With late chaos erupting around every turn and every corner, another first-time winner to kickstart the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season was born after Christopher Bell overtook Joey Logano prior to the final lap to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course on Sunday, February 21, and claim his first NASCAR Cup Series career victory.
The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Cup event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Cup race. With that, Chase Elliott, winner of the first Cup points-paying event on Daytona’s road course layout, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Michael McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 champion.
Justin Haley, making his first Cup start of the 2021 season, started at the rear of the field due to failing pre-race inspection twice along with Garrett Smithley, who dropped to the back due to unapproved adjustments. Erik Jones also started at the rear of the field due to an engine change from last weekend’s Daytona 500.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Elliott rocketed away from the field to retain the lead entering the first round of turns. Behind, McDowell locked up his front tires entering Turn 1 and went off the track as he lost a bevy of spots.
Through Turn 2 and the International Horseshoe turn, the No. 18 Interstates Batteries Toyota Camry driven by Kyle Busch started to drift to the back after being knocked in the grass prior to the International Horseshoe turn as damage was also spotted on his car.
Shortly after, the caution flew on the first lap due to debris on the backstretch. By then, Elliott was able to lead the first lap and retain the top spot over Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Preece. Meanwhile, McDowell was limping back to pit road with the right-front tire on his car flat.
Under caution, Kyle Busch pitted to have the damage on his car repaired along with McDowell. Both were able to continue despite having to drop to the rear of the field.
The race restarted on the third lap with Elliott and Austin Dillon on the front row. At the front, Elliott retained the lead entering the first turn while Dillon was able to fend off Hamlin for the runner-up spot as Logano joined the battle.
Through the infield turns and returning to the superspeedway turns, the field was able to return to the start/finish line cleanly. By then, Elliott continued to lead by nearly two seconds over Hamlin, who overtook Austin Dillon for the runner-up spot. Logano started to battle Dillon for the third-place spot while Harvick was in fifth. Ross Chastain was in sixth followed by Kyle Larson, Ryan Preece, Kurt Busch and Corey LaJoie.
By the fifth lap, Elliott was still out in front of the field and by nearly two seconds over Hamlin while Logano, Austin Dillon and Harvick were in the top five. Meanwhile, rookie Chase Briscoe spun in the frontstretch chicane in Turns 13 and 14 as he dropped all the way at the rear of the field while the race remained under green.
Halfway into the first stage on the eighth lap, Elliott extended his advantage to more than four seconds over Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry. Logano was in third place followed by Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. Martin Truex Jr. was in sixth followed by Harvick, Kurt Busch, Chastain and Christopher Bell. Cole Custer was in 11th followed by Brad Keselowski, Tyler Reddick, William Byron and Preece. A.J. Allmendinger carved his way in 16th place followed by Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto and Aric Almirola.
Meanwhile, Bubba Wallace was in 21st in front of Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon. Kyle Busch was in 27th in front of Ryan Newman while Michael McDowell was back in 29th. Briscoe, following his early spin, was back in 35th.
Nearing the Lap 10 mark, Erik Jones, who was in 24th, dropped off the pace and limped his way back to pit road through the superspeedway backstretch after blowing a left-rear tire on his Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. He was able to limp his way back to pit road as the race remained under green.
On Lap 11, the caution returned when the right-rear tire off of Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang blew and ripped, leaving shredded debris on the track in Turn 12. Moments earlier, Brad Keselowski missed the frontstretch chicane when he locked up his tires and pitted for fresh tires.
Under caution, the leaders pitted except for Bell, James Davison, Josh Bilicki and Scott Heckert. Following the pit stops, Tyler Reddick and William Byron were tabbed with an uncontrolled tire violation penalty.
The race restarted on Lap 13 with Bell and Keselowski, who benefitted from his pit stop, on the front row. At the start, Bell briefly cleared Keselowski entering the first turn but Elliott quickly marched his way alongside Bell’s No. 20 Rheem Toyota Camry following contact in Turn 2 as he challenged him for the lead entering the International Horseshoe turn.
Through the dogleg and entering the West Horseshoe turn, Elliott reassumed the lead. Behind, Keselowski moved back into second place followed by Logano, Bell and Hamlin.
With the laps in the first stage dwindling, Elliott remained in the lead followed by Team Penske’s Logano and Keselowski as Hamlin started to pressure Keselowski for third place. Kurt Busch moved up to fifth place followed by Larson, Austin Dillon and Truex. Bell was back in ninth in front of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and Cole Custer.
With a number of battles and shuffling for positions ensuing around the track and every turn, Elliott was able to cruise his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE to the first stage victory on Lap 16. Logano coasted across the line in second place while Hamlin was able to overtake Keselowski to assume third place. Kurt Busch was in fifth followed by Larson, Truex, Austin Dillon, Harvick and Chris Buescher.
Under the stage break, some led by Elliott remained on the track while others led by Keselowski pitted. Following the pit stops, Ty Dillon was forced to the rear of the field due to a crew member jumping over the pit wall too soon,
The second stage started on Lap 19 with Elliott and Logano on the front row. At the start, Elliott battled dead even with Logano entering the first turn before clearing him in Turn 2 and holding the lead. With the field battling competitively through the infield turns, Hamlin made his way into the runner-up spot while Truex overtook Kurt Busch for fourth.
By Lap 20, Elliott was out in front by nearly two seconds over Hamlin while Logano, Truex and Kurt Busch were in the top five. A.J. Allmendinger, who started at the rear of the field in his No. 16 Hyperice/Kaulig Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, was up in sixth followed by Austin Dillon, Custer, Larson and William Byron. Keselowski was back in 11th place in front of Alex Bowman while Bell and Harvick were in 15th and 16th.
A few laps later, Truex moved up into third place after passing Logano while Allmendinger overtook Kurt Busch for fifth place. By then, Elliott continued to lead by more than a second over Hamlin.
By Lap 25 and with the field fanning out and settling in a calm, competitive pace, Elliott stabilized his advantage to more than three seconds over Hamlin. Truex remained in third place, trailing by more than three seconds, followed by Logano and Allmendinger. Kurt Busch retained sixth place over Larson while Austin Dillon, Custer and Byron were in the top 10.
Meanwhile, the top-15 spots on the track were occupied by Bell, Buescher, Harvick, Keselowski and Almirola, who was locked in a battle with Daniel Suarez. Bowman and Blaney were in 16th and 17th while Kyle Busch, who was mired with early issues with damage on his car and towards the rear of the field, was in 19th and in front of Chastain.
Newman was in 22nd followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., McDowell and Reddick. Bubba Wallace was in 26th in front of Erik Jones and Briscoe while Ty Dillon, rookie Anthony Alfredo and DiBenedetto were in 29th, 30th and 31st.
The following lap, Truex overtook teammate Hamlin for the runner-up spot. In addition, Allmendinger continued his impressive run towards the front as he moved into fourth place over Logano, who had Kurt Busch closing in. Behind, Bell moved back into the top 10 in ninth place.
Shortly after, the caution returned when Chastain made hard contact against the Turn 6 outside wall following contact with Ryan Blaney and sustained right-front damage on his No. 42 McDonald’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. Under caution, Reddick dropped off the pace through the tri-oval after reporting diagnostic issues on his car when he shut it off trying to save fuel. He was able to re-fire and continue while Chastain, who was able to limp back to pit road, retired.
Under caution, most of the field led by Elliott pitted while the rest led by Allmendinger remained on the track. Following the pit stops, Briscoe was sent to the rear of the field due to an uncontrolled tire penalty.
The race resumed under green on Lap 29 with Allmendinger and Larson on the front row. At the front, Allmendinger rocketed away with the lead through the first two turns. Meanwhile, Harvick made his way into second place while Hamlin challenged Larson for third place. In addition, Kurt Busch challenged in fifth in front of Truex and Logano. Meanwhile, Keselowski, who was in the top 10, nearly got turned off the front nose of Bell through the straightaway nearing Turn 6 and lost a bevy of spots.
When the field returned to the start/finish line on Lap 30, Allmendinger was still in the lead by a narrow margin over Hamlin. Shortly after, Hamlin, racing on fresh tires, made his way into the lead through the infield dogleg and West Horseshoe turns. Behind, Kurt Busch was in third followed by Harvick and Truex. Larson, Logano, Bell, Byron and Custer were in the top 10 while Elliott, who struggled on pit road under the previous caution, was mired back in 11th. Keselowski, who nearly got turned following contact with Bell during the previous lap, was back in 21st.
The following lap, Wallace made an unscheduled pit stop after locking up the front tires entering the chicane in Turns 13 and 14. By then, Hamlin was out in front by seven-tenths of a second over Allmendinger. Kurt Busch remained in third place followed by Truex and Logano. Bell was in sixth followed by Harvick and Byron. Elliott was in ninth while Custer was in 10th.
With the laps in the second stage dwindling, Allmendinger was overtaken by Kurt Busch, Truex, Logano and Bell for position as Hamlin extended his advantage to more than two seconds. Entering the chicane in Turns 13 and 14, Truex locked up his front tires as he attempted to overtake Kurt Busch for the runner-up spot. His move allowed Logano to move into third place. The following lap and through the infield turns, Bell overtook Truex for position while Elliott joined the party.
At the front, Hamlin was able to retain the lead and claim the second stage victory on Lap 34. Kurt Busch held off Logano by a nose to settle in second place while teammates Bell and Truex were scored in the top five. Elliott, who restarted outside the top 10, worked his way up to sixth place followed by teammate Byron, Custer, Allmendinger and Kyle Busch.
Under the stage break, the leaders pitted except for Suarez and DiBenedetto. Kurt Busch was the first competitor to exit off pit road followed by Hamlin, Bell, Elliott, Truex, Harvick and Logano. Following the pit stops, Allmendinger was sent to the rear of the field due to speeding on pit road.
With 33 laps remaining, the final stage started with Suarez and DiBenedetto on the front row. At the start, Suarez, racing in his No. 99 iFly/Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, launched ahead following a strong start while DiBenedetto struggled on the outside lane. Kurt Busch, who also received a strong start, made his way into the lead following the first two turns as the field jumbled up. Bell quickly made his way into second place followed by Truex, Hamlin and Elliott, all of whom overtook Suarez starting from the International Horseshoe turn and through the West Horseshoe turn.
When the field returned to the start/finish line, Kurt Busch was out in front by approximately a tenth of a second over Bell while Truex and Elliott battled behind for third. Hamlin was in fifth followed by Logano and Suarez.
Entering the West Horseshoe turn, however, Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE slipped off the track entering the dogleg, ran over the infield grass and spun from the lead prior to the West Horseshoe turn. With Busch dropping from the lead to outside the top 20, Bell assumed the lead followed by Elliott. Teammates Truex and Hamlin moved up in third and fourth followed by Logano.
With 30 laps remaining, Bell continued to lead by a narrow margin over a hard-charging Elliott. Through the backstretch, McDowell missed the chicane/bus stop while Chris Buescher ran his No. 17 Fastenal Ford Mustang over the grass.
A lap later, Elliott made his way back into the lead. Behind, Keselowski spun after his No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang received a bump from Kurt Busch in Turn 1. In addition, Wallace, who pitted under green, was tabbed with a speeding penalty. Rookie Anthony Alfredo was also tabbed with a pass-through penalty for missing the frontstretch chicane and not doing a stop-and-go penalty.
With 27 laps remaining, Elliott, the dominant car of the day, was out in front by more than a second over Bell. Truex was in third, trailing by nearly three seconds, followed by Logano and Hamlin. Kyle Busch, following his early issues, was up in sixth place followed by Larson, Harvick, Almirola and Custer.
The following lap, Almirola spun his No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang through the International Horseshoe turn, though he was able to continue and the race remained under green. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch overtook teammate Hamlin for fifth place.
Not long after, Blaney made an unscheduled pit stop under green due to a left-rear tire rub.
With 22 laps remaining and the skies darkening, Elliott, seeking his second consecutive victory at Daytona on the road course layout, remained at the front of the field by nearly a second over Bell, who remained in the hunt of his first Cup career victory. Truex, seeking his first victory at Daytona, remained in third followed by teammate Kyle Busch, who continued to march forward. Logano was in fifth while Hamlin, Larson, Harvick, Custer and Byron were in the top 10.
Two laps later and with 20 laps remaining, Elliott retained the lead by more than a second over Bell. By then, Truex, who was in third, made a scheduled pit stop under green. Suarez, Alex Bowman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also pitted while Kyle Busch moved into third place. Hamlin, Larson and Logano also moved up from fourth to sixth.
The following lap, Larson and Logano made the turn to pit road under green. Byron, Austin Dillon, Harvick, Erik Jones, Reddick, Almirola, Preece and Allmendinger also pitted.
The lap after and with 18 laps remaining, the leader Elliott pitted followed by teammates Bell and Kyle Busch. By then, names like Hamlin, Briscoe, Custer, Ty Dillon, Newman and Kurt Busch also pitted.
When the pit stops under green were completed and the field cycled through with 17 laps remaining, Elliott continued to lead by more than two seconds over Bell. Truex moved back into third place followed by teammate Kyle Busch and Larson. Logano was in sixth followed by Hamlin, Harvick, Custer and Byron. By then, reports of a few rain drops were reported on the track with the teams preparing a possible move to rain tires.
Following the pit stops, DiBenedetto pitted due to a brake issue and made the eventual turn to the garage.
With 15 laps remaining, the caution flew due to rain. By then, Elliott was leading by more than two seconds over Bell with Truex trailing by more than 12 seconds.
Under caution, everyone except for Logano, Briscoe, Kurt Busch, Buescher, Corey LaJoie, Keselowski, James Davison, Garrett Smithley, Cody Ware and Josh Bilicki remained on the track. For those who pitted, they pitted for slicks, not rain tires.
With 12 laps remaining, the race resumed under green with Logano and Briscoe on the front row. At the start, Logano jumped ahead with the lead through the first turn while Kurt Busch challenged Briscoe for the runner-up spot. Behind and with the field fanning out to three lanes, Reddick drove off the racing surface in Turn 2, kicked up the dirt in the grass and ran over a sign board as he came to a stop. While trying to pull away, flames erupted underneath Reddick’s No. 8 CAT Rental Store Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE and his race came to an end as the caution flew.
Prior to the caution, Elliott got forced off the track past the International Horseshoe turn following contact with LaJoie but he made a spectacular save while sliding sideways through the grass to come back on the track and continue. The incident, however, dropped Elliott all the way back to 14th place.
With 10 laps remaining, the race restarted under green with Logano and Briscoe on the front row. At the front, Logano retained the lead following a strong start followed by Kurt Busch, who overtook Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford Performance Racing School Ford Mustang for position. Behind, however, Truex spun in Turn 1 after locking up the front tires of his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry. Despite spinning in a heavy cloud of smoke and forcing the oncoming field to fan out through the first turn, Truex continued while losing his track position towards the front and the race remained under green.
Shortly after, the caution returned due to an on-track incident involving Elliott and LaJoie, thus damaging both racing vehicles.
The race restarted under green with eight laps remaining. At the front, Logano and Kurt Busch battled dead even for the lead through the first turn until Logano pulled ahead through Turn 2 and the International Horseshoe turn.
Entering Turn 6, Larson got sideways and wheel-hopped while battling Kurt Busch for the runner-up spot as his No. 5 Nations Guard Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE made contact into the tire barriers. Despite the incident, the race remained under green.
When the field returned to the start/finish line, Logano was out in front by more than a second over Kurt Busch, who had Bell pressuring him for the runner-up spot. Keselowski was in fourth followed by Hamlin, Briscoe and Elliott. Behind, Kyle Busch bounced off several cars and got sideways on the tri-oval with Austin Dillon also sustaining damage after he ran over the grass. The incident spoiled Busch’s late comeback to the front following his early issues. Despite the incident, the race continued to run under green.
While Logano continued to lead, Kurt Busch and Bell continued to battle intensely for second place. In Turn 6, however, Bell suffered a brief right-front tire rub after running into the rear bumper of Kurt Busch, who refused to surrender the spot to Bell.
The following lap, Logano extended his advantage to nearly three seconds over Kurt Busch with Bell remaining in pursuit. In Turn 7, however, disaster struck for Elliott, who got into the back of Keselowski, got loose and spun in a cloud of smoke as he lost all the track position towards the front.
With five laps remaining, Logano continued to lead by more than three seconds over Kurt Busch while Bell, Keselowski and Hamlin were in the top five. Harvick, McDowell, Preece, Allmendinger and Briscoe were in the top 10 followed by Bubba Wallace and Bowman. Elliott, following his late spin, was outside of the top 20.
Shortly after, Briscoe’s hood flew up, which blocked his view. Despite the misfortune, he continued on the track, though he dropped out of the top 10.
With three laps remaining, Logano remained in the lead by more than two seconds over Bell, who was able to prevail over Kurt Busch a few laps earlier, with Busch trailing by five seconds in third place. Hamlin was in fourth followed by Keselowski and Harvick.
With two laps remaining, Logano was leading by more than a second over Bell, who continued to close in for the lead and the win on fresher tires than Logano as light sprinkles were reported on the track.
Entering the superspeedway Turn 3, however, Bell, who closed in to the rear bumper of Logano’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang, issued a challenge for the lead. He made a move to the outside lane, but was blocked by Logano. Nonetheless, Bell was able to draw himself to the outside of Logano entering the chicane in Turns 13 and 14.
Through the chicane, Bell muscled his way to the lead as he also started the final lap of the race. Through the infield turns, Bell was able to remain out in front and he was also able to gap himself away from Logano while entering the superspeedway turns.
Through the chicane/bus stop, the final pair of superspeedway turns and the chicane towards the frontstretch, Bell was able to come back around to the tri-oval and claim the checkered flag by more than two seconds over Logano as he grabbed his first Cup triumph in his 38th series start.
With his victory, Bell became the 197th different competitor to win in the Cup Series, the 11th different competitor to win a Cup race driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and the 35th different driver to win across NASCAR’s top three national touring series (Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series). The victory was also the first for JGR’s No. 20 team since Darlington Raceway in September 2019.
Bell’s first Cup career victory came one week after Michael McDowell claimed his first Cup triumph in last weekend’s Daytona 500. It marks the third time in NASCAR’s 73-year history, first since 1950, where the first two Cup events of the season have been won by first-time winners.
“This is definitely one of the highlights of my life so far,” Bell said on FOX. “Just so incredibly thankful to be here at Joe Gibbs Racing…I don’t know, man. I’ve prepared my whole life for this moment to race in the Cup Series. Last year was a huge learning curve for me and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to run in Cup and it definitely prepared me to move to Joe Gibbs Racing.”
“Whenever we pitted and then we came out, I liked where I lined up,” Bell added. “But then, the yellows kept coming and I thought the yellows were hurting me because I felt like I needed laps to get up through there. Honestly, I didn’t think I was gonna there. [Crew chief] Adam [Stevens], up on the pit box, kept telling me that I was gonna get there. Man, I didn’t believe it. [Logano] really struggled coming out of [Turn] 6 one time and it allowed me to close the gap.”
Logano settled in second place followed by Hamlin. Kurt Busch and Keselowski rallied from their on-track issues throughout the race to complete the top five.
“[Bell]’s the one that got through with tires,” Logano said. “Man, one more caution lap would’ve been enough to have a door-to-door finish across the finish line, maybe…I was just trying to get all I could out of that restart, trying to get out there as far as I could because I knew that those guys with tires were gonna catch us really quick…We maximized the day. I hate being that close, but congratulations to Christopher. It’s his first win…I’m happy for him, but not so happy for myself at the moment.”
Harvick finished in sixth place followed by Allmendinger, who rallied to record the first top-10 result for Kaulig Racing in the Cup circuit. McDowell also rallied from his issues at the start of the race to finish in eighth place while Preece and Bowman finished in the top 10.
Truex finished in 12th, Elliott fell all the way back in 21st, Larson fell back to 30th and Briscoe dropped to 32nd.
“When you have those late race cautions like that and you have a mixed bag of who stays and who goes, it’s a bit of a gamble either way,” Elliott, who led a race-high 44 laps, said. “I thought tires was the right move. Tires won the race, so I think it was the right move. When you get back in traffic, it just gets to be so chaotic and then it just, depending on who gets through and who doesn’t, determines how it’s gonna shake out. I hate it. Too many mistakes. Went off track. Bad deal. We had a fast NAPA Chevy and I appreciate the effort…Try again next week.”
There were 12 lead changes for seven different leaders. The race featured eight cautions for 12 laps.
Hamlin now leads the regular-season standings by 12 points over Logano, 21 over Harvick, 22 over Bell and 25 over Elliott.
1. Christopher Bell, five laps led
2. Joey Logano, 10 laps led
3. Denny Hamlin, five laps led, Stage 2 winner
4. Kurt Busch, two laps led
5. Brad Keselowski
6. Kevin Harvick
7. A.J. Allmendinger, two laps led
8. Michael McDowell
9. Ryan Preece
10. Alex Bowman
11. Chris Buescher
12. Martin Truex Jr.
13. Cole Custer
14. Erik Jones
15. Ryan Blaney
16. Daniel Suarez, two laps led
17. Aric Almirola
18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
19. Ty Dillon
20. Ryan Newman
21. Chase Elliott, 44 laps led, Stage 1 winner
22. Anthony Alfredo
23. James Davison
24. Justin Haley
25. Cody Ware
26. Bubba Wallace
27. Garrett Smithley
28. Scott Heckert
29. Timmy Hill
30. Kyle Larson
31. Corey LaJoie
32. Chase Briscoe
33. William Byron, one lap down
34. Austin Dillon, one lap down
35. Kyle Busch, one lap down
36. Josh Bilicki – OUT, Brakes
37. Matt DiBenedetto, five laps down
38. Tyler Reddick – OUT, Accident
39. Ross Chastain – OUT, Accident
40. Quin Houff – OUT, Engine
Next on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the series’ annual visit to Homestead-Miami Speedway, which will also wrap up the series’ month-long racing span in Florida. The race will occur on Sunday, February 28, at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.