For the second consecutive week, Daytona International Speedway crowned a first time NASCAR Cup Series race winner. Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Christopher Bell, earned the honor Sunday on the track’s road course, taking the lead from Joey Logano with two laps to go and pulling away to a comfortable 2.119-second victory over the former series champion.
Bell, 26, is the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion and this is his second season at the premier level – his first driving for the championship Gibbs organization. His work Sunday, however, was more reminiscent of a veteran. There were eight caution flags, eight race leaders and a whole lot of action in the waning laps to contend with.
He pulled around Logano in the chicane just yards before the white flag and easily stretched the lead to earn his first career NASCAR Cup Series trophy. Bell’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin finished third, followed by Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.
Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger, last week’s Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell – also a first-time winner - Ryan Preece and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10. This is just third season in NASCAR Cup Series history to start the season with two first-time winners; joining 1949 and 1950.
“This is definitely one of the highlights of my life so far," a smiling Bell said after climbing off the roof of his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, where he flashed the No. 1 sign to the grandstands.
“Just so incredibly thankful to be here with Joe Gibbs Racing and all our partners. This feels like 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 I got the opportunity to run in Cup and it definitely prepared me to move to Joe Gibbs Racing."
Bell’s pass for the win capped an exciting and suspenseful final dozen laps. Defending race winner and reigning series champion Chase Elliott led a race best 45 laps but was caught up in heavy traffic after his final pit stop with 15 laps remaining. He won Stage 1 and was running fifth – rallying back to the front with six laps to go when he spun out in the infield – a victim of a chain reaction collision in the fender-to-fender racing at the time. He ultimately came home 21st – snapping a five-race road racing victory streak.
“Man, we had those late race cautions like that and a mixed bag of who stays and who goes," said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“It’s a bit of a gamble either way I felt like. I think [pitting for] tires was the right move. Tires won the race. So it was the right move. You get back in traffic and gets to be so chaotic.
“Who gets through and who doesn’t just kinda determines how it’s going to shake out."
For much of the 70-lap race Elliott paced the field, making up ground when needed and often putting on a road course tutorial. Hamlin stayed close and kept him honest, ultimately coming home third. Logano ran among the top five for much of the race and took the lead on Lap 63 when other cars pitted for fresh tires.
“He’s the one that got through with tires," Logano said of Bell. “One more caution lap would have been enough to have a door-to-door finish across the line maybe.
With his maiden win, Bell is now ranked fourth in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. Hamlin, who won Stage 2, leads the championship by 12-points over Logano heading to the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I just kept doing what I was doing all day long," Bell said of the career milestone.
“Whenever we took the green flag, I felt like I was really patient. Kyle (Busch) tried to go three-wide around me at the start. I knew that I was okay. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) kept asking what I needed in the car and I didn’t really need anything. Just took my time to get going, get up to speed and really proud to be here.”