To hear Christopher Bell in Victory Lane describing his race, you’d never know that he had just won it.
“I felt pretty sloppy there as a driver,” Bell said after leading 143 of 163 laps in winning Saturday’s Rinnai 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “Running the yellow line [at the bottom of the track] is so hard. And I was struggling on the longer runs.”
Struggling, of course, is a relative thing. After the only caution for a racing incident slowed the field on Lap 156, Bell held off Cole Custer by .191 seconds in a three-lap dash for the finish. Bell’s victory — including a sweep of all three stages — was the ninth of his career but first at Atlanta.
Bell also baptized the new Toyota Supra with its first win in NASCAR competition, as Toyota picked up its 150th victory in the Xfinity Series.
After rain washed out qualifying, Bell started third in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota according to 2018 owner points, grabbed the lead on the first lap and held it for the entire first stage.
That set the tone for the entire race. The 24-year-old Oklahoma driver surrendered the top spot only under caution on pit road or during the one cycle of green-flag pit stops late in the race.
Custer surged from fifth to second after the final restart on Lap 161, but Bell managed to keep the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford behind him.
“He took the air away from us (on the final lap),” Custer said. “I thought I was going to have a run going down the backstretch.
“We just have to build on that — we’ll be a threat this year.”
In fact, with Justin Allgaier finishing third, the Xfinity Series returned to form after a scramble at Daytona that saw Michael Annett pick up his first victory. Bell, Custer and Allgaier are three drivers expected to contend for the series championship.
On the late-race restart, Allgaier had the preferred bottom lane and thought he had a real chance for the win. But Custer just slipped past.
“We were just a little tight today,” Allgaier said. “We never got the balance exactly where we wanted it, but the guys did a fantastic job. We had great pit stops. That last run, we got the inside, and I thought we were going to be OK.
“I chose the middle, thinking I could get the run on the back, and let Cole by me. But still, a great race. Hats off to C. Bell. He had the best car all day.”
Brandon Jones overcame a pit road penalty to finish fourth, with reigning series champion Tyler Reddick coming home fifth and Jeffrey Earnhardt a career-best sixth.
Earnhardt restarted next to Bell on Lap 161, but the slick top lane was clearly a disadvantage.
“It was really hard on the outside lane,” Earnhardt said. “But the Toyota Supra was super-fast today. They (JGR) put me in a heck of a car. We came up short on the win, but we showed we belong here, and we’re going to run up front the rest of the races.”
Reddick had cut Bell’s two-second lead to less than 0.300 seconds before the final caution.
“It made for a good finish, that’s for sure,” Bell said. “Man, the 2 (Reddick) and the 00 (Custer) … really both of them were pretty good on the long runs. But our Supra was really good.
“I feel like the last five or 10 laps, I died. Very thankful there to get the yellow and put some [new] tires on it, but it would have been fun to race it out with Tyler there.”