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NASCAR: Christopher Bell wins to keep Toyota perfect at Chili Bowl

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports / AP)   —    The sound of race car engines broke the winter silence at Daytona International Speedway in Florida last weekend as teams practiced for the Rolex 24 sports car race scheduled for Jan. 27-28.

Big noise in Daytona Beach is the first major sign that the very short off-season for major league auto racing is nearing its end. After IMSA’s 24-hour sports car marathon on the Daytona road course, attention will shift to NASCAR and the run-up to the Feb. 18 Daytona 500, the first — and most important — race of the stock-car season.

When the NASCAR circus reconvenes along the Atlantic shore next month, the calendar won’t be the only significant change. In many ways, it will be a new NASCAR. Five updates as the series gets set to embark on a new season of Cup racing.

PENSKE: Returns to Rolex 24 with its own version of star cars

NASCAR: Announces start times, TV networks for 2018 Cup season

YOUNG DRIVERS: Have big shoes to fill replacing retiring legends

SEASON KICKOFF: Driver field set for 2018 Clash at Daytona

Richard times two

In a key offseason team change, Richard Petty Motorsports switched from Ford to Chevrolet and joined forces with long-time Chevy team owner Richard Childress. Petty’s team, with new driver Darrell Wallace Jr., will race out of space leased from Childress at the Richard Childress Racing shop in Welcome, N.C.

This makes for an unusual pairing. Childress and Petty have been competitors — once upon a time as drivers — for decades, and their long friendship will now evolve into a partnership of sorts as Petty returns to Chevrolet.

Both Richards are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Petty, who earned seven championships, tied for the series high, riding in with the first class in 2010 and Childress, who won six Cup Series championships with driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. (who has seven overall), joining in 2017.


TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Christopher Bell used the Chili Bowl a year ago to open the biggest season of his career.

He’s got a chance now to defend his victory, and perhaps launch yet another breakthrough for one of NASCAR’s upcoming stars.

Bell scored a dominating win in Thursday night’s qualifying event at the Chili Bowl to earn one of the automatic berths into the main event at the Tulsa Expo Center. The 55-lap Saturday night feature is the Super Bowl of midget racing.

Some 11 hours before his victory, Bell posted on Twitter: “The most nervous day of the year has arrived,” regarding his qualifying chance at the Chili Bowl. Bell’s win last year was the first of the season in which he went on to win five races and the championship in NASCAR’s Truck Series. He also won a race in the Xfinity Series, and earned a promotion to Joe Gibbs Racing for a full-time ride in NASCAR this year.

Bell kept Toyota undefeated so far at the Chili Bowl. The manufacturer has won all three preliminary night races, and the Race of Champions.

There are 24 spots in Saturday night’s main event, and openings have so far been claimed by Kyle Larson (Tuesday night winner), Rico Abreu (Wednesday night winner) and Bell. Also advancing by earning podium finishes were Brad Sweet, Tyler Courtney, Tyler Thomas and Kevin Thomas Jr.

Shane Golobic and Chase Johnson finished second and third behind Bell on Thursday night to lock into the feature.

The Chili Bowl features more than 350 entries racing to make Saturday night’s feature. Among those scheduled to compete for slots in Friday night heats are Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe.


FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Chase Elliott took the new Chevrolet Camaro for its inaugural NASCAR Cup laps on Tuesday and Martin Truex Jr. climbed into his Toyota for the first time since becoming series champion. Soon-to-be clean-shaven Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola, both with new teams, ran laps at Texas Motor Speedway in their Fords.

A month before every driver will be at Daytona for the start of the new season, the four drivers took part in the first test of 2018 as a two-day Goodyear tire test began on the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track in Texas.

The highlight was Elliott getting in the Camaro ZL1, though it was hard for him to judge how much different Chevy’s new Cup entry will be when driving laps alone.

“I have a hard time feeling much of anything I’m going so fast,” Elliott said. “But, the car looks great. From the public eyes standpoint, I don’t know how you could not identify the Camaro with the Camaro on the street. It looks the same. I think that is something to be very proud of from Chevrolet. … Job well done from that standpoint.”

The Chevy Camaro has only two Cup Series victories to its credit, both by Tiny Lund in 1971. More recently, the Camaro SS has been Chevrolet’s entry in the Xfinity Series since 2013.

Along with a new car, Elliott sported a new number. After following four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the No. 24, Hendrick Motorsport this year is putting the 22-year-old Elliott in No. 9 — the car number of his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.

“Is it my favorite number? Yes, it is. Has it always been my favorite number? Yes, it has been,” Elliott said.

Elliott was sporting a Georgia cap a day after being at the College Football Playoff championship game where his beloved Bulldogs lost to Alabama in overtime. He said the game “was fun for a little while.”

Truex said he had a lot fewer off days this offseason than usual after becoming a first-time champion, but said it has been a lot of fun celebrating the championship by visiting different places and different people. The testing provided the first chance for the Furniture Row Racing driver to wear his firesuit that now has a champion’s logo .

“I feel the same now as I did at the first time I got in the car last year,” Truex said. “We’re all at zero points again right now. The goal remains the same, and the pressure is still going to be there, but definitely optimistic and feel like we’re in a good place and hopefully we can be competitive for years to come.”

Blaney, now driving the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske after making the playoff chase last year with the one-car Wood Brothers organization, planned Wednesday to have lunch with fans who attend the second day of the test. The speedway was providing the pizza.

It will be the last chance for fans to see Blaney with his throwback mustache and long hair. He has an appointment Friday to get the mustache shaved and his hair cut.

“That will definitely let me know that the season is about here and you’ve got to start looking like a professional,” he said. “It will be a lot less work. … It’s almost gotten too much for me.”

After the past six Cup seasons at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola moves over to Stewart-Haas Racing and replaces Danica Patrick in the No. 10 Ford .

“I haven’t really put much thought about getting in the 10 car and it being somebody else’s car,” Almirola said. “I drove the sport’s most iconic car for the last six years, so if you want to talk about it from that aspect, there’s been more pressure driving that Petty blue 43 car than I think I’ll ever have driving a black-and-white 10 car.”


More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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