CONCORD, N.C. (AP)It was a race of desperation.
For Christopher Bell, who had to win Sunday to stave off elimination from NASCAR’s playoffs.
For reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who hit the wall and suddenly found his chances of racing for a second consecutive Cup title in serious jeopardy.
For Trackhouse Racing, the feel-good upstart young team hoping to celebrate its 100th start by advancing both its drivers into the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs.
And for Stewart-Haas Racing, which is now under NASCAR investigation for potential race manipulation.
When the checkered flag finally flew, only Bell was celebrating.
His victory in overtime on the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway moved him into the round of eight and possibly made him a true title contender. His Joe Gibbs Racing team used the first natural caution of the race – it came with five laps remaining – to bring Bell in for new tires on his Toyota. The fresh Goodyears gave Bell the advantage to drive through the field for his second win of the season and third of his career.
”The task was simple. We knew we had to win,” said Bell, who was the most consistent driver in the first round of the playoffs but found himself 11th in the standings as NASCAR prepared to cut the field from 12 to eight.
”Man, you’ve just got to be there at the end of these things. I keep watching all these races where the fastest car doesn’t always win. We were just there at the right time. We obviously weren’t in position to win, we rolled the dice, gambled, it paid off for us.”
Larson, meanwhile, was eliminated from the playoffs one year after winning a NASCAR-high 10 races and racking up wins all across the country in sprint cars. He has just two wins this season and finished 35th on Sunday, five laps down, and was bumped out of the playoffs by two points.
”I made way too many mistakes this whole year. You can’t win a championship like that,” said Larson. ”No surprise that I made another mistake today and took us out of contention. Just extremely mad at myself. We’ll keep fighting. We’ll come back stronger. I’ll definitely come back stronger and smarter, make better moves out there. Just mad at myself.”
Trackhouse nearly lost both Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain from the playoff field when Suarez lost his power steering and Chastain hit the wall to break a part on his Chevrolet. Chastain squeezed his way into the next round despite finishing 37th, while Suarez was eliminated from the field with his 36th-place finish.
His car was a monster to drive once the power steering failed and it caused Suarez to hit Corey LaJoie on the track. LaJoie later retaliated and the two were jawing at each other on the walk from pit road through the garage after the race. At one point, Suarez pushed his finger into LaJoie’s chest.
”I gotta tell you something: I’m the only driver in the field who could have finished the race the way my car was,” Suarez said. ”Like, my arms are completely destroyed. I have never felt like this in my life. My shoulder is very bad, my hands are destroyed. It was tough, it was very, very tough.
”There were a couple times, more than a couple times, that I was just screaming. I just needed to get it out. It was for sure the most difficult race I have had in my life but I wasn’t going to give up.”
A race void of any cautions suddenly flipped with five laps to go when a sponsorship sign flew off the speedway wall and landed on the track.
At last, NASCAR called a caution, Chase Elliott’s march to what seemed a certain career-high sixth win of the season was halted, and the entire playoff picture changed.
Bell pitted for the new tires and began charging his way through the field when the race restarted with three laps to go.
Then came the chaos.
AJ Allmendinger, winner of the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, passed Elliott for the lead. Then Kevin Harvick pushed Allmendinger off the track to take the lead and Bell kept making up ground. Elliott was pushed off track by Tyler Reddick and cars were spinning all through the field.
Another caution for a spin and a broken patch of curbing brought out yet another yellow and sent the race to overtime – giving Bell a legitimate shot at passing Harvick for the win. He completed the pass at the start of the two-lap overtime sprint, leaving all the drama in his rearview mirror.
Chase Briscoe and Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric were jockeying both desperately trying to pick up finishing positions and snatch the eighth and final playoff spot. Cindric was spun in overtime, but Briscoe was relentless and got a boost from his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer, who used his Ford to hold up traffic to help Briscoe gain another spot and finish ninth.
”What a wild day. I told my guys before we took the initial green in the race, there’s a difference between thinking we could move on and knowing we could move on,” Briscoe said. ”This team never gives up. I told them I was never going to give up. It took every bit of it there at the end.”
The assist from Custer got Briscoe into the next round but also put SHR in NASCAR’s crosshairs for potential race manipulation.
”NASCAR is reviewing data, video and radio transmissions from (Custer’s car) following its incident on the backstretch during the final lap,” NASCAR said in a post-race statement. ”NASCAR will communicate the results of the review early this week. Any potential penalties would not affect the Round of 8 field.”
Advancing to the round of eight were: Bell, Briscoe, Elliott, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and Ryan Blaney.
Eliminated were Suarez, Cindric, Larson and Alex Bowman, who missed his second consecutive race Sunday with a concussion. The Larson elimination cut Hendrick Motorsports’ championship contenders in half as only Elliott and Byron advanced for the organization that won the last two Cup titles.
Elliott and Byron were seen talking on pit road after the race, but Elliott angrily chased away a television camera capturing the conversation. Elliott finished 20th after leading the most laps Sunday.
”Didn’t feel like we did a whole lot wrong, and unfortunately I wasn’t rewarded for it,” Elliott said.
The opening race of the round of eight Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner and Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas earlier this year.
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