Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell got back in his pole-qualifying good mojo mode Saturday morning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – claiming the pole position for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 – his series-best sixth of the year and fourth in just the last eight races.
His No. 20 JGR Toyota turned a lap of 186.335 mph around the 1.5-mile Las Vegas high banks securing the sixth pole for Toyota in the season’s seven NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races to date.
Bell will start alongside fellow Playoff driver Kyle Larson, whose No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was just a slight .010-second off the top speed.
“Qualifying has been really fun really since the introduction of the Next Gen car – especially on the intermediate stuff - because it’s just right on the verge of holding your foot down and going wide open,’’ Bell said. “It’s right on the edge and it’s what I look for.’’
Bell’s posted three Top-10 finishes in seven Las Vegas starts, with a best showing of fifth place just this March. A member of the Championship 4 in 2022, he knows a win at Vegas on Sunday would give him an automatic second chance at the sport’s top prize.
“I know we may not be the championship favorite,’’ Bell added. “But I know we have everything we need to do it.’’
“We’re in a good place.”
Six of the current eight Playoff drivers advanced to final round qualifying on a coolish Saturday morning at the track. Current NASCAR Cup Series championship leader William Byron – who won at Las Vegas this March - will start his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy third, alongside regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 19 JGR Toyota. Byron holds a five-point edge on Truex atop the standings after a re-set for this three-race round.
Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s Chris Buescher – also a Playoff driver - was fifth fastest in the No. 17 RFK Ford, followed by Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch, 23XI Racing teammates Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick – the latter also Playoff-eligible.
Defending race winner and reigning series champion Joey Logano will start ninth and Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain rounded out the Top-10 drivers who advanced to final round qualifying.
Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and JGR’s Denny Hamlin were the only Playoff drivers who did not advance to that second round of time trials. Blaney will start 12th and Hamlin will start 15th on the 36-car grid.
JGR’s Ty Gibbs was the fastest qualifying rookie in 11th place.
Chastain and Buescher were fastest in NASCAR Cup Series hour-long practice prior to qualifying. The session included a couple incidents that will send a pair of high-profile drivers to the rear of the starting grid for Sunday.
Both Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez had tires go down and crashed. Before the incident Elliott had turned in a lap fourth quickest of the session and Suarez 26th fastest. The contact was enough, however, to force both drivers to back-up cars for Sunday’s race. Neither participated in qualifying and will start from the rear of the field.
NASCAR Cup Series Notebook
BYRON TAKES CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD IN STRIDE
For the first time in his six-year career, the Hendrick Motorsports driver Byron showed up in Las Vegas this week atop the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings heading into the penultimate three-race Round of 8 that will decide which four drivers move forward to compete for the season title
His six wins so far in 2023 is triple that of any previous NASCAR Cup Series season for the 25-year old Charlotte native. And he has won on all four tracks – in Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami, Martinsville, Va. and Phoenix - that will close out the season schedule.
With a five-point advantage over regular season champ Truex entering this all-important three-race round of competition – and double the wins of any other driver in the series – Byron is considered a championship “favorite” by many.
“It’s been nice,’’ Byron said. “I think we’ve put a lot of work in to get to this point. I feel like it’s just been a slow evolution and process to get to this spot. I don’t’ really reflect a whole lot, but I am proud of the work we’ve put in and the fact we’ve gotten our race team to where it is. Now’s a good chance to show all we’ve done to this point.
“I’m excited for it, but I still have a lot of years ahead of me and I feel like I’m really young in this sport, so it’s just starting to click.’’
As for his confidence-level, particularly in this round of tracks where’s he’s been so good, Byron concedes he and the team have high expectations.
“I think the blueprint is there for success, but the thing I always caution is that things always change and evolve,’’ Byron said. “Other teams and drivers improve so we have to kind of take that next step at all these race tracks coming up, but it’s nice to have a blueprint of “we’ve been here before and we’ve been fast.’’
REDDICK COMFORTABLE and CONFIDENT
23XI Racing’s Reddick has advanced to his first Playoff Round of 8 and the driver of the No. 45 Toyota feels optimistic about his chances in this round to win a position into the Championship 4. Not only does he feel like the team could win a race and earn the automatic transfer, he’s confident the team can “point” its way in as well, if necessary.
Reddick is ranked seventh among the eight remaining championship hopefuls – but only eight points behind fourth place Kyle Larson.
“I think when you look at our speed and the things that we’re really really at, our ceiling is there, it’s just a matter of putting it together on the race track and one weekend at a time,’’ Reddick
“I feel good about the tracks we have up ahead and then Phoenix at the end of that race we were battling Larson and Byron for the win there too,’’ he added. “So I feel like we’re really strong at these last remaining tracks.”
TRUEX BACK ON TRACK
Truex won the regular season championship and has claimed three race trophies to date, but the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion is still looking for his first Top-10 in the Playoff stretch. He goes into this all-important Round of 8 ranked only five points behind Byron and says he’s got a lot of confidence in this slate of upcoming venues – Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville – as well as the championship Phoenix one-miler.
But while others may see his lack of Playoff Top-10s as problematic, Truex said he’s got a lot of peace heading into this last round and remains optimistic that he’ll be racing for a second trophy in November.
He’s won at all four remaining venues. He’s the only multi-time winner among the Playoff drivers at Las Vegas claiming wins in 2017 and 2019. He won in 2017 in Homestead, has three trophies at Martinsville (2019, ’20, ’21) and claimed the 2021 victory at Phoenix.
“We’ve won races this year, we’ve won the regular season championship, just got to get back to things clicking,’’ Truex, who could join Busch and Logano as the only multi-time champions in the series. “All it takes is having a good day today (in qualifying) and a good day tomorrow and we’re right back on track. We know what we can do. …I feel good about our team and where we’re at.