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Ditching wets proves no slick move for Bell, but Stevens stands by it

Crew chief Adam Stevens had no second thoughts about the decision to pit Christopher Bell for slick tires late Sunday in Chicago, which took his driver from the lead to mid-pack.

Bell pitted for the final time on lap 43, which was two laps before the end of the second stage. The decision was made to put slick (dry) tires on the No. 20 Toyota Camry, thinking they would prevail over the wet weather tires some other teams elected for. It might have been the winning call for Bell to drive back to the front, but Stevens didn’t plan to be hit off Turn 2 by their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr.

The contact came on lap 55 when there were less than two minutes and 30 seconds left in the event. Bell went from battling for the fifth position to a 37th-place finish with a wrecked race car.

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“We felt like the track was drying at a pretty high rate and with a known caution coming of the stage [break] that after the stage you’d want slicks,” Stevens said. “So, with a caution coming, we had to jump it because everyone could come at the stage [break], and you’d be behind them all. And we saw a bunch of them pit with three [laps] to go, and that kind of forced our hand with two to go being the leader.

“We really felt like you were going to have to have slicks to win the race. The two things that hurt us were that caution that cut down green flag laps for us to run and obviously, if the whole race runs under caution, which was a possibility, then you’re not going to win. If it runs green, we’re probably going to win. Even if we got through that little skirmish there without wrecking our suspension, we were early ahead of the 45 (Tyler Reddick) and the 54 (Ty Gibbs). So, we needed two things to go wrong to not win — and they both went wrong.”

The final caution that ate up the clock occurred with 11 minutes and 26 seconds left in the race. There were four and a half minutes left in the race when it restarted for the final time. Bell was ninth at the restart and had made it to the top five when the race-ending collision happened.

Truex came through Turn 2 wide and appeared out of shape around the time there might have been contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It moved Truex to the right, where he hit the driver’s side door or Bell’s car, sending his teammate toward the wall nose-first. Bells’ car hit the wall and was also struck by an on-coming Carson Hocevar.

“If we stay [out], maybe 12 or 13 cars don’t stay … maybe it’s only five cars and then we’re toast,” Stevens said. “Absolute toast. So, you don’t know how it would have happened if we stayed [out]. But if it happened the way that it happened, we probably would have won.

“Unless we didn’t get that caution. Then we’d have been in the reverse situation that we were almost in. I felt like we played it the best we could, and we just made contact there.”

Bell led 14 laps. For the second consecutive year in Chicago, he was in a position to win the race before a late-race development. A year ago, Bell was leading and shortly after making his final pit stop, NASCAR announced the race would be cut short because of darkness. The timing of when NASCAR made the call changed the pit strategy, allowing others to stay out longer (having pitted before Bell) and flip the leaderboard.

“This one stings in a different way because there wasn’t anything else we could do,” Stevens said. “It just came down to circumstance. The last one was completely avoidable, just like the situation we had tonight. So, this one stings in a different way, but they sting just as much.”

Bell declined interviews after the race.

Story originally appeared on Racer