Bell seeking 3rd-straight Xfinity win

AP PHOTO - Christopher Bell walks through the garage area before practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race Friday at Iowa Speedway in Newton.

NEWTON — Christopher Bell has been one of NASCAR’s rising young stars for the past few years.

Over the past few weeks, Bell and the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 car have been so hot that he is close to joining some pretty select company.

Bell, a 23-year-old Oklahoma native and an Xfinity Series rookie, heads into Saturday night’s race at Iowa Speedway seeking to become the first series regular with a three-race winning streak since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999. Kyle Busch did it four times between 2008 and 2016 but he was also running full-time in the Cup Series — something Bell might be doing sooner rather than later if he keeps winning like he has.

“It would definitely be something special,” Bell said of the chance to win three straight. “To be able to get two in a row at Kentucky and Loudon, which are race tracks that are extremely different, is something that I’m proud of for our team … and we’ve got a good shot at it. We’ve been really fast here at Iowa.”

In less than three years, Bell has grown from largely an unknown driver to one in serious pursuit of both a second straight NASCAR championship — he won a Trucks title last year driving for Busch — and a shot at a ride at the sport’s highest level.

Bell got something of a late start to NASCAR, at least compared to some of his fellow drivers who were in a stock car before they even graduated high school.

Bell ran a pair of K&N races and seven Trucks events in 2015, winning for the first time on the dirt at Eldora. Bell showed enough promise to land a full-time truck ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016, winning just once but finishing in the top 10 in 19 of 23 events.

Last season was the first of consecutive breakout seasons for Bell. He won five times and finished in the top five 15 times, and he clinched the championship by finishing second at Homestead.

Bell moved up yet again in 2018, landing a 23-race Xfinity deal with JGR after running just eight times in the series — including a win at Kansas in 2017.

“The whole key has been driving great race cars and race trucks. Toyota … has created an awesome foundation and an awesome driver development program, and one thing they’ve done really well with me is keep putting me in the best equipment,” Bell said. “You’re only as good as your race car, so I’m thankful that I have really fast race cars.”

Bell hasn’t seemed to need any time to get acclimated. He won the pole in three of the first four races this year and took first at Richmond in late April.

But it has been Bell’s most recent performances that have raised eyebrows across NASCAR.

Bell beat Busch at Kentucky two races ago even though Busch led 111 of 200 laps. Last week, Bell held off Brad Keselowski, leading 92 laps for the win at New Hampshire. Bell also finished second at Iowa to Justin Allgaier last month and third in Chicago on July 6, and he’ll undoubtedly be the favorite on Saturday.

Bell won’t have any Cup drivers to beat this week either, given that it’s a rare stand-alone race.

“Christopher has been great here this past month, for sure,” Allgaier said. “Not that he hasn’t been great before that, but (he’s) really come on strong this past month.”