RACING

Christopher Bell crushes NASCAR playoff terrain with win at New Hampshire

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LOUDON, NH — Christopher Bell’s crew chief tried to give him a little coaching — some encouragement with about 40 laps to go in the race and a win and a playoff berth on the line — and he was quickly says, well, basically shut up.

“He told me he had everything under control,” said team manager Adam Stevens with a laugh, “and he clearly did.”

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Bell later explained that there were so many laps left in the race that he didn’t need to remember how far the #20 Toyota had to go to reach the finish line.

Moreover, Bell already knew the way to reach Victory Lane on his favorite track.

Bell crushed the NASCAR playoffs – and tightened the pressure on the remaining winless drivers – by winning Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to become the 14th Cup Series winner this season.

“That one was really needed,” Bell, 27, said.

Bell has mastered the track where he won Xfinity Series races in 2018, 2019 and 2021 and finished second in the Cup race last year, fending off Chase Elliott – last week’s winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway .

Bell is the 14th driver to earn a spot in the 16-driver playoff pool. With six races remaining in the regular season, that leaves open the possibility that more than 16 drivers could win a race and the final playoff berth(s) would be decided on points.

That’s a worry for another day for Bell.

“This car wasn’t very good when it started racing,” said team owner Joe Gibbs. “It was in the middle of the pack. It was difficult. In the end, they put it in the right direction.”

Bell chased Elliott late and led the final 42 laps for Joe Gibbs Racing. His only other Cup victory came in the second race of the 2021 season in the Daytona road race.

Elliott was second for Hendrick Motorsports and Bubba Wallace was third for 23XI Racing. Martin Truex Jr. dominated early and finished fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

“We had no idea what we were running there at the end,” Wallace said. “I knew it was top five. But just the tire management at the end, and we were able to capitalize. Just proud of everyone. Happy. It’s been hell for me the last month, so good to go out with a top 5.”

Elliott, who had led 13 laps in total when he was caught by Bell, finished first or second for the fourth race in a row.

“We were in a position where guys at that level should really close a run if you have a head like that,” Elliott said. “Just a bad effort on my part.”

Bell led JGR to its fourth victory this season and 12th at New Hampshire.

Bell was one of those drivers who should have been worried about his playoff chances for the rest of the summer season. He entered the race in 16th place in the points standings – 19 above the cut line. Bell notched five straight top-10 finishes in May and June before hitting a recent setback with only one better than 18th in his last four.

“If your race car is fast and you have a first place car, it’s pretty easy to get to first place as long as you do your job,” Bell said. “I had a race car in first place at the end of that race. Basically in stage three my car was the fastest, especially in the long run. I did my job to maximize that.’ ‘

JGR, which supplies pit crews to 23XI Racing, swapped team members earlier this month with Wallace’s crew.

Bell’s biggest concern on Sunday was trying to manage the 21-pound lobster awarded to the winner.

“Earlier in the year, I felt like we were on the verge of winning,” Bell said. “Over the past two weeks I thought we were pretty far. Now we are there today.”

Bell has yet to work on expanding his New England fan club. He gave his Xfinity checkered flag last season to the only young boy he saw in the stands wearing a Bell t-shirt. Ahead of Sunday’s race, Bell promised a child wearing his shirt at a pre-race event hosted by his sponsor that he would give him the checkered flag with a win.

“And I did,” he said.

FADE TRUEX

Truex won the first two stages and led 172 laps before fainting after a poor pit stop and finishing fourth. Truex dominated early from the pole and looked set to break a season-long winless drought. Without a win, Truex is on the playoff bubble. Ryan Blaney is third in the points standings and Truex fourth, but both could possibly miss the playoffs without a win. This is the third time in 20 years (2002, 2003, 2011) that there have been 14 winners in the first 20 races.

PAINT TRADE

Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon used their cars as rams under a mid-race warning. Dillon hit Keselowski in the door on the back right. Keselowski fought back and hit Dillon on the passenger side of the car and knocked him off the track.

“We’ve been there a few times over the past two years. I hit it really hard once,” Dillon said. “I just don’t like the way some people are racing me.”

NEXT

The NASCAR’s Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway for its only stop of the year. The track has long held two Cup races each year and Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch won the races on a double weekend last year.

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