Rookie Christopher Bell, who drives the No. 95 Rheem-Watts Toyota, is looking forward to making his first NASCAR Cup Series visit to New Hampshire this weekend, and for good reason.
With seven races left in the regular season, the 25-year-old Bell will aim to replicate his past success on the track in a bid to qualify for the postseason. In his appearances at NHMS in 2018 and 2019, he won the Xfinity Series race, and in 2017, he won the Gander Outdoor Truck Series event.
“New Hampshire’s one of my best racetracks that we go to on the schedule, for whatever reason,” Bell said on a Zoom call with media Thursday. “I had a lot of seat time before I started going there in the NASCAR series, and it’s just been a great racetrack for me.”
Despite Bell’s experience at NHMS, Sunday will be different on and off the track, and not just because he’s still gaining familiarity with his Cup Series car. On a quieter weekend at Loudon, where there will be no Xfinity Series race before the rescheduled Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 runs Sunday, there also will be no practice or qualifying races, as has been the case for Cup races since the sport returned in May.
To racer-turned-NBC-analyst Jeff Burton, who is tied for most Cup wins at New Hampshire with four, Sunday’s race is “the only normal race” left on the schedule. Two races are scheduled in Michigan and two in Delaware, and the tour has two stops at Daytona (one on a road course), where Burton says “anything can happen.”
“Can Kyle Busch get it going? Can Jimmie Johnson get it going? We’ve got a lot of young drivers that are trying to get themselves into the playoffs,” Burton said. “That battle for the playoffs is going to be intense, and that makes every individual race better.”
Ten drivers have clinched playoff spots, leaving six up for grabs. Bell is 23rd in the standings, and starts Sunday’s race 35th out of 38 cars.
Harvick, who is coming off two consecutive wins at New Hampshire, could break Burton’s record with a fifth career victory Sunday. He leads the Cup Series standings and has four wins and 12 top-five finishes.
“I have a lot of respect for what Kevin does, in the race car, out of the race car,” Burton said. “He’s become a real leader in the sport, and I know how hard he works. I know the intensity he brings, so if someone’s going to break your records, you want it to be somebody like that.”
Joining Bell among notable young racers at NHMS is 22-year-old rookie Cole Custer, who has a win and four top-10 finishes this season and is one of the 10 drivers already qualified for the playoffs. He saw success in three previous appearances at New Hampshire in the Xfinity Series, collecting a pole award, a runner-up finish, and a top-10 placement.
In the past four races, Ryan Preece has finished 34th or worse, and did not finish after a wreck at Kansas Speedway last week with 85 laps remaining. The Berlin, Conn., native will return to his home region hoping for a better performance.
“Back in 2007, I wrecked quite a few race cars early on in my career,” he said. “I remember sitting in the infield and watching the race finish. Having to sit there the entire time, that’s the worst feeling for a racer like myself.
“I don’t want to feel that feeling anymore. I want to finish these races, and I want to run good. I think New Hampshire would be a great place to start that momentum.”
Fans will be allowed into NHMS, per an order from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu that gave the speedway the go-ahead to operate at 35 percent capacity. In June, David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of NHMS, expected 19,000 people to attend. Before the pandemic, 12,000 tickets had been sold for the only NASCAR Cup Series race in New England.
New Hampshire does not have a statewide mask ordinance, but all in attendance at NHMS must wear facemasks while in common areas, including gates, restrooms, concession stands, elevators, and concourses, but the masks can be removed when in assigned seats. Ticketing is entirely electronic.
Pandemic-related protocols are also in effect for drivers, who are not allowed to dine indoors at area restaurants under the state’s travel orders. Travel for NASCAR personnel will be restricted to the track and their hotel.
“It’s pretty much fly in, race, fly out anyway, but they’re being extra cautious this week,” Bell said. “I’m just proud of NASCAR for stepping up and allowing us to participate under unforeseen circumstances. They do a really good job of making sure that everyone in the industry is staying safe.”
Burton, who credited part of his success at Loudon to his experiences at and around the speedway, will miss being able to interact with the New England racing community.
“I’ve always liked the racetrack, from the very first time I raced there,” Burton said. “The people have always been so nice and so welcoming. When [the late Bob Bahre] and his family opened the racetrack, when you came there, you were really treated like a visitor and a guest. I was always relaxed there.”
Foxwoods Resort 301 lineup
(3 p.m., NBCSN)
1. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford
2. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota
3. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet
4. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford
5. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota
6. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford
7. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford
8. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet
9. (22) Joey Logano, Ford
10. (1) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet
11. (19) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota
12. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford
13. (8) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet
14. (41) Cole Custer, Ford
15. (43) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet
16. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet
17. (20) Erik Joned, Toyota
18. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford
19. (21) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford
20. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet
21. (42) Matt Kenseth, Chevrolet
22. (6) Ryan Newman, Ford
23. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet
24. (17) Chris Buescher, Ford
25. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet
26. (53) James Davison, Chevrolet
27. (77) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet
28. (51) Joey Gase, Ford
29. (27) JJ Yeley, Ford
30. (37) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet
31. (47) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet
32. (00) Quin Houff, Chevrolet
33. (32) Corey LaJoie, Ford
34. (15) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet
35. (95) Christopher Bell, Toyota
36. (38) John Hunter Nemechek, Ford
37. (96) Daniel Suarez, Toyota
38. (66) Timmy Hill, Toyota
Jenna Ciccotelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.