Race Weekend Central

XFINITY Breakdown: Christopher Bell Comes from Back to Win Phoenix, Clinches Spot at Homestead

After wrecking out in the first two races in the Round of 8, Christopher Bell accepted the fact he may not be competing for a championship this season in the XFINITY Series. But that’s why they race, as he cruised to the victory in Saturday’s Whelen Trusted to Perform 200 at ISM Raceway.

Bell started the 200-lap event in the back, as the No. 20 team failed pre-qualifying inspection three times. However, it didn’t take long for the Oklahoma native to drive through the field.

Through the opening stage, Bell drove to 10th. During the second stage, the No. 20 eased its way up to fourth, battling hard at times with Austin Cindric.

On lap 106, Bell grabbed the lead from John Hunter Nemechek and didn’t look back, leading the final 94 laps, holding off the field on four separate restarts. The win moves Bell into the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend.

“I knew we were really, really fast and we showed that yesterday in practice,” Bell said in Victory Lane. “This place is very tricky and I started 38th and I really got stalled out once I got to the top 15 and I quit going forward. I got to like 10th at the end of stage one and I was stuck, I couldn’t do anything.

“Once we got out front there, it was pretty good and just thankful that yellow flag didn’t come out. The entire last five laps or 10 laps, I was just watching the fence looking for those green lights because I did not want to see another restart.”

It’s Bell’s seventh victory of the season — six of which have come at tracks of one mile or shorter. He adds on to his already record breaking amount of wins for a rookie in a single season, and is the odds-on favorite to win the title.

Daniel Hemric came up a bridesmaid yet again, as Matt Tifft drove hard to third. Cindric and Ryan Preece round out the top five.

Tifft, Cindric, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier are the four drivers eliminated from the postseason.

The Good

Christopher Bell came into Phoenix having to win, something he’d done six times in the opening 31 races this season. Kind of weird having the fastest guy in the series having to win.

Though not a surprise to anybody, Bell was fast, though not getting to qualify made it more of a challenge for the No. 20 team. Hell, for all we know, maybe they were toying with the competition. … OK, probably not.

Regardless, putting that amount of pressure on any driver is sort of insurmountable. After all, these are elite drivers, and in the XFINITY Series, there’s roughly anywhere from five to eight cars that can win on a given weekend, should everything go its way. Bell fits in that category.

Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing means Bell should be the favorite, as the organization has dominated the top preliminary series for the past decade, mostly due to Kyle Busch. But the Toyota camp has produced a lot of talent — Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez to name a few.

However, Bell has dominated the series this season. Compare the No. 20’s dominance to the Nos. 18 and 19 JGR teams — seven wins to two wins. Busch and Ryan Preece have picked up one checkered flag each in the No. 18, as Brandon Jones has a best finish of second this year at Talladega Sueprspeedway.

Bell is an elite prospect, one that should probably be moving to the Cup Series in 2019. Toyota will not get rid of the hot shoe, but he’s proved that he’s ready. The talk of the summer was where Bell would end up, though he confirmed all along he would be in the No. 20 next season.

Indeed, he will be back, but prior to jumping up the ladder, it’s possible Bell is a two-time champion. Personally, I know prior to the season, I had him winning the title, even though he made just eight XFINITY starts in 2017. Oh yeah, he won one of them, too.

Should nothing go wrong next weekend, Bell will be crowned the 2018 series champ, backing up his 2017 Truck title. Could he be the first person to win a championship in the top three NASCAR touring divisions? It’s damn possible.

The Bad

Justin Allgaier gave it hell on Saturday in the desert, but it wasn’t enough to advance to the championship race for the third consecutive season.

The Illinois native has always been strong at ISM Raceway, entering the race with six top four finishes in the past seven races. Saturday’s race looked to be going in that direction.

After starting third, Allgaier quickly rushed to the lead, dominating the opening two stages, earning 20 stage points. But it was the pit crew that set the No. 7 team back.

At the conclusion of the second stage, Allgaier’s crew lost him four positions on pit road. The No. 7 car was able to only gain one position before a caution came out on lap 137, meaning the field would pit for what turned out to be the final time. The Jason Burdett-led crew lost another four spots on pit road.

Allgaier cycled up to sixth in the first couple laps of the restart. But lap 144 was a game-changer, as his JR Motorsports teammate Tyler Reddick turned Nemechek through the dogleg, ultimately into the No. 7 car, crunching the right front fender. Allgaier pitted and had to restart at the tail end of the lead lap cars.

Quickly, the No. 7 car got back inside the top 10. Then the final caution flew with 46 laps to go when Tommy Joe Martins blew an engine. Aerodynamics finally came into play once Allgaier reached seventh position, as he could get no higher in the running order. With 22 to go, Allgaier lost his brakes, limping the car around the track to the conclusion of the race with the right front tire on fire, finishing 24th.

The Round of 8 was the dagger for the No. 7 team. Entering the playoffs, Allgaier was on a career-long streak of 14 consecutive top 10s. Since the playoffs started, it’s been downhill.

Starting off at Richmond, Allgaier crashed out and finished 32nd. He spun at the ROVAL, finishing 15th. Dover was his standout race of the first round, pointing his way into the Round of 8. However, this round has been another story. He crashed on the first lap in the opening race of the round at Kansas Speedway, was in position to win late in the going at Texas Motor Speedway before having to pit for fuel. He dominated Phoenix until getting back in traffic.

2018 will be the season of what-ifs for Allgaier. In eight seasons coming into this year, the veteran had five total wins. He had five in the opening 25 campaigns this season, winning the regular season championship. He won’t go to Homestead with a shot at hoisting the coveted title, in fact he’s ranked seventh in points, but as he mentioned on the podcast this week, it’s been a dream-like season regardless of where he finishes the year.

The Ugly

First impressions are everything, even in racing. Akinori Ogata left a bad first impression in his XFINITY debut on Saturday.

It didn’t take but the second turn of the opening lap of the race for Ogata to have the No. 66 car backed into the outside wall. Before he could even make his first full lap around the track, Ogata had already been put a lap down due to being on pit road.

At the end of the first stage, Ogata limped around to 36th, only finishing ahead of drivers that were off the track. The second stage was the same, the No. 66 took the green and white checkered flag in 36th.

During the final stage, it was just about gaining experience for Ogata. He made his debut for MBM Motorsports, owned by Carl Long, a team that is a backmarker, underfunded team, though did pick up a seventh-place finish with Timmy Hill at Daytona this year. Expectations weren’t high, but making it out of the first lap unscathed was expected.

Ironically, it was the third consecutive race where the caution flew out of Turn 2. That’s never good, especially making your debut start. It was Paulie Harraka-esque, when he made his Cup debut at Sonoma Raceway in 2013, but his was even worse — not making it off pit road without damage.

Ogata took the checkered flag in 33rd with a beaten up ride, as he spun again on lap 100. Not the debut he wanted, though it’s possible the Japan native could be back, as he now has eight NASCAR national touring series starts to his name — seven have come in the Camping World Truck Series.

Underdog Performance of the Race

By no means is Matt Tifft an “underdog,” but he arguably had the best race of his XFINITY career on Saturday at ISM Raceway.

Just like Christopher Bell and Austin Cindric, Tifft was almost in a must-win scenario, heading into the race 14 points behind the cut-line. With Elliott Sadler having early issues, the No. 2 team was able to leapfrog the veteran and finish sixth in the first stage.

But that’s where Tifft had trouble — speeding on pit road. In the second, 45-lap stage, Tifft drove as though he was possessed, moving all the up to ninth.

The No. 2 pit crew had a solid stop on pit road gaining a few positions, allowing Tifft to methodically work his way through the field, all the way up to second, only behind Bell. With a late-race caution, who knows what could have happened.

Oh wait, there was. Not just one, but three over the final 60 laps and each time Tifft got more and more daring, even making contact with Richard Childress Racing teammate Hemric. But it wasn’t enough, as the No. 2 car finished third, his best-career finish on an oval.

There won’t be a championship in sight this season for the 22-year-old, but comparing his sophomore season to his rookie campaign at Joe Gibbs Racing is like night and day. He has three times the amount of top fives this year, and five more top 010 finishes from last season.

Heading to Homestead, Tifft ranks sixth in the series rankings, one marker behind Sadler.

Double Duty Interlopers

Ross Chastain and JJ Yeley are the only drivers running in both the XFINITY and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races this weekend. Chastain finished 15th, while Yeley took the checkered flag in 21st for RSS Racing.


“I’m not going to get push[ed] around. I’m done with these guys.” – Austin Cindric

“We just have to do everything to our full potential and we have as good a shot as anybody of winning.” – Cole Custer

“We tried some new stuff today, I led us in that direction so I take full responsibility for that.” – Elliott Sadler

Final Word

ISM Raceway has put on two helluva shows thus far this weekend with its reconfiguration. Sure, the track is the same, but moving the finish line to what was the backstretch, just before the dogleg, has made for some incredible restarts, where every car in the field is running under the yellow line heading down the straightaway.

Prior to the green flag, Bell noted he had a fast hot rod, but was almost nonchalant about his chances. Despite being inconsistent throughout the year, the No. 20 team is the fastest team in the series this season.

Going to Homestead, Bell is the favorite. But you can’t forget what Custer did just last season at the 1.5-mile track, whipping the competition by more than 15 seconds for his first win. Hemric has 12 podium finishes this year, and is a real threat. Tyler Reddick is the darkhorse.

Up Next

The XFINITY Series heads to Homestead for the season finale next weekend (Nov. 17). In 2016, Daniel Suárez had to win the race to clinch the championship. Last season, William Byron had to outrun the late-race craziness en route to the title.

At this time next week, either Custer, Bell, Hemric or Reddick will be an XFINITY Series champion.

About the author

Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

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