motorsports Ford 70 Running
23 39 15 James Davison Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
24 20 77 Justin Haley* Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 70 Running
25 21 51 Cody Ware* Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
26 10 23 Bubba Wallace 23XI Racing Toyota 70 Running
27 25 53 Garrett Smithley* Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet 70 Running
28 28 78 Scott Heckert Live Fast Motorsports Ford 70 Running
29 40 66 Timmy Hill* MBM Motorsports Toyota 70 Running
30 8 5 Kyle Larson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 70 Running
31 7 7 Corey LaJoie Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 70 Running
32 18 14 Chase Briscoe Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 70 Running
33 22 24 William Byron Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 69 Running
34 3 3 Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 69 Running
35 14 18 Kyle Busch Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet 69 Running
36 23 52 Josh Bilicki Rick Ware Racing Ford 68 Brakes
37 32 21 Matt DiBenedetto Wood Brothers Racing Ford 65 Running
38 24 8 Tyler Reddick Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 58 Accident
39 9 42 Ross Chastain Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet 26 Accident
40 29 00 Quin Houff StarCom Racing Chevrolet 3 Engine
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points

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