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Saturday Michigan Notebook

Mix-up in code words causes Christopher Bell’s race to go haywire

BROOKLYN, Mich. – Because events at Michigan International Speedway often boil down to fuel mileage and strategic calls, crew chief Jason Ratcliff developed a code for driver Christopher Bell.

In Saturday’s LTI Printing 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race, the plan was for Ratcliff to communicate the code words to Bell over the radio, indicating whether Bell was to bring his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to pit road or stay on the track.

Bell wrote the code on his wristband. Only one problem: he and Ratcliff didn’t have a clear understanding of what the code was supposed to be. So when Ratcliff wanted Bell top pit under caution on Lap 78 of 125, he used the phrase, “Don’t slide the tires.”

Bell took that to mean “Don’t pit” and stayed on the track. That snafu proved costly, as Bell didn’t have enough fuel to finish the race without another pit stop. Cole Custer, who was told to do exactly what Bell did, was collateral damage, as he, too, had to make a late-pit stop for fuel.

Tyler Reddick, on the other hand, came to pit road for a splash of gas on Lap 78, saved fuel over the ensuing 44-lap green-flag run and won the race.

“This is a track where you can actually play some strategy,” Ratcliff explained. “We don’t go to many tracks that you can do that. I felt like last week (Pocono) was one, and I feel like Michigan is one where you can mix it up a little bit. Everywhere else we go is kind of straightforward. We talked about, ‘If I tell you this, then it means to pit now.’

“Just some code words, and it’s really simple actually. It’s first-grade stuff, and somehow we mixed it up. He did exactly what his wristband said on it. Unfortunately, it was poor execution on my part in communicating what to put on the wristband. I think we had a good performance today after a little bit of a struggle last week in Pocono. I felt like our car had speed, so we’ll just build in that and go on to Iowa.”

In Bell’s view, the car had speed, but not enough to beat Custer, had they been able to go head-to-head for the win. Bell seemed to find some consolation in that.

“It was just a miscommunication,” Bell said of the misunderstanding. “My definition was a little different than what Jason had planned. Ultimately, that was a big hiccup in our day. The 00 (Custer) blew our doors off, so we just have to get faster.

“That’s our biggest thing, and for whatever reason on the bigger tracks right now, I don’t have the speed that the 00 has. We just have to keep working hard and get our Rheem Supra to be a little bit faster, and it will be easy to clean up the miscommunication there.”

Bell finished 13th on Saturday, one spot behind Custer.

GREG BIFFLE CAN’T RUN FOR THE MONEY AT IOWA ANYWAY

After Friday night’s NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway, veteran driver Greg Biffle got a briefcase containing $50,000 in cash as the Triple Truck Challenge bonus for winning in what was to be a one-off appearance for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Almost immediately, there was speculation that Biffle might try to compound the bonus with appearances in the final two Triple Truck Challenge races at Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis.

That would have required owner Kyle Busch to field a fifth truck on short notice, but as it turns out, Biffle is ineligible to run for the extra cash at Iowa, having already missed the June 4 deadline on the entry blank for Iowa.

Biffle could still run the race, just not for the bonus money. He still has time to enter at WWT Raceway, should Busch decide to field a truck for him, and could run for the bonus for winning two out of the three races—which would amount to a total of $150,000.

A total of $500,000 was available to any driver who could win all three races, but with Biffle ineligible at Iowa, the big prize is off the table.

KURT BUSCH OPTIMISTIC AFTER IMPROVED QUALIFYING PERFORMANCE

Saturday’s seventh-place qualifying effort at Michigan International Speedway wasn’t Kurt Busch’s best of the season, but it was clearly a step in the right direction.

Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was the fastest of that manufacturer, and, in a 2019 season where Busch has averaged a starting position of 16.9, it was second only to his second-place qualifying spot at Richmond in April.

Busch had topped 187 mph in the draft both of Friday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practices, and his 186.577 mpg lap in time trials, with no drafting partner, was consistent with the practice speeds.

“I was happy we backed up our lap from yesterday over to today,” Busch said after the time trials. “We’ve been a little off on qualifying, and it was nice to build that consistency (with) the qualifying setups. This was very similar to our Kansas run (ninth), and we were able to polish up on that.

“That was about all we were going to get. I’m happy we were top 10 with our Chevy, because we still have to leave enough in it for our race-trim balance with the impound procedure. There are times where you want to be the pole, and there are times where you just want to have that nice, consistent run. I’m happy with where we are.”

The Firekeepers Casino 400 at the 2-mile track is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

— NASCAR Wire Service —