Christopher Bell’s win caps Toyota’s stellar weekend at Phoenix Raceway

Christopher Bell does a burnout after his NASCAR Cup Series auto race win at Phoenix Raceway, Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

Christopher Bell does a burnout after his NASCAR Cup Series auto race win at Phoenix Raceway, Sunday, March 10, 2024, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Chevrolet dominated the start of the NASCAR Cup Series by claiming three straight wins, starting with William Byron’s Daytona 500 victory.

As the series shifted to Phoenix Raceway, Toyota found the right gears and turn of the wrenches for a dominating weekend capped by Christopher Bell’s trip to victory lane.

“We have the best notebook to build off of. All of our teammates had moments of being really good,” said Adam Stevens, Bell’s crew chief. “It’s too early to tell if there is some kind of gap to the field. I don’t think that. I don’t feel that. I just think that we hit it better than everybody else did today.”

Toyota unveiled a new Camry body for the 2024 season, and the trip to Phoenix was the first with NASCAR’s new short track aerodynamics package designed to create more passing. The race also featured new tires with thicker treads designed to retain heat and fall off quicker.

Toyota dialed in the changes for a dominating weekend.

It kicked off Friday with 17-year-old William Sawalich winning the rain-shortened ARCA Menards Series race.

On Saturday, Denny Hamlin grabbed the pole for the Cup Series race and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs started next to him on the front row. Toyota had four of the top six spots for Sunday’s race.

Chandler Smith continued Toyota’s roll in Saturday’s Xfinity race, taking advantage of Justin Allgaier’s late crash to take the checkered flag.

Hamlin took advantage of having the first pit stall in Sunday’s Cup race, twice beating the field off pit road into the lead. He ran near the front most of the afternoon before spinning out while trying to overtake Tyler Reddick for the lead with about 100 laps left. Hamlin finished 11th.

Bell made up for his JGR teammate’s misfortune, moving into the lead when Martin Truex Jr. had to pit for tires and fuel. Bell led the final 41 laps and Toyota was up front all but 14 laps of the 312-mile race on Phoenix Raceway’s mile tri-oval. Ty Gibbs finished a career-best third.

“I’m just so pleased with the effort at the race shop, all of our guys,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “Everybody knows how important Phoenix is. So I think there was a great effort. There was a lot of ‘new’ to it, the new package and all that. I couldn’t be happier with the way today went.”

Same for Bell after suffering heartbreak in Phoenix the past two years.

At the season finale in November, Bell was among the final four drivers vying for the NASCAR championship. His hopes of a first title crashed to the pavement with a broken brake rotor that knocked him out early in the race.

Bell and JGR went through a tragedy a year before in Phoenix when team vice chairman and Gibbs’ son Coy died in his sleep hours after watching his son Ty win the Xfinity championship.

Bell had the fastest car all afternoon, overcoming a slow pit stop for his seventh career Cup Series victory — all on different tracks. The win was Toyota’s first at Phoenix Raceway since Truex’s trip to victory lane in 2021.

“You could be the best on paper, but unless you have the talent behind the steering wheel and the team and the pit crews to put an entire race together, the rest is meaningless,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson said. “Certainly, what we’ve seen four races in validates a lot of our optimism, but we have a whole lot of racing to go, more intermediate (tracks), more big tracks and short tracks to truly evaluate where we are.”

Toyota’s teams clearly got the setups right and figured out NASCAR’s short track changes. That could set up the car manufacturer for another big weekend when the Cup Series returns to Phoenix for championship weekend in November.

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