Christopher Bell doesn’t feel like a defending winner at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. — When Christopher Bell won last year’s spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway, he was elated to be the first true “dirt driver” to win on the red clay trucked in to cover the traditional concrete surface.

The dirt is gone this year, and as a result, Bell says he won’t feel like a defending winner in Sunday’s Food City 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I don’t feel like the defending race winner,” Bell said Saturday during a question-and-answer session with reporters at Bristol. “It feels like we are at a different venue right now, compared to what it was 12 months ago.

“It is cool that I won the last dirt race. I take pride in that because I’m a dirt-track racer. That’s what I grew up doing, but it definitely, definitely feels like a new venue. When you came here for the dirt race, it didn’t feel like you were at Bristol.”

The winner last Sunday at Phoenix, Bell perhaps is sanguine about his chances on the .533-mile concrete track because of his previous two finishes in the Bristol Night Race.

The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was fourth on the concrete in 2022. Last year he started from the pole and finished third on the way to his second straight appearance in the Championship 4 race at Phoenix.

“It’s certainly been a while since we’ve had a daytime race at Bristol, and I think it will probably be a little bit different, but no one knows how different it will be with the Next Gen car,” Bell said.

“Our team, at least, just found out that the treatment (traction compound) at the bottom is a little bit different (from) last year, so, yeah, it is going to be a little bit different than we’ve had the last couple of years in Spring Bristol for sure. I can promise you that.”

Kyle Busch has “musical” answers to racing questions

Asked why simulations haven’t helped him master the short-track package on the Next Gen Cup car, Kyle Busch provided an answer more than vaguely reminiscent of a song recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, titled “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

“I would say ‘There’s nothing like the real thing,’” Busch said. “There’s nothing like the ‘asphalt dyno,’ as my dad would always say—going to the racetrack with your stuff and competing against the rest of the competitors to see where your shortcomings are.”

When it comes to racing at Bristol since the advent of NASCAR Next Gen Cup car, the converse of another song title comes to mind. Diamonds have not been a man’s best friend, as far as Busch is concerned.

Although Busch has eight victories on the Bristol concrete, most among active drivers, his two finishes in the Next Gen car are 34th (with an engine failure) and 20th, two laps down.

“I’d always run this place more round… like I would always try to make it as much of a circle as I possibly could, and now you kind of run this place in a diamond,” Busch said. “You go up to the wall. You try to come off the wall. You come up the wall, you know what I mean? So it’s more diamond-shaped.

“It’s definitely a different way of running it. That seems to be a little bit more of the faster way this day in age. It’s a different technique to get used to, but that’s not to say that I can’t do it. It’s just a matter of sometimes you can’t out-race your own equipment, and you’ve got to go and get what you can get out of it, but nothing more.”

Kevin Harvick’s successor hopes to improve on a rough start

Sunoco rookie Josh Berry knew the transition from the NASCAR Xfinity Series to Cup racing wasn’t going to be easy, especially since he is following 60-time winner Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

A combination of bad luck and self-inflicted wounds has relegated Berry to 31st in the standings though four races. His best result of 20th came at Las Vegas, where he finished on the lead lap for the only time this season.

“It’s been a little bit disappointing,” Berry acknowledged on Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Even when I started this going back to last summer, people asked me all the time what my expectations were, and I always said that I expected it to be hard—and it is hard.

“Cup racing is hard. So with that side of it, I think each race, we’ve had little-ish different things happen that maybe hurt our finish or not.”

Back-to-back pit road speeding penalties at Atlanta definitely were a setback, as was a spin during qualifying at Phoenix.

“I made a couple of mistakes over the last few weeks,” Berry said. “Spinning out in qualifying at Phoenix put us really far behind all these guys. All week, all they talk about is how you can’t pass.

“I mean, having a mistake like that puts you really far behind and makes your day look worse than it really is, so, for me, it’s just hopefully getting some of these mistakes out of the way early on and start qualifying a little bit better, and I think we’ll be fine.”

— NASCAR Wire Service —