Bell and Joe Gibbs Racing Conquer Road America In CTECH Manufacturing 180

Christopher Bell celebrates with the team in victory lane at Road America. [Dave Jensen Photo]

Christopher Bell celebrates with the team in victory lane at Road America. [Dave Jensen Photo]

by Paul Gohde

He grew up racing midgets and sprint cars, and still does that occasionally, but today Christopher Bell held off a fellow open wheel veteran and a host of other challengers to win the CTECH Manufacturing 180 at Elkhart Lake’s Road America.

Bell, who was quickest Friday in both practice sessions, fell to twelfth place in Saturday morning’s qualifying runs, but took advantage of a fortunate late-race pit call by crew chief Jason Ratcliff to hold on to a tenuous lead on the way to his 14th career Xfinity win. His victory came after hard-fought battles with veteran road racer AJ Allmendinger and later Austin Cindric, who had won the two previous Xfinity road course races earlier this year.

“We were really tight but got better with fresh tires after that (Lap 31) stop. Jason made a great call to come in early and we were lucky that the caution waved after that,” explained Bell about the stop that basically won them the race, the first for Joe Gibbs Toyota team at Road America. After the yellow flag for debris from a Brandon Jones incident, Bell inherited a brief lead when most of the leaders pitted on Lap 34 and took over for good after catching Cindric on Lap 37.

Cindric, who was hard after the road course trifecta for Team Penske Ford, led just twice, but spent most of the race hounding Bell, Allmendinger and Matt DiBenedetto for the lead. “I knew we’d pit off sequence,” noted Cindric, but a Lap 27 stop to repair  body panel damage after contact with then leader Benedetto, put both him and Bell on the same pit sequence, giving them a clear track when racing resumed to continue their battle for the lead with Allmendinger. “We had the best car. We just needed one more lap,” explained Cindric, who made one more late race caution flag stop that left him in 22nd place. He picked his way through the field and moved to second when Benedetto spun into the gravel on the final corner.

Allmendinger, whose racing career spans Indy cars, Cup cars and sports cars, led the first 10 laps from the pole, faded a bit mid-race, but put on a late race charge to catch Bell, only to spin out twice, finishing a frustrating 24th. “I couldn’t clean my tires before the green and spun them on the (final) restart. Then I missed a gear and was in neutral before I could get going. I got tangled with Gragson and got into the grass. Then I couldn’t get back to the front after spinning again…frustrating.”

Xfinity series regulars Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Kaz Grala rounded out the first five.

“This isn’t my favorite style of racing,” Bell admitted after the race. “But if you want to be good in this sport, you have to be good at road courses, too.”

Bell’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, saw the team’s pre-season plan work out just right today, a plan that will help Bell in the future. “Christopher is making improvements every time out. Our goal (before the season) was to win a road course race. To see that played out today was rewarding. We have put a lot of effort into this,” Ratcliff noted.

And Bell, who is likely to move to the Monster Energy Cup Series in 2020, explained just what car owners are looking for in a young prospect. “Everybody wants a winner,” he said with a smile.

He made a big step toward that goal today.


 Notes:  Xfinity drivers Chris Bell, Brandon Jones and Justin Haley also participated in the weekends Trans-Am support races for Mike Cope Race Cars…Brandon Jones’ Xfinity Toyota was damaged in Friday’s practice runs which forced his Joe Gibbs team to use a back-up car for Saturday’s qualifying…Next year’s NASCAR Xfinity weekend at Road America will be held two weeks earlier, on August 6-8. Sponsorship will also be different as Henry Repeating Arms will sponsor the August 8, 2020 race, to be known as the Henry 180. The company is already a sponsor at Road America with the track’s Turn 10 bridge named the Henry Rifles Bridge.


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