By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
In a final round of qualifying that featured a great mix of veteran and youth, Christopher Bell turned a lap at 181.76 mph (30.60 seconds) to take the top spot for Saturday afternoon’s NASCAR XFINITY Series Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Bell, in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, edged out Joey Logano to earn his second series pole in just his 10th start.
“This one’s probably a little bit more enjoyable,” Bell said with a large grin when asked if this pole meant more than his first one at Iowa Speedway last season. “I love mile-and-a-halves, especially here at Atlanta. It’s a really old surface so it makes it a ton of fun to drive on.
“Qualifying is a totally different deal than racing. The good news is all we did was long runs during practice yesterday so we have a good idea of where we stack up on the long run.”
The pole for Bell comes after a rough start to the season as the 23-year-old Oklahoma native was involved in an accident on Lap 11 at Daytona International Speedway that resulted in a 39th-place finish. Bell has past success at Atlanta, winning the Camping World Truck Series race from the pole last season on his way to the championship.
John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Kyle Benjamin, Austin Cindric, Elliott Sadler, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Reed rounded out the top-12 starting positions.
Nemechek is making his series debut, running a partial schedule in 2018 behind the wheel of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Like Bell, Nemechek has past success at the 1.5-mile track in Georgia, winning the Truck Series race in 2016. Nemechek is paired with crew chief Mike Shiplett, who led first-time winners in the series last season with both Tyler Reddick (Kentucky) and Alex Bowman (Charlotte).
The laps by Jones and Benjamin put all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas in the top-seven starting positions as they look to continue the team’s streak in XFINITY Series competition at Atlanta, where JGR’s Kyle Busch has won the past two seasons. Jones joined JGR in the off-season and will compete for the championship in the team’s No. 18 Toyota. Benjamin, making his first start of 2018, is one of several drivers that will pilot the No. 19 this season.
Tire wear at Atlanta was evident in qualifying, as Logano led Round 1 at 184.162 mph (30.104 seconds) and Nemechek led Round 2 at 182.904 mph (30.311 seconds). Bell’s final round lap was just over a 1/2-second slower than the lap Logano turned in Round 1.
Chase Briscoe, also making his series debut, will roll off from the 18th position in the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Briscoe went to victory lane for the first time in NASCAR national series competition in the 2017 season-finale at Homestead-Miami, driving for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series.
Josh Bilicki and Mike Harmon failed to qualify for the 40-car starting field.
Coverage of the Rinnai 250 will begin on FS1 at 1:30 p.m. ET with radio coverage available on PRN and SirusXM NASCAR Radio. The scheduled distance is 251.02 miles (163 laps) with Stages 1 and 2 being 40 laps each. The XFINITY race will be followed by the Camping World Truck Series 200-mile event in a rare NASCAR national series doubleheader.
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