Martin Truex Jr. leads Gibbs domination at Richmond

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - SEPTEMBER 21: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway on September 21, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service


RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – SEPTEMBER 21: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway on September 21, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

RICHMOND, Va. –Martin Truex Jr. overcame late adversity and continued to assert his mastery over the first round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Rallying from a spin off the bumper of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford, and passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch for the lead with 25 laps left, Truex led an 1-2-3 finish for JGR in Saturday night’s Federated Auto parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.

In fact, the Gibbs cars were 1-2-3-4 at the finish, but a disqualification due to a post-race Optical Scanning Station inspection failure cost Erik Jones his fourth-place result. The disqualification was the first in the Cup Series this year.

The victory was a milestone for Truex. The winner of last week’s Playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Truex had never won back-to-back races before. Now the driver of the No. 19 Toyota has six wins this season, a season sweep at Richmond and 25 victories in his Cup career.

Busch came home second, 2.630 seconds behind his teammate. Denny Hamlin ran third, followed by pole winner Brad Keselowski.

Truex’s win, however, was no cakewalk. On Lap 315, Stenhouse, who had just pitted for new tires, drove hard into Turn 3 beneath the No. 19 Camry. Stenhouse lost the nose of his No. 17 Ford, slid up into Truex’s car and sent him spinning, handing the lead to Busch.

Restarting third after the fifth and final caution of the race, Truex chased his teammate for the next 50 laps, finally clearing him on Lap 375.

“Luckily I didn’t hit anything,” Truex said of his spin. “I just tried to keep it off the fence, tried to get spun around and get going, and we ended up—because we were pretty far up front, we got going in a pretty good spot and left pit road in a good position and then good adjustments at the end again by (crew chief) Cole (Pearn) and (engineer) James (Small) and the guys.

“This is just freaking unbelievable. So we came here to get bonus points and damn sure we did that… Had a heck of a race with Kyle and Denny all night long, really, and we just kept plugging away at it, kept plugging away at it, as we always do. We just keep digging and we never quit.  Next thing you know, catching the 18 (Busch) for the lead, I’m like, ‘Cool, all right, here we go.’ Man, to sweep Richmond finally is pretty awesome, as much as we’ve led here coming into this year, and just thanks to everybody. It’s pretty amazing.”

Though Busch led a race-high 202 laps to Truex’s 109, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota conceded his car wasn’t quite up to the task of challenging his teammate.

“I don’t think we were as good as him all night long,” Busch acknowledged. “Martin, the car, the combination thereof, us, the combination of, just lacked a little bit. You know, like the 11 (Hamlin) lacked a little bit more than us. Just weird, I don’t know.

“We led a lot of laps. We were up front a lot. But when I was out front, he could keep the closest distance to me. That kind of worried me for a finish like that in the long run.

Keselowski was the only driver other than Truex and Busch to lead laps on Saturday. Playoff drivers Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer finished fifth through eighth respectively.

Alex Bowman (24th), Bowyer and Kurt Busch (19th) and Jones (credited with a last-place finish) enter the final race of the Round of 16 below the cut line for the next round.

Playoff standings tighten as elimination race approaches

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The scenario for Sunday’s much-anticipated Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course provides exactly the intensity NASCAR fans want, but for the Playoff drivers competing to advance to the Round of 12 – the recently added road course also presents high anxiety.

Coming into Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) the four Playoff drivers currently ranked outside the top 12 in the driver Playoff standings include Alex Bowman (13th), Clint Bowyer (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Erik Jones (16th).

For Jones, whose No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota failed post-race inspection Saturday night at Richmond Raceway after an apparent fourth-place finish, the only path he has to continue in the Playoffs couldn’t be simpler. He must win. Heading into Charlotte, he is 45 points behind 12th place William Byron and essentially will have to win the race to earn an automatic ticket to the next round.

For what it’s worth in terms of momentum and optimism, Jones’ JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. has won both of the opening two Playoff races and his three JGR teammates finished 1-2-3 at Richmond.

Joining Jones on the outside looking in is Bowman, however this season’s first-time race winner (Chicago) is only two points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, William Byron in 12th. Bowyer is four points behind Byron and Kurt Busch is 14 points behind Byron.

Interestingly, Bowyer, Bowman and Kurt Busch, finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, at the ROVAL debut race last year. Jones was 30th – one of 14 cars collected in a crash on Lap 105 of the 109-lap race.

“So we just have to get stage points and have a good day all day,” Bowman said looking ahead after a disappointing 24th-place finish at Richmond on Saturday.

“If we don’t make the next round, we don’t really deserve to be there with how we are running right now. It’s definitely a bummer, but we have to get our stuff together.”

Bowyer, who was ranked as high as eighth in the Playoff standings after the season’s first Richmond race in April, appeared to be an easy entrant into the championship field. But the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford had to race his way back into Playoff eligibility in the final regular season race. And since then has established a definitive Playoff intensity. He sits only two points outside the cutoff of moving on in his 2019 title fight.

The 40-year old veteran has four top-10 finishes in the last five races and won the pole position for the Las Vegas Playoff opener. His eighth-place finish at Richmond – a venue where he has won twice previously – was exactly what he needed to remain in contention for the ticket to move forward. And he does boast the best Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course finish (third) among those four drivers hoping to advance in the title run.

“We gave ourselves a fighting chance going into Charlotte,” Bowyer said. “I knew Richmond was gonna be an opportunity. We semi-capitalized on that opportunity, but looking forward to Charlotte.

“It’s gonna be fun for everybody involved. It’s do-or-die time. It’s the Playoffs. You watch these football teams go through these playoffs and how exciting it is and it’s our turn to have that nerve-racking moments and do-or-die moments for your race team and your season. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Part of what motivates Bowyer is how close the championship contenders are even above the cutoff line. Not only are the points tight among three of the four drivers still looking to lock in a Playoff position, the points are tight from essentially ninth place Ryan Newman all the way to 12th place Byron, who is on the Playoff bubble.

The Roush-Fenway Racing driver Newman – who qualified for the Playoffs in 16th position – now sits 14 points inside the top 12 and holds a slim six-point edge over 10th place Ryan Blaney, who is the defending Charlotte Playoff race champion.

Newman is 11 points up on Aric Almirola in 11th place and is 12 points up on Byron in 12th. So a mere 12 points separate ninth place from the 12th place cutoff. And a mere 26 points separate Newman from 15th place Kurt Busch.

None of these margins feel especially safe. And that’s even more so the case at such a new venue as the 2.28-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course that so famously requires both top notch road racing ability and oval driving skill.

“Everyone else has the same goal, we we’ll just try to do our jobs and not have any issues and see what happens,” Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney said.

With his two-race Playoff sweep thus far, Truex has won his way into the next round of the postseason. In addition, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch have clinched their spots in the Round of 12 on points following Richmond; leaving nine spots still up for grabs in the Playoff standings. Defending Cup champion Joey Logano is sixth in the standings, 50 points ahead of the postseason cutoff.

Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service

Christopher Bell makes emphatic statement with 

Richmond Xfinity win

RICHMOND, Va. – Eager to add a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship to his resume in perhaps his final season in the series, Christopher Bell made an emphatic statement in Friday night’s Go Bowling 250 at Richmond Raceway.

Bell swept the first two stages of the series Playoff opener—bringing his total of stage wins to 17—and led a career-best 238 laps in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs racing Toyota, winning for the seventh time this season, the third time in five starts at the .75-mile short track and the 15th time in his career.

“That one was pretty special,” said Bell, who passed pole winner Austin Cindric for the lead on Lap 86 and never trailed after that. “Going 92 laps straight there (on the final green-flag run) was really difficult. We were sliding all around.

“I felt like, if I could get through traffic, I would be in good shape because my car could really move around good. I could run up (the track) and I could run down. The No. 00 (eventual third-place finisher Cole Custer) was keeping pressure on us pretty good, but this Supra was too good.”

Bell finished 1.700 seconds ahead of Cindric, who passed Custer on Lap 239 of 250 to secure the runner-up position. Bell’s car was so dominant that he opened a lead of 7.743 seconds over Cindric before Vinnie Miller hit the Turn 2 wall to bring out the second caution on Lap 51.

The only pressure Bell felt during his cruise to the checkers came from Custer, who passed Cindric for second on Lap 87 and shadowed the race winner early in the final stage, drawing within three car lengths at one point before Bell widened his advantage in traffic.

“The 00 could kind of close a little on us in the middle part of the run, but I was just trying to keep hitting my marks, keeping the rear tires underneath me and running on that yellow line (at the apron). When the 00 was closing, I was getting nervous, because I was pretty much running as hard as I could without slipping the tires), and he was gaining on me a little at a time there.

“It seemed like my car could move around maybe a little bit better than his, and lapped traffic helped me get a little bit of a gap.”

Custer faded to 4.432 seconds back at the finish.

“We were just kind of loose to start the run,” Custer said. “It kind of got worse, and I was using too much break and got to tight center (in the center of the corners). We were really close there for a second, but I just didn’t have the long-run speed.”

Cindric posted his second straight runner-up finish at Richmond, after running second to Custer in the spring. He’s fourth in the standings with a comfortable margin heading to the Charlotte Roval.

“This is the only double-digit buffer I think I’ve ever had in anything in NASCAR, so I’ll take it,” Cindric said. “Obviously, a really good night for the MoneyLion Ford Mustang, keeping the Fords up front. Two runner-up finishes here at Richmond is good, but you want to win races, so I’ve got to keep working and keep figuring out how to catch that guy in the 20 (Bell). But overall, a great day.”

Justin Allgaier finished fourth after qualifying second and dropping to the rear of the field for the start because of a pre-race tire change. Chase Briscoe ran fifth, followed by Harrison Burton, Noah Gragson, Zane Smith, Michael Annett and Tyler Reddick.

With an automatic berth in the Round of 12, Bell leads the Playoff standings by 18 points over Custer and Reddick. Brandon Jones (11th Friday), Ryan Sieg (12th), Justin Haley (17th) and John Hunter Nemechek (15th) fell below the cut line for the next round, with an elimination race looming two weeks hence at Dover.

Christopher Bell elevated to 2020 NASCAR Cup Series ride 

with Leavine Family Racing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Christopher Bell officially became the newest young NASCAR talent to sign a deal to race in the sport’s premier series, as Leavine Family Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Bell will drive the team’s No. 95 Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series ranks beginning in 2020.

Bell is currently a seven-race winner and 2019 championship contender in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing – a high-profile talent in the sport since transitioning fulltime three years ago from a celebrated career competing on the country’s dirt tracks in sprint cars and midgets.

His present Xfinity Series crew chief Jason Ratcliff will retain the same position with Bell at the Cup level with LFR. Bell also brings sponsorship from Rheem and Procure and his new team is already aligned with the Joe Gibbs Racing organization he currently competes with, easing the transition.

“It’s kind of like Christmas early,’’ team owner Bob Leavine told the racing media Tuesday. “It’s a pretty special time for LFR. Everyone here…is all excited about our possibilities.’’

Bell, a 24-year-old Oklahoma native, has quickly become one of NASCAR’s next-generation stars. He won five races en route to the 2017 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship then easily claimed Rookie of the Year honors last year in the Xfinity Series, winning seven races and finishing fourth in the 2018 championship. His move to the Cup ranks this season was seen as inevitable by most racing insiders.

“I’m really, really excited about making the next step here at LFR and hoping we can get kicked off on the right foot. I think having Jason along beside me…it’s going to be a really big advantage,’’ Bell said. “He’s a great crew chief. He’s got a lot of experience with veteran drivers and we got to start our communication process in the Xfinity Series together, so there’s nobody else I’d rather go with than him.’’

As for adjusting to the new Cup car, Bell was clearly enthusiastic and optimistic.

“I think a lot of it will have to do with how well I adopt to the rules package in the Cup Series,’’ he said. “The Xfinity cars, for whatever reason, fit me pretty well, so there wasn’t that much of a learning curve. But the Cup Series cars right now are drastically different than the Xfinity Series cars, so I think a lot of it will depend on how quickly I can pick that up.’’

Having the familiarity of Ratliff leading his team should help with the transition to NASCAR’s big leagues. Ratliff has not only guided Bell to the winningest record in the Xfinity Series the past two years, but his move to LFR is a return to Cup competition. Ratliff spent six fulltime seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing serving as the Cup crew chief for Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.

The LFR team’s current crew chief, veteran Mike Wheeler, will remain with the team and move to the position of Competition Director next season. The team’s current driver, Matt DiBenedetto announced two weeks ago that he will drive the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford next season as Paul Menard retires from fulltime Cup Series competition.

“It elevates [the team] with the talent, character and experience Christopher has and has gotten as he moved up through a very solid foundation,’’ Leavine said. “With the people surrounding him, with Jason moving over and Wheels still here and our people on the car will remain the same.’’

Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson confirmed that the TRD relationship with the Leavine Family Racing team will include enhanced hardware, key communication and sharing of information as the organization more fully aligns with the championship Joe Gibbs Racing team.

Leavine added, “Then the, for lack of a better term, enhanced [affiliation] with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) is all going to come together very well. It’s our next step that we’ve been working on for about five years, so really pleased that Christopher is a part of it. Obviously Toyota being a part of it is huge, TRD and JGR being a part of it, it’s a great family and we all elevate together.”

All four of the current JGR Toyotas qualified for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and have accounted for 15 wins in the 28-race season to date. JGR driver Martin Truex Jr. has won the opening two Cup Playoff races.

“It’s a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed, to be confident, and this is a complete package,’’ Wilson assured. “It is not being done piecemeal. “

It’s a comfortable and familiar situation for Bell, who recalled a “bubble chart” that Toyota Racing Development had when he first signed with the organization and ultimately transitioned from the USAC midget ranks with the manufacturer to NASCAR’s marquee series.

“It’s the pinnacle of motorsports in the United States of America,’’ Bell said. “If you talk to anybody, any kid, their dream, if they dream of racing, is to run in the Cup Series of NASCAR.

“It’s a dream come true for me.’’

Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service