Christopher Bell held off hard-charging veteran Brad Keselowski over the final 18 laps to win Saturday’s Lakes Region 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In winning his second straight race in the series, Bell grabbed the top spot from Keselowski on a restart on Lap 183 of 200 and kept the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion behind him the rest of the way, though Keselowski got within three feet of the rear bumper of Bell’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with three laps left.
The difference? Bell had taken four new tires on his final pit stop on Lap 163. One lap later, crew chief Brian Wilson opted to change right-side tires only on Keselowski’s car to maintain track position.
However, when Jeremy Clements hit the sand-filled barrels at the entrance to pit road and caused the sixth caution on Lap 166, the field was bunched, and Wilson’s strategy was undermined. Keselowski held the lead through a restart on Lap 174 but lost it on Lap 183 after a caution for a wreck involving Garrett Smithley and Chad Finchum.
In his first Xfinity start at the Magic Mile, Bell picked up his third victory of the season and the fourth of his career — even though he couldn’t gauge his pit road speed because his tachometer was out of commission.
But strong guidance from spotter Tony Hirschman and fresh tires on all four corners of the car made up for the disadvantage.
“The better tires, they didn’t hurt us — that’s for sure,” Bell said. “(Crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) was able to put four on there and, man, we got going there that long green flag run, and I was getting really nervous because I didn’t have a tach, so I didn’t really know how I was going to get down pit road.
“But, luckily, I’ve got the best spotter on the roof, man, and Tony was able to kind of guide me and let me know, ‘All right, I think you can pick it up a little bit,’ and then a couple times he told me to slow it down, so it worked out for us. We were able to take four tires there, and that was a big deal.”
The way Keselowski saw it, two fresh left-side tires on his No. 22 Team Penske Ford might well have changed the outcome.
“I think we would have won today on four, but that’s not the way it played out,” Keselowski said. “They (Bell’s team) did a good job and made the right call to put four tires on and kind of got us there, but it was all-in-all a good day.
“You kind of get mad about second and kind of don’t. You try to respect the fact that it was a great car today and a great effort for our team, but you know that the potential is there for more.”
Ryan Preece finished third in his fifth trip this season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. John Hunter Nemechek ran fourth, tying his career-best in the series. Fifth-place finisher Matt Tifft posted his second top five of the season. The cars of Preece of Nemechek failed heights in post-race inspection. Any potential penalties will be announced next week.
Brandon Jones, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon completed the top 10.
Notes: Bell won the first stage and Keselowski the second… Keselowski won the pole earlier in the day but started from the rear of the field after missing the drivers’ meeting. By the end of Stage 1, he had climbed to fifth place… Bell led 93 laps to Keselowski’s 72, indicative of the dominance of the two best cars in the field… Daniel Hemric, who finished 11th on Saturday, holds the series lead by six pints over Bell and seven over third-place Sadler… In the tight owner points battle, the No. 22 driven by Keselowski is six points ahead of the No. 18 driven by Preece. The No. 52 of David Starr had one lug nut found to be unsecure. The cars of Bell and Keselowski will be taken to the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina.