DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Give him good cars and Christopher Bell will win races. But in his second race? With a new team? That seemed unlikely.
Bell defied the odds Sunday and earned his first career Cup series victory — in just his second race since Joe Gibbs Racing pulled him back into its inner circle — to close out an unpredictable week of racing at Daytona International Speedway.
Michael McDowell was the surprise Daytona 500 winner and then Bell earned an earlier-than-expected first trip to victory lane. It’s just the third time in NASCAR history the first two races of the season were won by first-time winners. It was previously done in 1949 and 1950 — NASCAR’s first two seasons.
More important, Bell and McDowell have snagged coveted berths in the 16-driver playoff field, a troubling trend for mid-pack teams that need all 26 regular-season races to point their way into the championship picture. Race winners earn automatic berths and the remaining spots are decided by the points standings.
“The dynamic has changed dramatically," Brad Keselowski said. "We’re very early in the season and it’s now turned into a points race for those last few spots. If you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble because it’s not looking like you’re going to be able to get in the playoffs.”
Bell chased down Joey Logano on the winding Daytona road course to grab his first victory. Logano had a commanding lead but Bell, on fresher tires than Logano, reeled him in and passed him with just over one lap remaining.
“This is one of the highlights of my life,” Bell said. “I’ve prepared my whole life for this moment to race in the Cup Series."
The 26-year-old Oklahoman is a longtime Toyota development driver who won 16 Xfinity Series races driving for Gibbs. But there's only four Cup seats in the organization and they were full last season when it was time to move Bell to the big leagues.
He was instead loaned to Leavine Family Racing, and although it was also a Toyota team, the one-car operation wasn't nearly as strong as the Gibbs group. Team owner Joe Gibbs last summer decided not to renew Erik Jones, who said he was blindsided by the move, and instead bring Bell back into the fold.
It put the pressure on Bell to deliver and he did after a rocky opening a week ago. Bell was running at the front of the Daytona 500 pack when he gave Aric Almirola too big of a shove and triggered a 16-car crash on just the 14th lap of NASCAR's first race of the season.
Bell's win bookended a statement weekend for JGR's young drivers. Ty Gibbs, the 18-year-old grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, won the Xfinity Series race Saturday night in his first career national series start.
McDowell, meanwhile, backed up his Daytona 500 win with a career-best road course finish of eighth.
Logano for the second week came up empty but without the dramatics of his last-lap crash with teammate Keselowski as they raced for the Daytona 500 win. Logano finished second.
“I hate being that close,” Logano said.
Denny Hamlin was third to give Gibbs two cars in the top three. Kurt Busch finished fourth and Keselowski wound up fifth for a decent Team Penske rebound.
Keselowski and Logano before the race had their first interaction since the Daytona 500 crash — Logano called it “a healthy conversation” — and the teammates will now try to move forward.
“We’re as good as we can be,” Keselowski said.
Kevin Harvick finished sixth and AJ Allmendinger, in his first Cup race since the 2018 season finale, finished seventh. It was the highest finish in three Cup races for Kaulig Racing, an Xfinity Series team formed in 2016 that wants to be full-time Cup next season.
Ryan Preece was ninth for a pair of top-10 finishes at Daytona. JTG-Daugherty Racing no longer has a charter to guarantee Preece a spot in the field every week, and without it the team can't promise it will race every week this season. With this start, Preece is currently seventh in the points standings.
Chase Elliott again had the most dominant car but his streak of four consecutive victories in points-paying road races was snapped. He led a race-high 45 laps and was out front when caution for rain 15 laps from the finish forced Hendrick Motorsports to make a strategic call.
Elliott traded track position for new tires, pitted from the lead and fell to 15th. He worked his way up to to fifth but spun when he ran into the back of Kurt Busch. Elliott finished 21st.
“Cautions like that kind of makes for a mixed bag, who stays and who goes, it's a bit of a gamble,” Elliott said. “I thought tires was the right move. But you get back into traffic and it just gets to be so chaotic and just depending on who who gets through (traffic) and who doesn't and it determines how it shakes out."
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports