ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — Christopher Bell knows he must master the art of road course racing to make the jump to the next level of NASCAR, even if it might never be his favorite kind of track.
Bell took a big step in that direction on Saturday, surging ahead on a late restart to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America — the first of his career on a road course.
Does that change anything in terms of his relationship to road racing, a source of frustration in the past?
"Not really," Bell said. "It's not my favorite style of racing, just because I just had a really, really bad experience last year."
Austin Cindric finished second at the 4.048-mile road course in central Wisconsin, followed by Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Kaz Grala.
The last two laps were shaping up as a showdown between Bell and veteran road-course ace AJ Allmendinger. But Allmendinger spun his tires on the restart, then briefly couldn't get his car into gear. From there, he went off course twice and finished 24th.
"On the final restart, I knew my only chance was to hopefully catch him on the restart, be side-by-side with him down in the corner and try to get by him," Allmendinger said. "They had such a good launch — he hit the throttle and I just spun the tires. And when I spun the tires, I kind of went into panic mode knowing that he was already gone, and (Reddick) got by me."
Cindric was on an alternate pit strategy from most of the field at the end of the race and nearly charged all the way up to challenge Bell for the win. After making a late pit stop, he fell back to 20th — but on new tires, he sliced through the field to finish second.
"We needed one more lap at least," Cindric said. "I knew it was going to be hairy to have just two to go."
It was the sixth win of the season for Bell. And, he expects more to come.
"I think we're capable of winning every time we go to the racetrack," Bell said.
New fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto was poised for a potential top-five finish after leading 18 laps earlier in the race. But he crashed on the final lap and finished 27th.
"Just being stupid on my part," DiBenedetto said. "I was looking in my mirror and got too high and just barely got up in the marbles and made the most rookie mistake of my life. It was dumb."
Earlier this month, DiBenedetto posted on social media that his Cup Series team, Leavine Family Racing, informed him that they would not be bringing him back as a driver next season. Bell is widely expected to replace him in that ride next season.
Then DiBenedetto went out and nearly won the Cup race at Bristol, earning the kind of roar from the crowd after the checkered flag typically reserved for more well-known drivers. On Saturday, he blew a chance to continue his momentum.
"We had the fastest car on track," DiBenedetto said. "Nothing to show for it."
With Saturday's second-place finish at Road America, Cindric continued to show he's one of the series' best road courses racers. Earlier this month, he won at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.
"We had two firsts and a second. I'll take it," Cindric said. "But yeah, I want to be able to do that the rest of the year. That's the plan."
NO DAY AT THE BEACH
It was a rough start to the day for defending race winner Justin Allgaier, who went off the course on lap 10 and got caught in a sand trap — a common feature on road courses designed to slow cars down when they lose control.
Track workers eventually freed his car. With a flat tire and suspension damage, he eventually rejoined the race in 37th place. He then climbed through the field to finish ninth.
"This team worked so hard," Allgaier said. "They worked their guts out on our road course program, and they do a great job. To not get the finish that we deserved today is disappointing."
Allgaier can take away one positive from the weekend, confirming that he will be back with JR Motorsports next season: "This has been done the majority of the summer. We just never put out a formal announcement."
Darlington Raceway, Aug. 31.