*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.
Is Christopher Bell the new ‘closer’?
Richard: It certainly is beginning to look that way. Just when everyone seems ready to count the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team out they seem to find a way to do something big and make a move in the right direction. Last year, Bell scored wins late in the season that got him into the NASCAR Playoffs then helped him to advance all the way to the Championship 4.
Last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Bell and his team did it again in a race where they seemed to be out of contention. After very nearly going a lap down, the Adam Stevens-led team rallied to score a win and give themselves another shot at a NASCAR Cup Series championship.
One thing that has been working in their favor of late has been qualifying as Bell has started from the pole position in half of the last eight races. That, of course, helps with pit stall selection and track position.
After gaining the experience of being in the Championship 4 at Phoenix in 2022, Bell may be an even more formidable force this time around. His statistics for the season almost exactly mirror those of last year at this time. That type of consistency should make him a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Besides, I picked him to win the championship at the beginning of the season so I am glad that he is “closing” this season well so that I look like I know what I am talking about.
Michael: I think Bell and his team have the capability to win a championship. But they are their own worst enemy.
Since Bell came into Cup, his pit crews have made too many mistakes that cost him races or forces him to come through a lot of traffic while the cars equal to his are out front and pulling away. To start the Playoffs, they switched his crew with the Ty Gibbs crew because they were one of the top-3 crews on pit stop times. As soon as they make the switch, that crew has some of the same mistakes the old crew did. They have cleaned those up and the results speak for themselves.
And Bell has not put himself in bad situations on the track. I think when the crew would have a bad stop, he thought he had to make up for it and that led to some crashes. Those have been cleaned up of late.
What’s up with Kyle Larson’s recent unforced errors?
Richard: A few weeks ago at Texas, Larson lost control of what appeared to be a race-winning car while racing on the inside of Bubba Wallace for the lead and slammed the wall. This past Sunday at Homestead while attempting to close the gap on leader Ryan Blaney as they entered pit road, he rammed into the sand-filled barriers at the end of the pit wall and ruined his day.
Despite having won four races this season, inconsistency has been a theme for Larson and his team as there have been multiple times in which a win seemed to be in their grasp only to have a crash or a pit strategy call cause the No. 5 team to lose its grip.
This particular Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has recorded 11 finishes outside the top-20 in 2023 while at the same time scoring 16 top-10 finishes. If not for having won races at just the right time, Larson would not be in contention for a second career championship with those kinds of numbers.
But, the championship boils down to one race, and as we have seen in the past, this is a driver and team with the ability to rise to the occasion.
Michael: I can’t explain some of these mistakes. Some patience should have been exercised in the spin at Texas. It may come down to how hard it can be to pass at some tracks and having urgency to get past another driver to take the lead.
The mistake at Homestead was something I would expect from a driver whose only been in Cup for a couple of years. I think in both instances Larson had the lead, lost it, and was determined to get the lead back any way he could. Neither situation worked out for him.
Keep in mind, had it not been for some early season altercations with other drivers, Larson probably wins the most races in the regular season and probably has the most points. I don’t know if he feels like a bit of a marked man and that’s leading to these mistakes or if it’s something else. As you said, those need to be eliminated at Phoenix if he expects to win his second Cup title.
Are you surprised at how bad Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team have been in the NASCAR Playoffs?
Richard: I’m not sure I remember a team since NASCAR began using this Playoffs system to have its fortunes turn so drastically in the wrong direction. After winning the “regular season” Truex and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team have recorded only one top-10 finish. Yet they remain alive in the Playoffs due to the bonus points accrued earlier in the year.
Where Larson and the No. 5 team have been wildly inconsistent this season, Truex and his team have simply been bad over the last several weeks. Listening to their in-car communications, it just seems like the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion and crew chief James Small simply aren’t on the same page.
I’m not sure what changed once the Playoffs began, but something did. Still, as poor as their results have been over the past eight races, a championship is not out of the question considering how good Truex has been in the past at Martinsville.
I will be interested to see if there will be any off-season changes for this team once the campaign ends.
Michael: This is only a theory of mine. But I have been wondering if the ultimate passing of Sherry Pollex, his longtime girlfriend, has something to do with it.
I’m sure word got back to him she wasn’t going to be living much longer by the time the Playoffs rolled around. We touched on this before. At the Bristol media center, he was very subdued and rather detached. Then we find out a few days later she had lost her battle with cancer. I’m sure even now, that weighs on his mind. I don’t claim to be a mind reader. But as you said, something changed and that’s what I came up with as a possible explanation. Maybe soon, we’ll hear from him to see what has been going on behind the scenes.
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