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NASCAR

Christopher Bell claims victory in Toyota domination of Phoenix

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Chris Graythen/Getty Images

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

AVONDALE, AZ (March 10, 2024) – There were so many variables in Christopher Bell’s victory in Sunday’s Shriners Children’s 500 at Phoenix Raceway that it’s difficult to pinpoint the determinative factor.

First, Toyota introduced a new body style in the NASCAR Cup Series this season. Second, NASCAR debuted a new short-track competition package in Sunday’s race. Third, the Toyotas unloaded for Friday’s 50-minute practice with consistent speed—allowing them to test their long-run prowess.

That combination of factors conjured up a decisive victory for Bell at a track where Toyota drivers had led a total of 15 laps in four Next-Gen-era races combined.

Bell and his Camry compatriots turned that statistic upside down on Sunday, combining to lead 298 of 312 laps. After Denny Hamlin started from the pole position, all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers led significant numbers of laps—Hamlin with 68, Ty Gibbs with 57, Martin Truex Jr. with 55 and Bell with 50.

Tyler Reddick, a 23XI Toyota driver, contributed 68 laps led, as Bell ended Chevrolet’s three-race winning streak to start the season.

And while some drivers had difficulty in dirty air, Bell’s No. 20 Camry had no trouble passing cars, coming from 20th on a restart on Lap 221 to claim the lead and beat Ford driver and runner-up Chris Buescher to the finish line by a distant 5.465 seconds.

“Man, this one feels really good,” said Bell, who was eliminated from last year’s Championship 4 race at Phoenix when his brake rotor exploded. “Just a credit to (crew chief) Adam (Stevens), man. Adam, my engineers… all the mechanics on this thing.

“You don’t get cars like that very often, as you know. Just super, super proud. Proud to be on this 20 car. This Rheem Camry was amazing today. I feel like we have capability of running races like this a lot. Hopefully, this is the first of many this year.”

Three Rivers Karting

The victory was Bell’s first at Phoenix and the seventh of his career.

Divergent pit strategies under the sixth and final caution for Hamlin’s spin in Turn 2 on Lap 215—as he broke loose to the inside of Reddick’s car while fighting for the lead—scrambled the running order, with Truex and eight other drivers staying on track while the rest of the field came to pit road.

With the final 92 laps running caution-free, Truex had to pit for fuel and tires on Lap 272, surrendering the lead to Bell, who held it the rest of the way.

After crashing out in 37th place last Sunday at Las Vegas, Buescher was happy with his solid second-place run.

“I didn’t quite see the 20 (Bell) there at the end, so I know they were lights-out,” Buescher said. “We have some work to do to get to that point. What thrills me is we were by no means perfect on balance, so we have a lot of room to make this thing better, which is awesome.”

Gibbs, who regained track position with a two-tire pit stop on Lap 218, came home third, a career-best finish. Brad Keselowski ran fourth, two spots behind his Roush Fenway Keselowski teammate; and reigning Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney came home fifth, ending a streak of three straight runner-up finishes at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert.

Ross Chastain, a Phoenix winner last November, was sixth, and Truex worked his way through the field on fresher tires to finish seventh. Michael McDowell, Chase Briscoe and Reddick completed the top 10. Hamlin finished 11th after his Lap 215 spin.

Blaney overtook 14th-place finisher Kyle Larson for the series lead. He leaves Phoenix 10 points ahead of Larson and Truex, who are tied for second in the standings.

Notes: Chastain was the only Chevrolet driver to finish in the top 12… The only non-Toyota driver to lead laps was Todd Gilliland, who ran long in his Front Row Motorsports Ford during a cycle of green-flag pit stops in Stage 2 and held the top spot for 14 circuits… Reddick won the first stage, and Bell claimed victory in the second stage.

NASCAR

Kyle Larson wins in an action-packed dash to the finish line

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Sean Gardner/Getty Images

By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service

AUSTIN, TX (March 23, 2024) – Kyle Larson was ultimately both patient and smart taking the lead on the final overtime lap to win an aggressive Featured Health 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Circuit of The Americas (COTA), the first road course test for the series this year that earned an “A” for high-drama and close competition.

New Zealander Shane van Gisbergen and Austin Hill were duking it out for the lead – and pushing each other high off the race line as the field approached the checkered flag. With those two fending each other off, Larson drove his No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet low around both and was able to pull away to a 1.215-second victory – the only lap the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champ led all day around the 20-turn 3.51-mile road course.

Van Gisbergen finished second in the No. 97 Kaulig Racing Chevy but was accessed a 30-second penalty for exceeding track limits in that last lap battle with Hill, which ultimately put him in 27th. So Hill, driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet officially is scored runner-up.

Larson was all smiles climbing out of car, conceding he wasn’t surprised things got so aggressive in the end. He was one of the few cars – and only one among the leaders – to drop into pit lane on the final caution to get gas and had worked his way back up front.

“It feels really special because seems like every time we’ve run the 17-car – any of us four drivers – we’re always fast on track and somehow give it away,’’ Larson said. “Today I was definitely not the fastest, but we were patient. I knew the 21 [Hill] had shoved SVG [Van Gisbergen] through [turn] one and if he got to him it could get dicey.

“I was just trying to be patient. I was thinking when to make my move and when I saw him shoving him through [turns] 15 and 16, I thought this could get good and thankfully I cleared them off in that corner. Pretty crazy. Just wild there. … Really cool, just awesome to win here at COTA.’’

Neither Van Gisbergen nor Austin Hill were too happy with the final outcome – both their cars damaged from the aggressive beating and banging on the final lap. Asked if he would speak to Hill about the racing, Van Gisbergen said, “Yeah, I guess so.’’ But he was mostly positive about having a chance to win in only his fifth NASCAR Xfinity Series race of his career.

Three Rivers Karting

“It was a crazy race and the car got better and better,’’ Van Gisbergen said. “On that last restart he [Hill] just drove through me in [turn] one. I guess I stood up for myself. But it was pretty awesome racing with [teammate] A.J. [Allmendinger] and in the end just turned into a mess. That’s how it is.

“It was really fun. Wish I could have gotten through to the lead, but the car [Larson] just snuck through there. He was driving really well. A lot of fun.’’

While Van Gisbergen managed a smile for the post-race television interview, he definitely had to battle all afternoon – including with his Kaulig Racing teammate A.J. Allmendinger, a two-time winner of this COTA Xfinity Series race and the series’ best active road course driver.

They battled head-to-head for the final laps of the regularly scheduled race only for Allmendinger to get swept up and out in a three-wide attempt for the lead in Turn 1 during the first green-white-checkered flag period. He was running fifth at the time of the final caution that forced a second overtime start and ultimately finished 10th.

John Hunter Nemechek finished third, reigning series champion Cole Custer was fourth and Parker Kligerman rounded out the top five. Rookie Jesse Love, Austin Green, last week’s winner Chandler Smith, Sam Mayer and Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.

It was a particularly impressive day for Green, son of former Xfinity Series champion David Green, finishing eighth in his very first series start.

Big Machine Racing driver Kligerman earned his first stage win of the year claiming the Stage 1 victory. Brandon Jones seemingly won Stage 2 only to receive a penalty for cutting Turn 5 on the last lap of the stage. Second-place Stewart-Haas Racing’s Riley Herbst was instead awarded the Stage victory – his first of the season.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to competition next Saturday with the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Chandler Smith is the defending winner – earning his career first Xfinity Series trophy there last Spring.

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NASCAR

Corey Heim charges to Victory Lane at the Circuit of The Americas

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By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service

AUSTIN, TX (March 23, 2024) – An afternoon of impressive restarts ultimately handed Corey Heim the winning finish in the XPEL 225 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race at the famed Circuit of The Americas (COTA) road course in Austin, Texas Saturday afternoon.

Heim dominated the race – his No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota leading a race best 31 of the 46 laps and prevailing in an overtime finish to convincingly win his first race of 2024 and sixth of his career – by 1.625-seconds over his teammate Taylor Gray.

ThorSport Racing’s Ty Majeski, Spire Motorsports’ Connor Zilisch and NASCAR Cup Series regular Ross Chastain in a Niece Motorsports Chevy rounded out the top five.

“Just prepared so hard for this race,’’ Heim said, adding, “I came into this race last year and struggled really. Finished sixth with a penalty and just all over the place. To put together a solid race like this is just so special and really just shows you how good our trucks are back at the shop”.

Heim has finished sixth or better in all five races this season.

“Just great consistency and that was the name of the game last year to make it as far as we did,’’ he said smiling. “Didn’t have the result at the end [of 2023] but I think this year we can make it back and prove we’re champions. Super excited for the rest of the year, we’re really just getting started and I think our best tracks are in front of us, so really can’t wait.

Three Rivers Karting

Certainly Heim’s performance Saturday on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course was the afternoon standard, but there was plenty of good racing behind him. There were 14 lead changes among eight drivers, but no one other than Heim led double-digit laps.

Jack Hawksworth, a sportscar and IndyCar driver making his first NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series start certainly proved himself a talent to be reckoned with. He ran top five most of the day and led a lap. He finished sixth.

Reigning series champ Ben Rhodes, Christian Eckes, Dean Thompson and Tanner Gray rounded out the top 10.

The 17-year-old phenom Zilisch started from pole position in his first ever start in one of NASCAR’s premier divisions. Leading the field, he went into the first corner hard, however, relinquishing the lead to Heim immediately. After a pit stop for tires and a motivational reminder from his veteran crew chief Brian Pattie, he returned with vengeance. He and his Spire Motorsports team never gave up, getting him back on the lead lap and then in contention late in the race.

Zilisch was running in fourth place with less than five laps in regulation to go but was given a pass-through penalty for cutting the course. Fortunately, it came just as a caution flew and it only cost the teenager two positions. He opted to pit for gas during the ensuing yellow flag and was able to climb back to that impressive top five finish in his first race.

Nick Sanchez won Stage 1 and Heim claimed Stage 2 – both drivers’ first stage victories of the year.

The NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series returns to competition April 5 with the Long John Silver’s 200 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Heim is the defending winner.

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NASCAR

Denny Hamlin wins battle of NASCAR Cup tire managers at Bristol

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Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

BRISTOL, TN (March 17, 2024)  — How appropriate.

On a day where tire management was the essential element in a NASCAR Cup Series race, three veterans swept the podium positions, with Denny Hamlin winning Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In a race that produced 54 lead changes—a record for Cup Series short tracks—Hamlin lost the lead briefly to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps but regained it in traffic and beat Truex to the finish line by 1.083 seconds.

In a return to concrete after three straight spring races on dirt, Hamlin won his second straight race at the 0.533-mile speedway and his fourth overall, second most among active drivers to Kyle Busch’s eight.

The victory was the 52nd of Hamlin’s career, 13thall-time, and his first this season.

But the story was the tires and the mysterious way they behaved in a race that saw the track start to eat through to the cords 45 laps into a green-flag run.

Goodyear brought the same tire that ran without issues in last fall’s Night Race, but on Sunday, the concrete surface did not take rubber. Instead, marbles (small balls of rubber from degraded tires) accumulated high in the corners, making the top of the track untenable.

There were two variables that might have helped to account for the tire issues. The temperature was roughly 10-15 degrees cooler than it was for last year’s Night Race, which was run on Sept. 16.

NASCAR also opted for a different resin the bottom lane from the PJ1 traction compound previously in use.

Whatever the cause, with his short-track background, Hamlin was best equipped to deal with the surprising situation.

Three Rivers Karting

“That’s what I grew up here doing in the short tracks in the Mid Atlantic, South Boston (Va.), Martinsville,” said Hamlin, who grew up in Chesterfield, Va. “Once it became a tire-management race, I really liked our chances.

“Obviously, the veteran in Martin, he knew how to do it as well. We just had a great car, great team. The pit crew just did a phenomenal job all day. Can’t say enough about them… Man, it feels so good to win in Bristol.”

Truex passed Hamlin for the lead in traffic on Lap 483 but surrendered the top spot to the race winner one lap later, as the teammates worked around slower cars. Truex’s tires gave up the ghost on the last few circuits, as Hamlin pulled away.

“Apparently, that’s what I needed to have happen here at Bristol to have a shot at winning—I guess this tire management thing fit into my wheelhouse here at Bristol,” Truex said.

“Man, the difference was just coming out of the pits so far behind Denny (after green-flag pit stops during the final run). I had to use mine up more on the last run. The last four, five laps of the race, was cord.”

Hamlin led a race-high 163 laps, as the four JGR drivers spent a combined 383 of 500 laps at the front field, with Ty Gibbs leading 137, Truex 54 and Christopher Bell 29.

Brad Keselowski, a three-time winner at the track, finished third, 7.284 seconds behind Hamlin.

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson were fourth and fifth, respectively, as only five drivers finished on the lead lap.

The last time five or fewer drivers finished on the lead lap was the June 6, 2004 race at Dover.

John Hunter Nemechek, Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott, Gibbs and Bell came home sixth through 10th, respectively.

Larson and Truex leave Bristol tied for the series lead, passing defending series champion Ryan Blaney, who finished 16th.

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