By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Known to be a demanding track for Xfinity Series rookies, Christopher Bell showcased to the field it doesn’t apply for all rookies after being the highest-finishing series regular in Saturday’s Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, finishing second and leading six of 200 laps.
On the final restart, Bell had his eyes of becoming the 10th different winner in 10 races, but a blunder cost him an opportunity of one-upping race winner and rival Kyle Larson.
“It would have been nice to get up there and get the lead, but I knew if I could get Kyle out there we’d be able to race it out,” Bell said. “I have to say, I hope Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz are watching this because they were the two that put both me and Kyle on the national scene and it’s really cool to be able to run one-two…That was really cool and there will be a lot more of that.”
Bell started the day on the pole for the second consecutive week, but was quickly passed by Larson, who led 42 out of the opening 45 laps. Despite an early deficit, it didn’t stop Bell from catching his fierce competitor.
Reminiscent to their duel at the Chili Bowl in January, the two versatile leaders duke it out without giving an inch for one another. Then on Lap 26, Bell made a dirt track-like save, trying to take the lead away from Larson.
Bell had strong momentum entering Turn 2 and saw an opening on the outside lane, but his car got sideways and quickly corrected his car, settling for second as both passed the slow No. 66 Dodge driven by Timmy Hill.
At the same corner a lap later, Bell briefly took the lead, but his No. 20 Rheem Toyota got loose in Turn 3 and Larson sneaked by him before the start-finish line.
As the opening stage came down to the wire, Larson continued having a mirror full of Bell until he was passed on the apron with three laps to go and cleared him in Turn 1.
Looking to cut Bell’s lead, Larson went high and attempted the slide job coming to the last lap of stage one. The two continued battling door-to-door until Bell finally cleared him on the outside in Turn 2 and took the stage one victory, earning himself a playoff point.
“That was a lot of fun racing with Kyle,” said Bell after winning stage one. “We got a lot of laps together on the dirt track, but those were our first laps together on the pavement track, so that was a lot of fun. Hope the fans enjoyed it.”
Once he made his first pit stop, his day took a twist after Bell’s tire changer fell on the ground, trying to change the left front tire and cost him several seconds on pit road. Consequently, Bell’s 18.9 second stop to Larson’s 15.8 seconds relegated him from first to sixth.
From there, Bell struggled to crack the top-five in stage two as Ryan Blaney took the green-checkered flag in first, Bell settled for ninth.
The No. 20 team turned things around on pit road and helped gained Bell three track positions, restarting sixth in the final stage.
Bell’s car fared better and slowly cracked the top-five, battling with the likes of Blaney and Justin Allgaier.
Fuel conservation became key with 25 laps remaining as Bell, who was running in third, was trying to save fuel after last pitting on Lap 135. Bell was facing pressure by Tyler Reddick until trouble for Ryan Reed brought out a caution with 15 laps to go, ending the race to save fuel.
Reddick exited out of pit road in first, Bell’s 15.4 second stop kept him in third. Bell took second after Reddick had a rough restart and shoved Larson to the lead, but a spin by Ross Chastain quickly brought out the sixth and final caution of the afternoon.
The duel from stage one rekindled on the final restart with 7 laps to go. However, it didn’t come into fruition after Bell spun his tires, giving the advantage to Larson’s No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet for good.
After the race, Bell said he had a blast running at Las Vegas and gave props to Larson.
“We were close, running second to Kyle – if I’m going to run second to anyone, I guess I would rather it be him,” Bell added. “Special day, we were able to win a stage and get a stage point. We need to keep racking those up and get some race wins here.”
Bell’s second straight top-three finish moved him up from sixth to third in the series standings, trailing Reddick and Elliott Sadler by 23 points.
“Let’s hope that means something for Phoenix. I had a really, really good Rheem Camry today and it was a lot of fun to race. We fell off a little bit on that center part of the race, but I guess if you’re going to struggle, that’s the time to struggle, but they got this thing tuned up and we got up in the right lines and got a couple good restarts to get back up front,” Bell said. “I think if I could have cleared Larson and had clean air, I’m not sure he would have been able to get back by me. He was out front and I couldn’t get by him. Second-place today so we’re inching closer to that win.”
NASCAR’s second leg of the “West Coast Swing” heads to ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona for next Saturday’s DC Solar 200. Bell finished fourth in his only Xfinity Series start at the “Valley of the Sun” last November.
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