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

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN - JUNE 08: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/RTP Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250 at Michigan International Speedway on June 08, 2019 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

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 Engle