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NASCAR Crash Course: The bell rings in New Hampshire as the No. 20 team now faces the playoffs

NASCAR Crash Course: The bell rings in New Hampshire as the No. 20 team now faces the playoffs

Christopher Bell came to New Hampshire in last place on the NASCAR Cup Series playoff grid. Two consecutive runs outside the top 15 saw Kevin Harvick quickly close in the rearview mirror and 13 race winners this season left Bell’s bubble ready to burst.

What better way to solve that than by becoming a race winner yourself.

The final twist in NASCAR’s 2022 roller coaster season came courtesy of Bell’s No. 20 Toyota, which caught fire during the final stage of the Ambetter 301. Bell passed Chase Elliott for the lead with 42 laps to go, saving the best for last by cruising to a 5.4-second margin of victory , the biggest in any race this season.

“Man, that was desperately needed there…” Bell said after the race. “I spoke to my best friend and I told him that earlier in the year I felt like we were on the verge of winning and the last few weeks I felt like we were pretty far away, but here we are today. .”

Bell’s speed change came during a fateful two-tyre call for teammate Martin Truex Jr. While Truex led a race-high 172 laps, he didn’t have the fresh rubber to stay competitive on a final leg that went without caution.

That seemed to throw Elliott’s race away until Bell started to rise.

“At the end of that race,” Bell said, “my car was actually the fastest on stage on stage three, especially in the long run, and I was doing my job to maximize that.”

There’s something about this flat 1.058-mile oval that works in Bell’s favor, with five top-2 finishes in six careers in New Hampshire starts in NASCAR’s Cup and Xfinity series. It’s an impressive resume of success that comes just two weeks after a pit crew swap between the two teams of Bell and Bubba Wallace.

For Bell, it was the sixth different crew combination as Toyota faces a season of struggles on the pit road. The team also had a windfall a week after a wheel fell off the car in Atlanta. Normally that would lead to a series of four-race suspensions, but NASCAR decided it was not a real offense as the car never left the pit lane.

“It would have been hard to bring in a few new guys,” said crew chief Adam Stevens. “I think that would have been the story.”

Instead, the story became that Stevens had the right touch when Bell claimed he was “in control” from the driver’s seat as he hit the stretch run. The Master Key has a history of working with temperamental drivers (see: two-time cup champion Kyle Busch) and has quietly developed a similar understanding to Bell. In this case, silence was golden.

“Obviously he had it,” Stevens laughed after the race. “kudos to him.”

Traffic report

Vegetable: Chase Elliott. Elliott was very hard on himself after New Hampshire, claiming that you should “finish a race when you’re in the lead like that.” I think he will feel better this morning after inhaling. Through streaks of first, second, first and second over the past four weeks, he culminated in a blistering summer akin to reigning cup champion Kyle Larson climbed to the top last year.

Yellow: Bubba Wallace. Third place was Bubba’s best since the Daytona 500 and his first run of back-to-back top 15s all year. It’s just too little, too late for a program that doesn’t come close to sniffing the playoffs without winning.

Red: Ty Dillon. Dillon started the weekend losing his ride as both he and Petty GMS Motorsports mutually agreed to terminate his contract after the season. He finished it just five laps after contact with Justin Haley led to a wreck that destroyed four cars, including Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman (who has three DNFs in his last four races).

Traffic ticket: Two tire stops. Both Martin Truex, Jr. like Kevin Harvick had the fastest cars in the long run. So why take two tires for the track position they would have regained on a cautious final leg? It was a disastrous call for two of the sport’s top team chiefs, James Small and Rodney Childers, who have put their drivers in difficult positions.

Truex is now fourth in points, but is now squarely in the playoff bubble as a scoreless driver. As for Harvick? He is 68 points outside the cutline and will almost certainly need a win with six races left in the regular season.

“Obviously we should have done four (tyres), but that’s in retrospect,” Truex said afterwards. “That’s just Loudon for us. Every year we run a lot of laps, we run really well here, and then we find a way to give it away.”

Oops!

The most shocking moment in New Hampshire came when Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski suddenly played a game of bumper cars under yellow. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dillon’s number 3 came after Keselowski’s number 6 on the backstretch, provoking an aggressive response from the 2012 Cup Series champion.

“You’ve seen it, right? Just race hard, I guess,” Dillon said. “We’ve been on it a few times in the last two years. One time I hit really hard. So I just feel like the way certain people race me… probably not the right way to be careful to do .”

Dillon was, of course, referring to a 2021 regular season race in Michigan, where his potentially winning car was wiped out after contacting Keselowski en route to the end of a stage.

“I will talk to him privately,” Keselowski said in response to Dillon’s claim. “I don’t have to be a jerk because of the media.”

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