SPARTA, Ky. (WTVQ) -Christopher Bell earned his third NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory this season and fifth of his career early Friday by holding off Brandon Jones in the Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at Kentucky Speedway.
The 22-year-old overcame a spin early in the race and led the final 37 laps in the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.
“This is pretty special,” said Bell, whose three victories have all come on 1.5-mile tracks this season. “This was an extremely tough race for me. We had our ups and downs there and through practice (Wednesday). Practice didn’t really go smooth, but we had such a good Toyota Tundra that I knew if the right circumstances came up we could do it. Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) did a great job on top of the pit box getting me track position after I made a mistake there and spun out.”
Jones challenged Bell in the closing laps in the No. 99 Chevrolet but could not close the gap. He finished 0.167 of a second behind Bell for his third runner-up showing in 34 career Truck Series races.
“I was trying everything I knew pretty much to do in there,” Jones said. “I know he was mirror driving me, had to have been, the way he was pulling back up on us. Just trying to play mind games with him, trying to trick him out some, but he had a hot rod as well tonight. It was an evenly matched deal. I just needed to be out front. I think we would’ve pulled away just like they did.”
Bell led three times for a race-high 54 laps and was one of four Kyle Busch Motorsports entries in the race. Three finished in the top 10.
Noah Gragson finished fifth in the No. 51 Toyota behind third place driver Justin Haley and fourth place driver Austin Cindric. Team owner Kyle Busch ran as high as second but was hampered by slow pit stops throughout. A sixth place finish for the seven-time Kentucky winner dashed hopes of a possible weekend sweep.
The Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 was the first race held on the track since a new layer of asphalt was applied over the offseason. Bell said it was as smooth as glass.
Drivers jockeyed for position on each restart and in doing so produced three- and four-wide racing that left onlookers holding their breath. The aggressive racing contributed to six of the eight yellow flags that slowed the race for 42 laps.
“Turns 1 and 2 are really fast. It’s real easy to run wide open,” said Bell, who finished 17th and fourth in his two other Truck Series starts at Kentucky Speedway before this week. “That creates big drafts by the time you get to Turn 3, but then whenever you get to Turn 3 the entry is fairly wide then all of a sudden you get into the corner and there’s a truck-and-a-half width of rubber that you can run. There’s not enough room for three trucks, but lot of guys tried to make room for three trucks and it didn’t work.”
The race started 2 hours, 51 minutes behind schedule due to weather and finished around 12:40 a.m.
Qualifying was rained out, so the starting lineup was set by owner’s points. That put points leader and defending series champion Johnny Sauter on the pole at Kentucky for the second time in his career. He led the first 26 laps.
Louisville native Ben Rhodes won the first stage and Gragson won the second. For each, it was their first stage win this season.
Rhodes was expecting more than 3,000 supporters cheering him in the stands and he undoubtedly thrilled them when he surged past Sauter and ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger on a restart following the race’s first caution.
Rhodes lined up 13th for the start of the second stage and was racing three-wide entering Turn 3 when he spun, slid up the track and hit the outside wall.
ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger went high to try to avoid the accident but ran into Rhodes. The incident ended their nights. Rhodes and Enfinger finished 27th and 28th. A third ThorSport Racing entry driven by Matt Crafton sustained some minor damage but was able to continue and finished eighth behind Parker Kligerman.
After being discharged from the infield care center, Rhodes said thought he had room on the bottom and was trying to gain position before the field strung out single file.
“We had plenty of room out there,” Rhodes said. “I went on the bottom where there wasn’t very much and should have backed out a little bit sooner. I backed out as soon as I saw them coming down. We just all ran out of room.
“All these people waited out the rain to watch us race. I got them a stage win. I’m just really sorry I couldn’t get them a win overall.”
Friday’s on-track schedule has been adjusted. Weather kept XFINITY Series teams off the track Thursday. NASCAR rescheduled one of the day’s three practices for 8:30 – 9:55 a.m. Friday. Qualifying for the Alsco 300 remains scheduled at 4:30 p.m. with the race set to start at 8 p.m.
There are two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practices scheduled Friday before qualifying for Saturday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Cup teams are scheduled to practice from 10 – 11:55 a.m. with final practice slated for 1 – 2:25 p.m. Qualifying is scheduled for 6:15 p.m.
Three-time Quaker State 400 winner Brad Keselowski set the series’ track qualifying record of 188.791 mph in 2014.
Other news and notes:
Erik Jones has looked dominant at times at Kentucky Speedway but a victory on the 1.5-mile track so far has eluded him. One of the sport’s rising stars, Jones has led laps in each of the five NASCAR national series races he’s driven at Kentucky.
He led 100 laps in the XFINITY Series’ VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 last September and was in position to challenge for the victory late in the race only to crash and finish 28th.
“I feel like we should’ve won a few races here in the past couple years between truck and XFINITY,” Jones said. “Just haven’t had it quite work out between mistakes I’ve made and pit strategies we’ve had and the way they’ve played out. Other than that, it is cool to be back here.”
Jones is pulling double duty this week, driving the No. 77 Toyota in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts and the No. 20 Toyota in Friday’s Alsco 300.
“It’s Toyota’s home race,” Jones said. “You think of Michigan as being the home race for the manufacturers, but Kentucky is really Toyota’s home base for the Camry, so it’s kind of cool to come down here and race in front of a lot of people that really support that.”
William Byron handed Kyle Busch Motorsports a record-setting victory in the Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 last summer at Kentucky Speedway.
The 19-year-old has moved up to the XFINITY Series this season and will drive the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in Friday’s Alsco 300. He is coming off back-to-back victories and a win Friday would make him the first rookie in series history to win three consecutive races.
With Kentucky Speedway receiving a fresh topcoat of asphalt over the offseason, Byron thinks having a car that remains stable while racing around others will be key.
“It’s still the same racetrack,” said Byron, who is second in the XFINITY Series standings entering the race. “You try and apply the things you learned last year. Turn 3 is pretty treacherous. Just being on the bottom and being able to roll the center and not have somebody suck you around, that’s the biggest thing here – just being stable enough to drive around guys. Hopefully that leads to speed. A lot of times it doesn’t, but hopefully here, I think at a repave, there’s going to be a lot of guys slipping around. Hopefully that is good for us.”