By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
DARLINGTON, S.C. – After edging Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin by .026 seconds in Saturday’s time trials, Christopher Bell will lead the field to green in the first NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race of 2023—Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Bell navigated the venerable 1.366-mile speedway in 29.065 seconds (169.193 mph) to claim his third Busch Light Pole Award in the last eight races and first at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Hamlin clocked in at 169.169.042 mph to earn the outside starting spot on the front row.
After earning four poles in 2022, the debut year of NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup car, Bell turned in performances in time trials he considered sub-par in the first half of 2023.
“After we got through the first probably five to eight races this year, we were wondering what happened,” Bell said, “because last year we made the final round a lot, the majority of the time, and at the beginning of this year, we were really struggling.
“My team, (crew chief) Adam Stevens, my engineers have put a lot of emphasis on qualifying the last couple of months, and it’s really showed. We’ve been able to be in the hunt a lot more, make that final round, and it really helps out on Sundays when you get a good pit stall selection.
“At certain racetracks, qualifying’s a really big deal, and this is one of them.”
It was a unique qualifying session that featured seven Fords, three Toyotas and no Chevrolets in the final 10. For the first time since the 1982 Southern 500, no Chevrolet drivers will take the green flag in the top 10 (though in fairness, five General Motors products—Buicks and Pontiacs—started in the top 10 for that race).
With Tyler Reddick qualifying third at 168.972 mph, the three Toyotas will start at the front of the field, followed by the seven Fords, led by Ryan Blaney (168.273 mph) and Brad Keselowski (168.227 mph).
Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola claimed positions six through 10 on the grid, respectively. Almirola is the only non-Playoff driver in the top 10.
Reddick posted the fastest lap of the day (170.750 mph) in the Group B session of Round 1, when cloud cover moved in and cooled the track. All five Group B drivers were faster than the top five Group A drivers in the opening round.
Bell, however, thought he had an advantage as a member of Group A because it gave him more time to cool his tires between rounds.
Despite shiners, Preece is fit and ready to go after Daytona wreck
A week after his violent wreck at Daytona International Speedway, Ryan Preece met with reporters outside his transporter at Darlington Raceway, primarily to reaffirm that he was unhurt and ready to race in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
As Preece stood on the steps of his hauler taking questions from the assembled media, he removed his sunglasses to reveal striking purple bruises beneath his eyes—the most visible after-effects of his tumbling No. 41 Ford, which spun in mid-air, barrel-rolled through the infield on the Daytona backstretch and came to rest upright in the grass.
“I’m good, I’m OK, I’ve got no broken bones, I’m not sore,” Preece said. “I wasn’t sore after it—a little bit of bruising, but nothing too crazy.”
That’s when Preece revealed his two “shiners.”
“They aren’t bad,” Preece said. “I going to put an end to it right now. What I want you all to know is that racing in general—whether you’re racing a sprint car or a modified or anything—is dangerous. There’s consequences to everything.
“But what we do as race car drivers is respect one another to not put ourselves in positions to be like that. I’m fine. My vision’s perfect—everything about it. They don’t hurt. They look bad to you guys, but you look at a 410 (sprint car) driver after some flips—they get this. It’s from spinning in the air and all that, the blood flow, whatever. I’m not a doctor…
“What I can tell you is I went through all the tests. I feel fine. If I didn’t feel fine, I wouldn’t be in this car this weekend.”
Shuttering of GMS Racing’s truck series team will add critical mass to Legacy Motor Club
Legacy Motor Club, a collaborative effort of NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, GMS Racing’s Maury Gallagher and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, has been through a turbulent first season, to say the least.
The team’s on-track struggles were exacerbated by the suspension and dismissal of driver Noah Gragson for “liking” a meme on social media that made light of the murder of George Floyd.
The one constant within all the distraction has been defending Cook Out Southern 500 winner Erik Jones, who has posted three of his five top-10 finishes of 2023 in the last 10 races.
Gallagher announced in August that he planned to shutter his GMS Racing NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series team at the end of the season, and Jones believes that move may increase the critical mass of the Legacy Cup organization.
“We’re going to absorb a large amount of that personnel into the Cup side, which is a huge resource in itself,” Jones said Saturday at Darlington Raceway. “We needed to add some people on the competition side, on the shop floor and even probably upstairs.
“So people coming over is going to be a big resource in itself. As far as the financial gain from it – I don’t think a lot is going to change on that side of things. Maury is very dedicated in what he’s putting into this race team, even before that move.
“But I think on the personnel side, absorbing those guys into the shop for day-to-day procedures and what we do to prepare cars is going to be the biggest gain for us.”
Josh Harris named new president of Darlington Raceway
NASCAR industry veteran Josh Harris will succeed Kerry Tharp as president of Darlington Raceway, NASCAR track officials announced Saturday morning at the 1.366-mile speedway.
A native of Harrisville, Miss., Harris currently serves as Darlington’s vice president of business operations.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Josh since I left Darlington,” said Chip Wile, NASCAR senior vice president, chief track properties officer, who served as Darlington Raceway president from 2013-2016. “He and I started at Daytona International Speedway at the same time…
“I’ve had so much respect for Josh and know that he’s ready for this role.”
Harris brings a decade’s worth of NASCAR experience to his new job as Darlington’s 10th president. He started his career in racing in 2012 as ticketing manager at Talladega Superspeedway. Subsequently, he served as NASCAR’s Southeast Region vice president of ticketing and guest services and Southeast Region vice president of client and event experience.
“It means a lot to me, personally and professionally,” Harris said of his new position. “Kerry and Chip, following in their footsteps, is something I’m honored to do.
“As we look back on the 2020 season and the impact that we had with COVID, Kerry’s leadership—along with the state of South Carolina—to be able to bring NASCAR racing back, and for us to continue to have those two race dates, I think it just shows the commitment this state has to this race track and our sport.
“And I look forward to getting to know all those leaders in our community and our state and working with them to make sure Darlington Raceway continues to drive forward and be a leader in our sport and put on two great events every year.”
NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying – Cook Out Southern 500
Darlington, South Carolina
Saturday, September 2, 2023
1. (20) Christopher Bell (P) @, Toyota, 169.193 mph.
2. (11) Denny Hamlin (P) @, Toyota, 169.042 mph.
3. (45) Tyler Reddick (P) @, Toyota, 168.972 mph.
4. (12) Ryan Blaney (P) @, Ford, 168.273 mph.
5. (6) Brad Keselowski (P) @, Ford, 168.227 mph.
6. (22) Joey Logano (P) @, Ford, 168.152 mph.
7. (4) Kevin Harvick (P) @, Ford, 168.129 mph.
8. (17) Chris Buescher (P) @, Ford, 167.962 mph.
9. (34) Michael McDowell (P) @, Ford, 167.893 mph.
10. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 167.231 mph.
11. (8) Kyle Busch (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
12. (14) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 0.000 mph.
13. (9) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
14. (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 0.000 mph.
15. (42) Carson Hocevar(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
16. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
17. (54) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
18. (5) Kyle Larson (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
19. (23) Bubba Wallace (P) @, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
20. (43) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
21. (99) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
22. (7) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
23. (24) William Byron (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
24. (48) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
25. (47) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
26. (77) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
27. (1) Ross Chastain (P) @, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
28. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
29. (31) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
30. (38) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 0.000 mph.
31. (19) Martin Truex Jr. (P) @, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
32. (21) Harrison Burton, Ford, 0.000 mph.
33. (15) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 0.000 mph.
34. (41) Ryan Preece, Ford, 0.000 mph.
35. (51) Ryan Newman, Ford, 0.000 mph.
36. (78) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.