Saturday's motors: Bell wins third New Hampshire race in Xfinity

By Dan Gelston
Associated Press

Loudon, N.H. – Christopher Bell had to reward the young boy wearing his T-shirt with a fist bump and the checkered flag from his third career New Hampshire victory.

Bell laughed when he said it was a rare sight at the track to find any fan wearing his merchandise. So while the Xfinity Series wins come easy for Bell, building that fanbase still needs some work.

Matt DiBenedetto won a fan vote this season that earned him the final spot in NASCAR's All-Star race. As for the rest of his racing career? Well, wins haven't come at all. DiBenedetto became a fan favorite over his seven-year career, winning over fans as the underdog of underfunded teams.

“I don’t have a ton of shirts up here in the Northeast,” Bell said. “I haven’t done a lot of racing up here. My popularity, I’m just really calm, quiet, reserved. I’m not going to win a popularity contest but hopefully I can win more races.”

Bell turned a spot start in the Xfinity Series into a trip to victory lane, winning in a romp for Joe Gibbs Racing on Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell made his first start since 2019 in NASCAR’s second-tier series when he was needed as a late replacement driver. He won every stage in the No. 54 Toyota and captured his 17th career Xfinity race. He won seven races in 2018, nine in 2019 and was promoted to Cup last season.

Bell is 15th in the Cup Series this season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Bell won his first Cup race this season at the Daytona road course.

“I’ve got really, really fast race cars to drive,” Bell said.

He certainly remembered how to take the checkered flag at New Hampshire, where he won in the Xfinity Series for the third time. In the Ambetter Get Vaccinated 200, Bell made the most of his shot.

“I didn’t have any Xfinity races on my calendar. I’m not really sure what happened,” Bell said. “I think Ty Gibbs maybe was supposed to run it and ended up doing the ARCA deal. I’m not really sure what happened, but I was very thankful for the opportunity.”

The rest of the field wasn’t so thankful. He led 151 of 200 laps.

“I definitely didn’t expect like I was for sure going to win,” Bell said. “I figured I would have a really good shot at it. I felt I was going to have a shot at it, for sure.”

Justin Allgaier was second, followed by Daniel Hemric, Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton.

The top-fives capped a big week for Cindric and Burton – Cindric was named driver of the flagship No. 2 car for Team Penske in the Cup Series next season, and Burton will drive for Wood Brothers Racing next season in the 21 Ford.

Hemric and Burton also race for JGR.

Bell kept the ball rolling for JGR in the Xfinity Series. Bell, Kyle Busch and Ty Gibbs have combined to win eight races in the No. 54 this season. Busch went 5-for-5 and said he was retired from the series after winning last week at Atlanta.

Bell and Busch are the only drivers with three straight New Hampshire victories and JGR has won six straight overall at New Hampshire.

Bell put the Cup filed on notice he could be a factor on Sunday. He won a trophy on Saturday. Win the Cup race Sunday, and Bell receives a live lobster in victory lane.

“I’m not crazy about touching the lobster,” Bell said. “My wife is excited about it. I will probably let her hold it.”

At least the kid had a souvenir worth saving.

“It’s really cool to see a kid wearing my T-shirt,” Bell said. “That’s really special. Hopefully, he has a lifelong memory. Man, I love this place.”

NASCAR Cup

Always a popular driver, Matt DiBenedetto won a fan vote this season that earned him the final spot in NASCAR’s All-Star race. As for the rest of his racing career? Well, wins haven’t come at all.

DiBenedetto became a fan favorite over his seven-year career as the underdog of underfunded teams – he qualified for his first Daytona 500 in 2016 in an open car – who just needed top-tier equipment to prove that he could compete with the stars of the sport and even win a race or two. When he got that shot last year with Wood Brothers Racing, steady success instead never came, and DiBenedetto is now without a ride for next season.

DiBenedetto has no idea what’s next. He could not hide the crushing hurt in a nine-minute video he posted on social media where he vented his frustration at losing yet another ride.

“I’m here to win in the Cup Series,” he said. “I am going to.”

Time could be running short.

DiBenedetto had known since October he was losing his ride in the No. 21 Ford at the end of the season, but perhaps false hope of a reprieve grew when Brad Keselowski decided to leave Team Penske for Roush Fenway Racing. Austin Cindric was slotted for the ride at Wood Brothers, which essentially operates as a fourth Penske car, but got the nod instead to replace Keselowski. DiBenedetto’s seat will now go to Xfinity Series driver Harrison Burton.

Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood said he wanted a rookie to team with Cindric as NASCAR ushers in a new car in 2022.

“Those two guys could work together and develop themselves into great race car drivers,” Wood said. “Being rookies, they’re both on the same level and this new car is such a white sheet of paper that even if you’re a veteran, if you’re a 20-year veteran, you’re really not going to have a lot on a rookie.”

DiBenedetto had held out hope that Keselowski’s departure gave him a chance to keep his ride, but in the end the statistics didn’t support his cause. Although he did qualify for the playoffs last year for the first time, he’s winless and has just 27 top-10 finishes in 233 career starts.

At the track where the winner gets a lobster, DiBenedetto has an outside chance to claw his way into the playoff picture beginning Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“In our eyes, we’re not done,” Wood said. “There are five races left before the playoffs. We’re gonna try to win a race and get in the playoffs.”

DiBenedetto will hit the free-agent market without a sponsor, and minus the funding necessary to entice a team owner to take him, he could be sitting out the Cup Series in 2022. DiBenedetto said this week he didn’t want to drop down to the second-tier Xfinity Series or drive in the Truck Series.

The No. 21 team made a crew chief change in June with Jonathan Hassler taking over for Greg Erwin, which resulted in modest improvement. DiBenedetto finished 10th and ninth in his last two races.

“Our team is clicking,” DiBenedetto said. “Finally. But guess what? It’s too late. I know it’s going to work out like it’s supposed to, but I’m just expressing my frustration with the way it is.”

So where he could go?

There are few options with most seats for 2022 already secured. 23XI Racing has discussed adding a second car and 2004 champion Kurt Busch, last week’s winner at Atlanta, could be in the mix for that spot. Richard Petty Motorsports has yet to pick up the option on Erik Jones’ contract. GMS Racing is making the move from the Truck Series to Cup in 2022, and Kaulig Racing might have a spot open, leaving a door cracked for DiBenedetto.

Formula One

Max Verstappen out-dragged Lewis Hamilton at the start of Formula One’s experimental first sprint qualifying race to take the pole for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and spoil the homecoming of the seven-time champion.

Hamilton initially seemed fine with the defeat and showed enthusiasm for the format and the fan energy at packed Silverstone.

“I don’t know how it looks to watch from the fans,” Hamilton said from aboard an open-air trolley used for the “podium” drivers as they were taken for a lap past the grandstands.

For him, Hamilton said in the trolley the inaugural sprint race format was “way more enjoyable. We should do more like that, or a version of it in the future.”

He’d changed his tune by the post-race news conference, and Hamilton sullenly accepted that he’d lost again to Verstappen and Red Bull. Hamilton said there he didn’t like the format – which, also, cost him another point in the standings.

The Dutchman stretched his lead over Hamilton by winning the sprint and takes a 33-point advantage over the beloved local driver in Sunday’s grand prix.

“In my opinion there needs to be a Saturday and Sunday weekend,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen and third-place Valtteri Bottas said they preferred the the traditional three-round qualifying, noting they’d rather have used the track time for practice.

The leaders of F1 have recognized the series needs a freshening as its audience starts reaching key younger demographics and so this weekend they tried something new. One practice session was cut and transitioned instead Friday to the preferred knockout qualifying, which was won by Hamilton.

But that only set the starting grid for Saturday’s sprint race – dicey because there’s always the chance the drivers don’t push hard out of fear of damaging their cars a day early when points aren’t on the line.

That wasn’t a problem because it was racy right from Verstappen’s jump on Hamilton as flames shot from Verstappen’s heated left front tire. Fernando Alonso jumped from 11th to fifth in the opening lap before finishing seventh, and Sergio Perez Jr. crashed.

Any chance at Hamilton finally bettering the championship leader was lost when Verstappen simply drove away from Hamilton at the start.

“They’ve done a really great job with their engine, their starts are really great this year,” Hamilton said. “We’ve lost a bit of performance on our starts, so we’ve got to work a bit harder to improve that.”

Verstappen earned three points for the win, as well as the pole for Sunday’s full Grand Prix. It put Verstappen in position for a fourth consecutive win, all from pole.

Red Bull has won five straight, which includes a Perez victory. He was the biggest casualty of the experimental qualifying when Perez crashed on the fifth lap and finished last.

The hard racing was celebrated after the finish as Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas instead of going to a podium, climbed aboard the trolley. Verstappen was presented with an old-school winner’s wreath around his neck and all three drivers waved to fans as they passed.

For the fans, Hamilton was jovial yet apologetic for the defeat.

“I’ve got to give a lot of love to all these fans, I can’t tell you the energy that I’m getting from them is awesome,” Hamilton said. “I am sorry I was not able to get the win; tomorrow we fight again.”

Verstappen was content with the win.

“Happy to have pushed for those three points,” he said. “A good fight with Lewis on the first lap,”

Hamilton received two points for finishing second. Bottas earned the final point awarded Saturday.

Hamilton has not won a race since May 9 at the Spanish GP but Silverstone has long been a Mercedes stronghold and the team has won seven of the past eight British GP. Hamilton has won six of those.