In a war of attrition match involving NASCAR’s elite around the Last Great Colosseum on dirt, Christopher Bell benefitted from a late strategic call to remain on the track. He then controlled the final stage to his advantage and motored his way to win the third annual running of the Food City Dirt Race at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Course on Easter Sunday, April 9.
The 28-year-old Bell from Norman, Oklahoma, led the final 100 of 250-scheduled laps. Once he gained control of the lead for the start of the final stage spanning 100 laps, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota TRD Camry survived a flurry of on-track chaos, caution periods and challenges from former dirt veterans turned NASCAR premier series stars to claim the first checkered flag of the 2023 Cup Series season for himself and for the JGR organization.
The starting lineup for the main event was determined through four 15-lap qualifying events that occurred on Saturday, April 8, where the 37 competitors that entered the main event accumulated points for their finishing results and passes by improving from their original starting spots during their respective heat events.
With that, Kyle Larson, who won the third qualifying event after starting sixth and accumulating 15 points, claimed his second pole position of the 2023 Cup Series season. Joining him on the front row was Austin Dillon, who won the first qualifying event after starting fifth and earning 14 points.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Larson took off with the lead on the outside lane and pulled away as the field slipped and slid their way through the first two turns on the dirt. With the field returning to the frontstretch, Larson led the first lap ahead of Austin Dillon, who was being challenged early by Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick. As Larson continued to lead through the Lap 5 mark, he also extended his advantage to eight-tenths of a second over Austin Dillon while Ryan Preece moved up into the top five. By then, JJ Yeley, who qualified an impressive third place in his No. 15 Rick Ware Racing entry, had fallen back to eighth in front of Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano while Kyle Busch and Austin Cindric moved up to sixth and seventh.
On the 10th lap, the first caution of the event flew when Bubba Wallace, who was running near the top 10, got loose entering Turn 2 and collected Logano, who spun Wallace right at the same time he got turned by William Byron and hit the sand barrels near the backstretch’s pit road entrance. Todd Gilliland then made contact with the outside wall after making contact with Byron, who was trying to straighten his No. 24 Raptor Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Larson managed to fend off Austin Dillon for the lead while Bell, Reddick and Preece remained in the top five. During the event’s first caution period, names like Gilliland, BJ McLeod, Brad Keselowski and Logano pitted while the rest led by Larson remained on the track.
When the event restarted under green on Lap 20, Larson fended off Bell and Austin Dillon to retain the lead while having the outside lane to his advantage as the field jostled and slid on the dirt between two lanes for positions. As Larson retained the lead over Austin Dillon and Bell, Reddick retained fourth while Kyle Busch started to challenge Preece for fifth.
At the Lap 35 mark, Larson was leading by more than eight-tenths of a second over Austin Dillon and more than three seconds over third-place Bell while Kyle Busch and Reddick were in the top five. Preece, Blaney, Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Byron were in the top 10 while Michael McDowell, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, JJ Yeley, Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., rookie Ty Gibbs, Erik Jones, Justin Haley and Matt Crafton occupied the top 20.
Two laps later, the second caution of the event flew when Matt Crafton, who was filling in the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing entry for Cody Ware, spun between Turns 3 and 4 and barely made contact with the outside wall. In the process, Logano made slight contact with Crafton while jamming on the brakes to avoid colliding with Crafton.
With the field restarting under green on Lap 45, Larson pulled away in his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 with the lead on the outside lane followed by Austin Dillon while Kyle Busch moved his No. 8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 up to third in front of Bell. In addition, Blaney muscled his No. 12 Menards Ford Mustang into the top five while Reddick fell back to sixth.
Through the first 50 scheduled laps, Larson was leading by more than eight-tenths of a second over Austin Dillon while Dillon’s teammate Kyle Busch trailed in third by more than a second. As Bell and Blaney occupied the top five, Preece overtook Reddick for sixth while Briscoe, Byron and Cindric were in the top 10.
Seven laps later, the third caution of the event flew when Brad Keselowski spun by himself in Turn 4 and continued without sustaining any damage to his No. 6 King’s Hawaiian Ford Mustang. By then, Erik Jones and Corey LaJoie had made on-track contact and pitted while falling out of the lead lap category.
During the proceeding restart on Lap 64, Larson fended off Austin Dillon to retain the lead while Kyle Busch launched a challenge on teammate Dillon for second, which Dillon blocked Busch before the latter succeeded during the following lap. Meanwhile, Preece moved up to fourth followed by Blaney while Bell was back in sixth. As the field continued to jostle for positions, Larson retained a steady advantage over Richard Childress Racing’s Busch and Dillon, both of whom duked for second, as the event surpassed the Lap 70 mark.
Then on the final lap of the first stage, the caution flew for a multi-car wreck in Turn 4 that involved Denny Hamlin and Josh Berry. The incident in Turn 4 was enough for the first stage scheduled on Lap 75 to conclude under caution as Larson captured his second stage victory of the 2023 Cup season. Teammates Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch were scored in second and third followed by Preece, Blaney, Bell, Briscoe, Reddick, Justin Haley and Byron. By then, 35 of 37 starters were scored on the lead lap.
Under the stage break, nearly the entire field led by Larson pitted under a six-minute, non-competitive break period while names that included Reddick, Wallace, Martin Truex Jr. and Ty Dillon remained on the track.
The second stage started on Lap 76 as Reddick and Truex occupied the front row. At the start, Reddick maintained the lead through the first two turns while teammate Wallace muscled his way into second over Truex. Behind, Larson, the first competitor on four fresh tires, was back in fifth behind Ty Dillon while Preece joined the battle.
Four laps later and with the field jostling for positions while slipping and sliding in the dirt, the caution returned when Jonathan Davenport, a three-time Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series champion who was making his NASCAR debut with Kaulig Racing, got loose and spun entering Turn 4 as the field scattered to avoid him. By then, Reddick retained the lead in front of teammate Wallace, Truex, Ty Dillon and Larson, who made contact with Preece and sent Preece into the wall a few laps earlier. The on-track contact prompted Preece to pull his No. 41 United Rentals Ford Mustang alongside Larson’s to express his displeasure.
With the event restarting under green on Lap 86, Reddick retained the lead as the field fanned out to three lanes through the turns and the straightaways. A lap later, however, the caution quickly returned when McDowell got loose and did a full 360 spin entering the backstretch, but he managed to drive away without being hit by the oncoming field.
During the proceeding restart on Lap 94, Reddick rocketed with the lead on the outside lane while teammate Wallace fended off Truex and Ty Dillon to move to second as the field fanned out. A few laps later, trouble ensued for Daniel Suarez as he spun on the backstretch while Logano had smoke billowing out of his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang. Then shortly after, McDowell went for another 360 spin entering Turn 4, though he continued without sustaining any damage, while AJ Allmendinger made contact with the Turn 1 barriers. Amid all the issues, the event remained under green flag conditions as Reddick continued to lead. By then, Logano, who was aiming for a doubleheader sweep after winning Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series event on the Bristol Dirt, pitted and fell out of the lead lap category. He would eventually nurse his damaged car to the garage and retire in last place.
Through the first 100 scheduled laps, Reddick was leading by six-tenths of a second over teammate Wallace followed by Truex, Ty Dillon and Kyle Busch while Preece, Blaney, Austin Dillon, Briscoe and Larson were scored in the top 10. Three laps later, however, the caution returned when Preece, who was running in the top 10, got loose and spun on the backstretch due to a broken right-rear toe link.
As the event restarted on Lap 111, Reddick received another strong start on the outside lane to retain the lead followed by teammate Wallace, who restarted behind Reddick on the outside lane during the last several restarts to remain within striking distance of the lead. With both 23XI Racing competitors running towards the front, Kyle Busch was in third followed by Truex and Ty Dillon while Larson was back in sixth in front of Blaney and Austin Dillon. A few laps later, Ty Dillon made contact towards the Turn 2 outside wall and slipped out of the top 10, but the event remained under green flag conditions. Then towards the Lap 120 mark, Wallace lost a bevy of spots after making contact with the wall.
Then at the halfway mark on Lap 125, the caution flew when Keselowski spun for a second time of the night, this time in Turn 2. By then, Reddick had maintained the lead over Busch, Austin Dillon, Larson, Bell and Truex while Wallace had plummeted back to 16th. In addition, Larson, who was running towards the front, made contact with the wall while battling Dillon for third before running into Bell to defend his spot.
The following restart on Lap 131 saw Reddick retain the lead over Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon amid a stacked-up field while Larson tried to use the outside lane to slip and carve his way back to the front. Soon after, Erik Jones spun entering Turn 2, but the event remained under green as a tight battle for the lead between Reddick, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon and Larson ensued.
Then on Lap 135, Busch pulled a slide job beneath Reddick entering Turn 4 to assume the lead. As Busch maintained the lead by a narrow margin over Reddick, Austin Dillon fended off Larson to remain in third while Bell was in fifth in front of Briscoe and Truex. Reddick, however, would seize an opportunity and overtake both Dillon and Busch in Turn 4 to reassume the lead on Lap 141 as Dillon and Busch engaged in a fierce battle for second with Larson closing in.
When the second stage concluded on Lap 150, Reddick captured his second stage victory of the 2023 Cup season. Dillon settled in second in front of Larson while Bell managed to overtake Kyle Busch to claim fourth while Briscoe, Truex, Blaney, Haley and Aric Almirola were scored in the top 10. By then, 32 of 37 starters were scored on the lead lap.
Under the stage break, names that included Bell, Briscoe, Almirola, Byron, McDowell, Gilliland, Hamlin, Josh Berry and Ross Chastain remained on the track while the rest led by Reddick pitted during a six-minute break period.
With 100 laps remaining, the final stage started as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bell and Ty Gibbs occupied the front row. At the start, Bell retained the lead and checked out away from the field while Briscoe launched his way into second followed by Almirola, Gilliland and Berry as the field behind fanned out and jostled for late positions. Four laps later, however, the caution returned when Larson, who was trying to carve his way back to the front while on old tires after electing not to pit during the second stage’s break period, spun in Turn 4 as he plummeted below the leaderboard.
During the following restart with 89 laps remaining, Bell retained the lead in front of Briscoe, Almirola, Gilliland and Berry amid a packed field. As Hamlin spun with 82 laps remaining through Turn 2, he continued without drawing a caution as his teammate, Bell, maintained a steady advantage over Briscoe while Almirola, Gilliland and Berry remained in the top five. By then, Kyle Busch was trying to carve his way back to the front as he navigated his way up to seventh behind teammate Austin Dillon as Byron joined the battle. Amid all the battles, however, Bell continued to lead as the laps began to dwindle.
Then with 76 laps remaining, the caution flew when Larson, who got bumped and squeezed against the frontstretch’s wall with help from Preece, veered back left into Preece before spinning up against the track and wrecking against the Turn 1 outside wall. The damage to his No. 5 Chevrolet was enough to conclude Larson’s event in the garage while Preece continued. The incident, however, was not viewed kindly from Larson’s perspective and it hinted at retaliation from Preece, who made contact with the wall earlier with help from Larson.
“Yeah, I’m guessing [Preece] was paying me back for whatever I did earlier,” Larson, who emerged from the infield care center uninjured, said. “He ran me straight into the fence, and my car was broke and we crashed. It sucks, but I should just be mad at myself for spinning out earlier and putting myself back there. Just sucks.”
In the ensuing restart with 69 laps remaining, Bell retained the lead over Briscoe and Gilliland amid a flurry of jostles for positions within the field. A lap later, Austin Dillon worked his way back up to third as he went after Briscoe for second while Kyle Busch challenged Almirola for fifth. By then, Berry and McDowell, who endured two 360 spins, were running in the top 10 as Reddick tried to work his way back into the top 10.
With nearly 60 laps remaining, Chastain spun in Turn 2, but the event remained under green as Bell continued to lead by three-tenths of a second over Briscoe while Austin Dillon trailed by seven-tenths of a second in third.
With 50 laps remaining, Bell was leading by six-tenths of a second over Briscoe followed by Austin Dillon, Gilliland and Reddick while Kyle Busch, Berry, Stenhouse, Blaney and McDowell were in the top 10. By then, the event’s 12th caution period flew when rookie Noah Gragson spun in Turn 1 due to a broken toe link.
With the field restarting with 43 laps remaining, Bell retained the lead on the outside lane while Briscoe, who restarted on the front row and the inside lane, maintained second over Austin Dillon as Reddick and Gilliland battled in the top five. As Austin Dillon and Reddick battled for third, the battle at the front began to slowly brew between Bell and Briscoe, with the former holding the top spot.
Down to the final 30 laps of the event, the battle for the lead continued to intensify as Briscoe tried to navigate his way around Bell for the lead through the turns and the straightaways while third-place Reddick tried to close in on the two leaders. Despite having an opportunity to assume the lead through the backstretch, Bell managed to rocket away from Briscoe, who briefly stumbled through the frontstretch, as Reddick launched his challenge on Briscoe for second. He would succeed with 28 laps remaining as Briscoe fell back to third. Soon after, Briscoe made contact with the wall as Dillon and Blaney overtook him for top-five spots.
With 20 laps remaining, Bell was leading by four-tenths of a second over Reddick while Blaney emerged in third place as he trailed the leaders by more than two seconds. Dillon, who scrubbed the wall, dropped to fourth in front of Briscoe while Gilliland, Stenhouse, Bowman, Truex and Haley were in the top 10.
Nearly five laps later, the event’s 13th caution flew when Kyle Busch, who was being told to pick up his pace, spun entering Turn 4 while nearly collecting ex-teammate Hamlin as he quickly nursed his No. 8 Chevrolet onto pit road with suspension damage. By then, LaJoie had spun in Turn 4 without drawing a caution.
Down to the final eight laps of the event, the race restarted as Bell rocketed away from Reddick and Blaney to retain the lead through the first two turns. Then through Turns 1 and 2, Briscoe made contact with Blaney and sent him spinning in the midst of oncoming competitors, but the event remained under green as Blaney continued without getting hit. By then, however, Bell had pulled away with the lead and Reddick was in second followed by Stenhouse, Austin Dillon, Briscoe and Gilliand.
With five laps remaining, Bell continued to lead by more than half a second over Reddick while third-place Stenhouse trailed by more than a second.
When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Bell remained as the leader by three-tenths of a second over Reddick, who tried to close in on Bell for the lead and the win. Behind the leaders, a multi-car wreck erupted when Suarez got loose off the front nose of Buescher and collected Berry, where both spun across the backstretch as Preece and Chastain collided into Berry with significant damage. Amid the carnage, the event concluded under caution on the final lap. This enabled Bell to cycle his No. 20 DeWalt Toyota TRD Camry back to the frontstretch under a cautious pace and claim the checkered flag over Reddick.
With the victory, Bell, a dirt racing specialist with three consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals sprint car victories and a former Truck Series winner at Eldora Speedway, became the seventh different winner through the first eight events on the 2023 Cup Series schedule. He recorded his fifth career win in NASCAR’s premier series, his first at Bristol, the first of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing and the second for the Toyota nameplate.
“Man, let me tell you, those were some of the longest laps of my entire life,” Bell said on FOX. “This place is so much fun, whether it’s dirt or concrete. Whenever the cushion got up there on the top [lane], it was very tough because you couldn’t drive it super hard. Otherwise, you get sucked in. If you got your right front into it, you push a little bit. If you got your right rear into it, you’d slide. It was a lot of fun. Man, I’m just so grateful to be here, driving this No. 20 [car] for DeWalt, Joe Gibbs Racing. That was a lot of fun. Man, I just can’t get over how long those laps feel. It’s a 20-second lap and you’re moving the wheel 18 times a corner. It feels like a long time to get around there.”
Reddick settled in second place on the Bristol Dirt Course for a second consecutive season while Austin Dillon, Stenhouse and Briscoe completed the top five.
“It was a lot of fun, honestly,” Reddick said. “Really intense. Towards the end there, [I] definitely feel like I found a little bit more. I thought I had the edge, but I wasn’t quite there in the last couple laps. Definitely found it. Just hate it for everybody on this SiriusXM Toyota Camry TRD. Just needed to be a little bit closer than I was. I think with two [laps] to go, it would have been really bold to try to make that move work. Obviously, on the white flag coming into [Turns] 3 and 4, I was going to see. We’ll never know if it [would have] worked. Still a good rebound for us.”
“I had a blast out there,” Dillon added. “I don’t care what anybody says about the dirt, the concrete. That was cool. That was one of the coolest races I’ve ever been in. [Speedway Motorsports] did a great job of making a track where you can just slide around, top to bottom, and it constantly was changing. It was a blast out there, really was. Just wished we could’ve brought home the win. We’ll keep working. Hopefully, we can carry this momentum. We got a lot of points tonight.”
Haley emerged with a strong sixth-place result while Truex, Gilliland, Kevin Harvick and rookie Ty Gibbs completed the top 10 on the track.
There were four lead changes for four different leaders. The race featured 14 cautions for 73 laps. In addition, 27 of 37 starters finished on the lead lap.
Following the eighth event of the 2023 Cup Series season, Christopher Bell leads the regular-season standings by 13 points over Ross Chastain, 26 over Kevin Harvick, 39 over Kyle Larson, 46 over Tyler Reddick, 47 over Kyle Busch and 49 over Martin Truex Jr.
1. Christopher Bell, 100 laps led
2. Tyler Reddick, 69 laps led, Stage 2 winner
3. Austin Dillon
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
5. Chase Briscoe
6. Justin Haley
7. Martin Truex Jr.
8. Todd Gilliland
9. Kevin Harvick
10. Ty Gibbs
11. Michael McDowell
12. Bubba Wallace
13. William Byron
14. Erik Jones
15. Harrison Burton
16. AJ Allmendinger
17. Brad Keselowski
18. Chris Buescher
19. Austin Cindric
20. JJ Yeley
21. Ty Dillon
22. Denny Hamlin
23. Ryan Blaney
24. Ryan Preece
25. Daniel Suarez
26. BJ McLeod
27. Josh Berry
28. Ross Chastain, one lap down
29. Alex Bowman, two laps down
30. Corey LaJoie, three laps down
31. Aric Almirola, 10 laps down
32. Kyle Busch – OUT, Suspension, six laps led
33. Noah Gragson, 45 laps down
34. Matt Crafton – OUT, Engine
35. Kyle Larson – OUT, Accident, 75 laps led, Stage 1 winner
36. Jonathan Davenport – OUT, Accident
37. Joey Logano – OUT, Accident
Next on the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the series’ first of two scheduled visits this season to Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia. The event is scheduled for next Sunday, April 16, at 3 p.m. ET on FS1.