We're used to seeing the Kyle Busch Motorsports' #54 out in front in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, dominating races on its way to victory lane, but usually when it's doing that sort of thing the truck is in the hands of its eponymous owner-driver and not a 20-year-old series rookie like Christopher Bell making just his third start for the team on Wednesday night.
CLICK: Full race results from Eldora Speedway.
Admittedly, Bell - who had made an auspicious start in the championship with fifth place at Iowa Speedway last month - had the advantage of considerable recent experience in sprint-car dirt track racing unlike the rest of the Truck Series field, many of whom might have started their racing careers at circuits like Eldora Speedway owned and operated by Former Cup champion Tony Stewart, but for whom the 1-800-CAR-CASH Mudsummer Classic is now the only race of its kind in any of NASCAR's three national-level competitions. However it's the first time Bell has ever run a NASCAR-spec truck on a dirt track so in many ways it was one foot forward, two steps back in terms of his having the upper hand and certainly wasn't as clear-cut as this Bell simply being a 'ringer'.
The clear-headedness and composure of the Oklahoma-born racer on the half-mile clay surface track was indeed remarkable as he took control of the race from teenage dirt late model ace Bobby Pierce just 43 laps into the 154-lap race. Bell then managed to maintain control of the proceedings for all but seven laps during the rest of the night and eventually notched up a race-high 106 laps in the lead, despite a record number of 13 cautions any one of which could have handed his rivals the opportunity to gain advantage and get around him.
"It's just unbelievable," said Bell as he celebrated with the KBM team. "I've been coming here quite a few times and if you would have told me two years ago that my first win at Eldora was going to be in a truck, I would have told you you're crazy. This is just fantastic. I'm just thrilled to be here.
"It's awesome what NASCAR has done, getting to be able to come here to Eldora," he added. "I'd like to see a couple more dirt tracks on the schedule!"
Bell had started the race from the second row of the grid, after a qualifying format that was as unique to the series as the surface on which they were racing this week. Given the cramped nature of the compact circuit, the two-stage process started with individual time trials wherein each driver completed two laps. That set the starting line-ups for each of the five qualifying heat races consisting of ten green flag laps apiece, with the top five from each heat transferring to the main race. Those that hadn't made into the race were pitched into a 'last chance' heat fighting over the top two remaining positions in the main race while the remaining grid positions were then determined according to owner points.
Bobby Pierce had topped the time trial stage in his maiden appearance in the Camping World Truck Series with a two-lap time of 20.716s (86.889mph) putting him half a second ahead of veteran driver Johnny Sauter in the ThorSport Racing #98. Also finishing in the top five in the initial time trials - and therefore starting on pole for their respective heat races - were Ray Black Jr. (SS-Green Light Racing), Cameron Hayley (ThorSport Racing) and John Wes Townley (Athenian Motorsports).
Pierce duly won his heat race by half a second from Tyler Young (Young's Motorsports) to seal MB Motorsports' first-ever series pole position for the race itself, while John H Nemechek (SWM-NEMCO Motorsports) turned the tables on Sauter to win the second heat by 0.422s. After spinning on lap 3, Black only just scrapped through his heat which was won by veteran owner-driver Ken Schrader who had 0.351s in hand over Timothy Peters (Red Horse Racing), while Bell comfortably overcame Hayley by 1.479s in the fourth heat. In the last of the regular heat races, Brad Keselowski Racing's Tyler Reddick won by two seconds from Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon despite hitting the wall on the second lap out, and then in the 'last chance' race it was Cody Erickson and Ben Kennedy (Red Horse Racing) who clinched the final transfer spots. Wendell Chavous (Premium Motorsports), Jennifer Cobb (Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing), Travis Kvapil (MAKE Motorsports), Stewart Hayward (Mike Harmon Racing) and Jody Knowles (Mark Beaver Racing) made the grid based on owner points, leaving Jake Griffin (Mike Affarano Motorsports) on the sidelines as the sole DNQ along with Madeline Crane who had opted not to take part in the 'last chance' race after spinning out in her earlier heat.
The race itself then got underway at 9pm local time and consisted of a total of 150 laps (75 miles) split into three segments of 60, 50 and 40 laps respectively, the action punctuated by pre-planned competition cautions for fuel and tyres. Pierce initially staved off a spirited challenge from Nemechek to hold the lead for the first six laps but then Dillon broke free of his own duel with Sauter over third place to take control just before the first caution of the night, this one for Korbin Forrister spinning out on lap 7. Pierce managed to get the lead back from Dillon just before Erickson sparked a multi-car wreck on the backstretch on lap 14, which he then kept through two more cautions for further spins by Forrister (lap 25) and Chavous (lap 35) before Bell was able to take charge for the first time at the restart and for the remainder of the initial stint which saw a further spin for Cobb on lap 47 before the first scheduled segment was brought to a slightly early end by GMS Racing's Spencer Gallagher spinning in turn 1 on lap 54.
Sprint Cup regular Brad Keselowski stayed out to assume the lead for the restart but Bell was able to put his fresher tyres to immediate good use to go straight back to the front again after the green flag. Bell continued to lead the race from Pierce and the Dillon brothers through the next debris caution on lap 73 which was for an exhaust pipe on the frontstretch shortly after Sauter had got into the wall in turn 3.
Chris Fontaine (BJ McLeod Motorsports) spun in turn 4 to bring out a new caution on lap 94, and Pierce was able to use the restart to slide past Bell for the lead before the cautions were back out again for John Wes Townley in turn 2. The green flag gave Bell an early chance to turn the tables on Pierce and he duly got his lead back shortly before the race reached the end of the second segment, which this time saw most of the field decide to stay off pit lane rather than surrender track position at this crucial juncture.
Bell, Pierce and the Dillon brothers led the start of the final phase of the race with BKR's Reddick in fifth place. Both of the RCR siblings would fade during the remaining laps allowing Reddick an easy climb to third with Bell's KBM team mate Erik Jones rising to fourth place in front of NTS Motorsports' Daniel Hemric. Austin Dillon clung on to sixth ahead of Nemechek and Hayley with reigning series champion Matt Crafton in ninth in the ThorSport #88 just edging Ty Dillon in tenth.
Pierce tried everything he could think of to get around Bell in the remaining laps, and he wasn't short of chances given that Bell's ability to pull out a commanding lead was then undone by cautions for Cobb and Gallagher in turn 1 on lap 116, Peters in turn 2 on lap 138 and finally Forrister again on the frontstretch on lap 148 to set up a green-white-chequered overtime finish. However Pierce showed his truck inexperience by spinning his tyres at the restarts which took some of the pressure of Bell. With no one else in the field able to apply any pressure on the lead pair, the only surprise when the chequered flag finally came out was that it was no surprise at all to see it claimed by Bell in what was a back-to-back Eldora win for KBM.
"I didn't want to be the guy in second," Pierce admitted. "I was hoping I could get him back on that last run, but Bell did a great job."
"I'll tell you that's pretty awesome that Bobby and I could come here and run 1-2," said Bell, who only learned he would be taking part in this race two weeks ago after KBM parted company with former driver Justin Boston. "I never heard of [Bobby] until I was at a sprint car race last year and he was running his late model. It's pretty cool that a couple of dirt guys could run 1-2 at a dirt race track."
It's not clear whether Bell will have any further outings with the team again this year. He has already made a name for himself in sprint-cars and won Saturday night's Kings Royal - one of the biggest sprint-car races of the season - despite suffering a flat tyre six laps from the finish.
"I was going to race for a living," Bell said when asked about his future plans. "I would just adjust my lifestyle to whatever my income allowed me to run. ... I never would have dreamed that I would be making NASCAR starts."
As for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regulars, there are no changes among the top five in the championship standings following Eldora although Matt Crafton's lead over Tyler Reddick has been trimmed back to 14 points followed by Erik Jones, Johnny Sauter and John Wes Townley, while Cameron Hayley and Daniel Hemric move ahead of Timothy Peters who drops to eighth place.
The series will be back in action in eight days time at the 'Tricky Triangle' with the Pocono Mountains 150 on the evening of Friday, August 1.
See full times and results from Eldora Speedway, plus the latest Camping World Truck Series championship standings.
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