Sunday, March 1, 2020

CUP: Lone engine failure makes Christopher Bell the 36th driver to complete the LASTCAR Triple Crown

PHOTO: Brock Beard
Christopher Bell picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #95 Rheem Toyota fell out with a blown engine after 80 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Bell’s 3rd series start. In Cup Series last-place history, this was the 17th for the #95, the 160th for Toyota, and the 692nd from engine woes. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 26th for the #95, the 328th for Toyota, and the 1,084th from engine trouble.

After sixteen wins in just three XFINITY Series seasons, capped by a 3rd-place showing in last year’s standings, Bell followed Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer - the rest of the series’ “Big Three” – as Cup Series rookies. Bell would take the controls of Leavine Family Racing’s #95 Toyota, taking the place of Matt DiBenedetto. Bell started the year with a 9th-place finish in his first-ever Duel, then was collected in a late-race crash in the Daytona 500. Bell ran several laps with his car trailing smoke before he finally pulled off four laps short of the finish in 21st. Las Vegas was just a 33rd-place showing, but Bell authored an impressive save after contact from Bubba Wallace sent the dirt track star into a four-wheel drift through Turn 4.

Bell arrived in Fontana with the 29th-best car in opening practice, then made the jump to 5th in Happy Hour, just 0.216 of a second off Alex Bowman’s session-leading time. Despite an early draw in qualifying on a cloudy morning, however, he managed just 22nd on the speed charts with an average speed of 176.913mph (40.698 seconds). “It was fine,” said Bell of making the adjustment to running the Cup car at Fontana for the first time. “We qualified pretty close to our teammates, so that was good. Practice was a learning experience for me.”

Starting 38th and last in Sunday’s race was Martin Truex, Jr., whose #19 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Boats Toyota failed pre-qualifying inspection three times before passing on the fourth. The result was not only the ejection of his car chief, but his car wouldn’t be allowed to take a qualifying lap. Further penalties changed the lineup before the race even started. After Ryan Preece required an engine change on his #37 Cottonelle Chevrolet, both he and teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were docked for unapproved body modifications discovered after qualifying. The specific modification was kept vague, but was reported to be something used to deflect air. Both Preece and the #47 Kroger Chevrolet of Stenhouse would be sent to the rear to join Truex, and neither would have their crew chief for Sunday’s race.

When the cars were lined up on pit road, another driver took a ceremonial last-place spot. Jimmie Johnson was the final car to qualify when he scored the outside-pole, but his #48 Ally Chevrolet was taken out of line and separated from the rest of the field to alleviate crowd congestion. Johnson’s final Cup start at his home track attracted attention all weekend, but before he led the five-wide salute during the pace laps, he spent the first lap at the back of the field.

Next to take the last spot was Denny Hamlin, whose #11 FedEx Toyota came down pit road during the five-wide salute. Hamlin returned to the track some distance behind the pack and had to catch up for the initial start – the stop cost him 28th on the grid. Hamlin slotted into the final spot to join teammate Truex, then watched as Preece and Stenhouse’s penalized Chevrolets dropped to the rear by slowing in the outside lane in Turn 1. When one more pace lap was added, the last spot changed hands once more. Among those dropping to the final three spots were Quin Houff in the #00 Victory Weekend Chevrolet, Garrett Smithley in the unsponsored white #51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet, and Timmy Hill in the #66 Manscaped / Toyota.

When the green flag dropped, Houff and Smithley pulled away from Hill, who remained in last place at the end of Lap 1. Hill’s car showed some smoke off the right-rear when he left pit road, and seemed to be struggling for speed all afternoon. By Lap 3, every car from 32nd-place Brennan Poole in the #15 Choc Kids Chevrolet back to last-place Hill was now trailing by open track, forming a pack of their own. Houff and Hill, holding the final two spots, dropped the furthest back of the group, each running with open track in front and behind. By Lap 9, Hill was 37 seconds back of the lead, and 14 seconds back of 37th-place Houff. Race leader Alex Bowman caught Hill on Lap 10, sniffed the draft of the #66, then completed the pass into Turn 1, putting Hill the first car one lap down.

Further ahead of Houff and Hill, Smithley was holding 35th in the middle of a three-car draft. In front of him was the unsponsored #77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet of Reed Sorenson while running behind was one of Smithley’s teammates, Joey Gase, in the #53 One Legacy Ford. The three cars remained locked in a single-file draft for much of Stage 1.

“Once we kind of hit terminal velocity, we just kind of ran together and did our own deal,” said Smithley after the race. “We knew we were going to be faster together than apart, so that’s kind of what we did. Me and teammate 53, Joey, we kind of worked together to get by a couple of those cars, too. So, that’s all we can do. Definitely draft is big here, motor’s big here, so we do all we can to keep up and keep up with what we’re doing.”

The first round of green-flag stops came on Lap 26, and two circuits later, Houff took last place from Hill after pitting the #00. Hill re-took the last spot after his stop on Lap 34, where a fallen lug nut caused a delay on the left-rear. Hill was already down two laps by then, and soon proceeded to lose another lap for every ten circuits: he dropped four down on Lap 38, five down by Lap 48, and six down on Lap 58. Two laps later, Stage 1 ended with all 38 starters still running and Hill still defending last place. The MBM crew readied fresh sticker left-side tires and four-lap scuffed rights under the ensuing caution. Under the same yellow, Sorenson reported a “stiffness” in the handling of his car, and the crew suggested pulling into the garage to fix it. Sorenson remained on the track, however, and would ultimately complete all but nine laps.

On the Lap 65 restart, Sorenson and Hill trailed the field, and Hill lost his seventh lap by the 76th circuit. Four laps later came reports of a car “blowing up” into Turn 1. It was Christopher Bell.

Prior to the incident, Bell had lost a lap due to a loose wheel and was trying to get it back. But when the engine let go, he pulled behind the wall, still trailing a plume of white smoke all the way to the garage. Bell climbed out of his car as the team already began gathering their equipment – they were done for the day. Bell took last from Hill on Lap 89 and would not relinquish it for the rest of the afternoon. FanView showed Bell officially out of the event by Lap 98.

“The second stage, took off with a good restart and then started falling back and noticed the engine kind of quit sounding right,” Bell recalled after his exit. “[The engine] changed pitch and then that was it. . . So, I wish I could’ve run the race – I need experience at this race track. I haven’t been here a lot and still don’t get experience here.”

After the chaos of Saturday’s XFINITY race, Bell would be the only driver to fall out of the race – or even spend any length of time in the garage area. Hill remained 37th at the finish, 16 laps down and seven ahead of Sorenson. Houff climbed past Sorenson to 35th with Smithley a lap ahead of Houff in 34th.

“It really wasn’t that bad,” said Smithley of the day’s long green-flag runs. “I mean, we beat almost everybody we needed to beat. Had a good battle with our teammate and came up pretty clean. So, I’m pretty happy about it. I’m happy that the car’s driving so good – I think that’s the biggest takeaway is they’re really working on this front end [for Chevrolet] and really happy with how it’s driving.”

Smithley is slated to run for Ware again in next Sunday in Phoenix.

Among the day’s most surprising performances was rookie Tyler Reddick, whose #8 I Am Second Chevrolet ran as high as 5th before he settled back to 11th at the finish. Reddick now has three finishes of 18th or better in only five series starts.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #95 since November 18, 2018, when Regan Smith scored his own first career Cup Series last-place finish after issues at the start of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead. This is the first last-place finish for the #95 in a Cup race at Fontana.

38) #95-Christopher Bell / 80 laps / engine
37) #66-Timmy Hill / 184 laps / running
36) #77-Reed Sorenson / 191 laps / running
35) #00-Quin Houff / 192 laps / running
34) #51-Garrett Smithley / 193 laps / running

1st) Hendrick Motorsports, Leavine Family Racing, Motorsports Business Management (1)

1st) Toyota (2)
2nd) Chevrolet (1)


*Bell has become the 36th driver to complete the LASTCAR Triple Crown, being classified last in at least one Cup, XFINITY, and Truck Series race. The prior two for Bell occurred in Trucks at Texas on June 10, 2016, and in XFINITY at Chicagoland on June 29, 2019.

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