Christopher Bell avoided numerous late-race incidents and passed Joey Logano coming to the white flag to win his first NASCAR Cup Series race in just his second start with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Bell started 12th and spent much of the second half of the race running second to Chase Elliott, but was able to capitalize on pit strategy when a caution flew with 15 laps to go and work his way to the lead as series veterans had trouble.
“The last lap was pretty surreal,” Bell said. “All race long I kind of felt like I was trying to do my best job and not screwing up, hit my marks, not overdriving the corners. Whenever I got by [Logano] coming to the white flag, I knew I was faster than him.”
Bell’s win was also a big one for his crew chief, Adam Stevens, who won two championships with Kyle Busch but left the no. 18 team at the end of 2020 to work with Bell.
“I generally don’t self-analyze career milestones or achievements,” Stevens said. “I can tell you it felt really good. I’m beyond thrilled.”
The race was dominated by Elliott, who led a race-high 44 laps, prior to the rain caution, but he ran off-track and spun around in the race’s closing laps before finishing the race 21st.
Like Elliott, many of the top drivers found themselves in trouble throughout the race, particularly at the end. Martin Truex, Jr. spun around just before the last caution and finished 12th, Kyle Larson spun when trying to take second and hit the wall, finishing his day in 30th, and Kyle Busch, who ran as high as fourth after recovering from an incident on lap 1, was turned around and finished 35th.
With Bell’s win this week, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season became just the third Cup Series season in NASCAR history to have two first-time winners in the first two races of the season. The only other seasons which opened this way were the 1949 and 1950 seasons – the first two seasons of Cup Series racing.
The race had 12 lead changes between seven drivers and was run under caution eight times for a total of 12 laps.
The NASCAR Cup Series will travel to Homestead-Miami Speedway in southern Florida for a 400-mile race on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 3:30 p.m. eastern time.
Stage 1 – 16 laps
Odds-on favorite Chase Elliott led the field to the green flag. Michael McDowell, who started second after winning last week’s Daytona 500, overshot turn 1 and flat-spotted his right front. He lost valuable track position, but was able to get back on track. Kyle Busch made contact with Chase Briscoe and went off the track, damaging his nose, but he caught a lucky break on lap 2 when McDowell’s damaged tire came apart, leaving debris on the track and bringing out the first caution of the day. In the craziness of the opening lap, Austin Dillon was able to claw his way to second with Denny Hamlin behind him in third.
Elliott led the field back to the green flag on lap 4. Dillon fell to fourth on the restart behind Hamlin and Joey Logano, two previous winners on road courses. Briscoe spun through the frontstretch chicane after making contact with Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., but was able to keep his car out of the wall.
By lap 10, Elliott had almost a five-second lead over Hamlin. Kyle Larson, in just his second race back in NASCAR, had moved up to sixth. Martin Truex, Jr., who started 19th, was on a hard charge toward the front as he brought his no. 19 Toyota into fourth.
On lap 10, Erik Jones lost a tire. Then Keselowski flat-spotted one of his tires under heavy braking. A lap later, Matt DiBenedetto blew his right rear tire, forcing NASCAR to throw the caution for the second time.
Under the caution, most drivers came to pit road, including Elliott, Hamlin, Logano and Truex. Some drivers, however, did not pit in order to try to get stage points, like Christopher Bell and Keselowski.
On the restart, Elliott utilized the grip in his new tires to jump to the lead in turn 3. Keselowski kept sliding his tires into some of the heavy braking zones and lost some positions while Bell fell backward in the running order. Logano took over second, but no one could catch Elliott, who ran away with the stage win.
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Elliott, Logano, Hamlin, Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Larson, Truex, Dillon, Bell and Kevin Harvick.
Stage 2 – 18 laps
Under the caution, only a few cars came into the pits, including Larson, Keselowski, Harvick, Ross Chastain and Bell.
Elliott led the field to the restart on lap 18. Hamlin passed Logano for second and Logano’s no. 22 fell to fourth after being passed by Truex, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Behind the leaders, a new challenger was making his way through the field. AJ Allmendinger, running a one-off Cup Series race with Kaulig Racing, started 34th in the 40-car field, but was now pressuring Kurt Busch for fifth on the track.
As Truex passed Hamlin for second, Chastain, who was running in the back half of the top 20, made contact with Ryan Blaney and hit the outside wall at the entrance to turn 7, bringing the caution out on lap 26.
Allmendinger did not pit under the yellow, putting him in the lead. Elliott had a problematic pit stop and lost position to Truex, Hamlin and others on pit road.
Allmendinger led the restart, but the drivers on fresh tires were gaining quickly. Hamlin quickly moved into second and then took the lead a lap later. Kurt Busch and Truex, also on new tires, followed Hamlin into second and third respectively. Hamlin faced no challenge after he took the lead and won stage two.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Logano, Bell, Truex, Elliott, William Byron, Cole Custer, Allmendinger and Kyle Busch.
Race to the finish – 36 laps
During the stage-end caution, Daniel Suarez and Matt DiBenedetto elected not to pit while the rest of the field took tires and fuel. Kurt Busch, the first driver who did pit, restarted third behind Suarez and DiBenedetto on lap 38.
Kurt Busch took the lead as Suarez and DiBenedetto fell through the field, but just a few laps later, he got loose on the turn 4 curbing and spun into the grass, giving the lead to Bell and dropping to 27th. Bell wasn’t in the clear though, because Elliott and Truex were coming after Bell’s no. 20 Toyota. Elliott wasted no time taking the lead from Bell. A little further back, Hamlin was now running fifth and reporting that his brakes were starting to fade away.
At the front, Elliott was holding a consistent 1.3-second lead over Bell, who was looking for his first win. Kyle Busch, who found trouble back on lap 1, was moving through the field and found himself running fourth with just 25 laps to go.
With 23 to go, Bell began to run down Elliott, bringing the gap down to as little as .6 seconds as some drivers began to make their final green flag pit stops. Michael McDowell was the first to go onto pit road with 21 laps to go. Truex went in one lap later. Many drivers followed, but Elliott and Bell waited until there were just 18 laps remaining to make their pit stops. Elliott got out of pit road ahead of Bell and his lead over Bell increased to 2.2 seconds.
With 17 laps to go, rain began to sprinkle in some parts of the track. With 15 to go, NASCAR threw the caution because of the weather and gave teams the option to switch from racing slicks to grooved, wet tires. No one elected to take wet tires, but many drivers took new slicks. A group of 11 led by Joey Logano stayed out.
Logano led the field on the restart with 12 laps to go but chaos followed. Elliott got into the grass and filled his radiator with grass, sliding back to 14th, while Tyler Reddick plowed into the grass and totaled his car, bringing the caution right back out.
Logano led the next restart with 10 laps remaining and Chase Briscoe by his side. Truex wheel-hopped in turn 1 and spun around, and shortly after, the caution came out again.
Kurt Busch started alongside Logano when the race restarted with 8 laps to go. Larson tried to take second from Kurt Busch, but spun and hit the wall. Kyle Busch made contact and lost control on the frontstretch and Bell hit Kurt Busch and had a tire rub. Elliott began a rebound run up to sixth, but when he tried to crossover Keselowski for fifth, He got spun off the bumper of Hamlin and fell to 24th.
With 5 laps left, Bell passed Kurt Busch for second, but Logano already had a 3-second lead, but Bell, on fresher tires than Logano, began to eat away at the lead. With 2 laps to go, the gap was down to just over a second, but Bell caught and passed Logano before they took the white flag. Bell took the lead in the frontstretch chicane coming to the white flag and sailed away from Logano to take the checkered flag for his first win in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Featured photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
This story will be updated.