Bell Bests Field at Atlanta
By Matteo Marcheschi
@ajetdryer on Twitter
Atlanta was set to be a Cup driver show, with Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, and Chase Elliott all entered, but series regular Christopher Bell started on pole, with teammate and boss Kyle Busch beside. Busch, even with all his experience and confidence coming off of his Xfinity Series win earlier that same day, was not able to take the lead on the initial start, as Bell was pushed to the lead. Kyle would get another shot, though, as Noah Gragson spun after being put in the middle of a three-wide situation, bringing back memories of last week’s first-lap wreck at Daytona. The spin collected Brett Moffitt, but neither truck involved sustained major damage, and both would continue, earning top-15 finishes on the day. Bell took the lead back on the ensuing restart. Matt Crafton began to emerge as one of the fastest on the track, especially in the top lane. He had climbed to third place by lap nine, after qualifying seventh. Bell, though, would have none of it, stretching out his lead to over 2.5 seconds over team owner Busch.
Chase Elliott, one of the Cup drivers, lost a right rear tire on lap 25, bringing out the caution. Elliott was able to keep control of his truck, but sustained minor fender damage from the shredded tire. The caution brought up conversation about strategy: Should teams pit and get tires, and go for about ten laps to try and capture the stage win, or stay out and pit when the stage ended, on lap 40? Nascar’s tire limits, however, would throw a wrench into things for teams that wanted to pit early, as the decision would put them off-strategy for the rest of the race. Cody Coughlin would be the only contender to pit, and would, indeed, remain off-strategy for the rest of the race. The race restarted with nine laps to go in segment one. Bell held the lead on the restart, as Kyle Busch fell back, passed by Matt Crafton. Busch, however, wouldn’t settle, as he battled Crafton hard for second. They would swap second back and forth, with Busch capturing the spot as Bell won segment one. Every truck pitted, desperate for new tires. They exited with Bell still on top, followed by Cody Coughlin, who took no tires, Crafton, Busch, and Ben Rhodes.
Chase Briscoe had a rough start to segment two, as his left rear tire went flat under yellow. Later investigation would show that Briscoe had probably run over something, cutting the tire down. He would lose three laps as his crew repaired the resulting fender damage. On the restart, Coughlin dropped like a rock, because his tires were about 15 laps older than his opponents. Bell continued to lead, despite a charge by Crafton, who would then drop back, but would remain in second. Ben Rhodes sat in third, hoping that Bell and Crafton would battle, so he could catch them and take advantage. Rhodes would get a chance, though, as Akinori Ogata had an oil leak on lap 49. However, on the ensuing restart, Bell took the lead back, but not without another challenge by Crafton, who would then fall into the clutches of the trailing Kyle Busch. Behind them, John Hunter Nemechek and Ben Rhodes battled for fourth.
As the race progressed, Chase Elliott was able to rebound back into the top ten by lap 59 after his tire issues. Brett Moffitt also bounced back after his first lap incident, running inside the top fifteen by lap 63. Matt Crafton, however, was going the wrong way, as his truck became too loose, causing him to fall outside the top three. As Bell continued to run up front, it was difficult not to remember his tire issues last year, when he blew a right front, and pounded the wall, while leading. This time, however, Bell seemed to be on course to take the checkers in one piece, if he could continue his success into the final segment, as the track cooled and the sun set. Coming to the end of stage two, John Hunter Nemechek blew a right front tire, but race control held off the yellow, and Bell would continue on to win stage two.
Bell wouldn’t get away with this one easily, though. That is, if his boss had anything to say about it. Kyle Busch beat Bell off pit road, leading his first laps of the race, and Bell fell to second for the first time, after leading every lap of both of the first two segments. Busch had a solid restart, as Bell struggled in traffic for the first time. Bell would, however, remain inside the top five. Ben Rhodes had climbed to second, and wanted the lead, but wasn’t able to get it, as Johnny Sauter closed in on him. Tommy Joe Martins interrupted Sauter’s run with a spin of his #44 truck with only 36 laps to go. Thorsport teammates Grant Enfinger and Cody Coughlin pitted for tires and gas. This was a big gamble, and it banked on running green to the finish. The race went back green on lap 99, and Kyle Busch jumped back to the lead, as the outside lane stacked up beside him. Rhodes, who led the outside line, fell back outside the top five, but quickly got back into it. Jordan Anderson brought out the yellow back out, as he crashed with Korbin Forrister. Forrister slid up into Anderson, who got loose, hit the grass, dug in, and nearly turned over, bringing out the caution with 25 to go. Strategy came into play, with Grant Enfinger staying out, and Austin Dillon taking two tires. Crafton, Sauter, and Bell would restart behind them. Busch fell several spots after a bad pit stop. Enfinger and Dillon were expected to be sitting ducks on the restart, and they were. Both trucks got going slowly, causing an accordion effect. Busch blew a right front tire, and got into the wall, leaving Daytona winner Kaz Grala with nowhere to go, bumping both Busch and the wall. No yellow would be thrown. Crafton jumped to the lead as both Dillon and Enfinger fell through the pack, to eventual seventh and eighth place finishes respectively. After a short battle, the dominant Christopher Bell would take the lead back from Crafton, as Enfinger, Bowman, Elliott became involved in a heated battle in the back end of the top ten.
Although he was leading, Bell became concerned with his higher-than-average water temperature, which he reported as being 230 degrees. He likely remembered his teammate William Byron losing the lead and a chance at the championship because of a blown engine at Phoenix last year. These worries would be cast aside as Austin Cindric spun with only six laps to go, bringing out the race’s eighth caution. Cindric voiced his displeasure on his team radio: “You guys gave me a great truck and everything. I don’t get mad very often, but this is ridiculous.” His anger was directed towards Grant Enfinger, who cut down on Cindric’s right front entering turn one, sending the #19 truck spinning. His team also had no good tires to put on his truck, so he had to put on scuffs, a death sentence at a tire-eating track like Atlanta. Bell and Crafton restarted on the front row. For nearly the entire first lap, they stayed side by side, in a dead heat, as the field raced three-wide behind them. Bell finally cleared Crafton exiting turn four, and claimed victory at Atlanta.