In one of the most thrilling NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races of the season, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell rallied from a frustrating race start to lead the final 16 laps of Sunday’s 4EVER 400 presented by Mobil 1 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to earn a second straight appearance into the Championship 4.
Bell, who only made his first appearance inside the top five on track with less than 50 laps remaining, got around a pair of the day’s front runners in the final laps to blaze to the lead in the No. 20 JGR Toyota and claim that automatic championship admission ticket. It’s the 28-year-old Oklahoma native’s second win of the season – sixth of his career – and the first of the season’s eight Playoff races to date.
Last year Bell famously pulled off a “walk off” victory in the regular season finale at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway to claim his first NASCAR Cup Series championship bid, ultimately finishing third in the title run. His win Sunday had that same “rally” feel and he now joins last week’s winner, Kyle Larson as the only two Playoff drivers set for the title run with one race remaining to decide the other two.
Bell led fellow Playoff driver, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney to the Homestead checkered flag by a 1.651-seconds – just ahead of Playoff drivers, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick and Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron. Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger rounded out the top five.
“I’ve got the best team behind me, honestly I don’t know [how we did it], that race was a whirlwind,’’ Bell said. “I was about ready to throw the towel in during that second stage, I got really frustrated. But [crew chief] Adam Stevens kept after it and gave me what I needed. Whenever we got some clean air this thing was really good.
“I cannot say how proud I am to be here with our partners, driving these Toyota Camrys. Thank you to everyone who supported me. This is better than a dream come true.’’
Although disappointed to not secure the win after leading 53 laps, Blaney said, “We were trying, we just needed laps.
“The long run car was really good. I just couldn’t fire off for 10 laps or so. I think the track cooling off [during the red flag] helped those guys. I think we were better in the hotter, sliker conditions when “fire off” speed didn’t matter as much and it fell off quicker. That played into our benefit.
“We ran out of laps a little bit,’’ he added. “I am proud of the effort. It was a really good day, we just got beat a little bit there at the end.’’
It was certainly the cap to a thrilling final 40 laps of competition to cap off the sunny South Florida afternoon.
In a matter of five minutes during those closing laps, Bell took the race lead and two of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also in the Playoffs – Denny Hamlin and regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. – fell out the race with major problems. Hamlin’s No. 11 JGR Toyota slammed into the Turn 1 wall. And as the field slowed for that caution period, Truex turned down pit road and told the team his car “might be blowing up.’’
As Hamlin sat on pit wall, disappointed and speaking with his crew, Truex turned the engine off and the crew pushed his No. 19 JGR Toyota it into the garage. Both Playoff drivers were done for the day and dropping below the crucial top-four threshold that will advance to the Nov. 5 Championship 4 race in Phoenix. Truex was scored 29th and Hamlin, 30th.
All of it making for an even more intense race at the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway next week that will formally set the four-driver NASCAR Cup Series championship field.
“We tried and it just didn’t work out,’’ an obviously disappointed Hamlin said.
“It shows you how hard our sport is, that’s two cars and we had been up front,’’ JGR team owner Joe Gibbs said. “It also shows you in sports – particularly in ours with that 20-car (Bell) – it shows never to stop fighting.’’
With only that Martinsville race remaining, Byron now sits 30 points ahead of the championship cut-off line with Blaney in fourth place – 10 points up on Reddick. Bell’s JGR teammates Truex and Hamlin are now both 17 points below the Cut-off line.
Among the eight Playoff drivers, Roush Fenway Keselowski’s Chris Buescher – a three-race winner this season – struggled the most, going two laps down midway through the second stage and never cracking the top 20. He’s now in eighth place, 43 points back with a 21st place finish Sunday and will need to win the Martinsville race to advance to his first Championship 4.
One of the more unusual incidents of the entire season – let alone the Playoffs – happened during a green flag pit stop and involved Blaney and Larson – who were running first and second at the time with 53 laps remaining.
As their two cars approached pit road, Blaney slowed significantly, and Larson was still going faster directly behind him. While trying to avoid ramming into the back of Blaney’s Ford, Larson turned his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy to the right and went full-on into the sand-filled protective barriers at pit entrance causing them to explode with sand.
It caused enough damage on Larson’s car that he had to take it into the garage and the team retired it. Blaney was able to finish his pit stop and make his way back on track. He reassumed the lead when the rest of the cars pit following a nearly 13-minute red flag period.
“I need to look at data,’’ said an apologetic Larson, who finished 34th despite leading a race best 96 of the 267 laps. “I knew where the yellow line was but on the replay it looked like I missed it by a lot. So I need to look at data. I knew where the yellow line was and I was under control getting there and then he just slowed down, I locked the brakes, clipped him and hit the barrels.
“I’m upset with myself more than anything. Whether he got to pit road speed sooner than the yellow line or not, I could have just done a little better job.
“I hope they’re able to recover and he can get a good finish or the win and get the finish he (Blaney) deserves. Just a bummer. I thought we had a great car today and just made a mistake.’’
23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace, Joe Gibbs Racing’s rookie Ty Gibbs, Team Penske’s Joey Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola and Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon rounded out the top 10.
The NASCAR Cup Series moves to the famed Martinsville (Va.) Speedway half-miler for next Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) to close out this round of competition and formalize the Championship 4 competitors for the Nov. 5 Phoenix season finale. Bell won last year’s Martinsville Playoff race. Larson won the Spring race this year.
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