CONCORD, N.C. — The month of October is when NASCAR’s Playoffs collide with the Major League Baseball Playoffs and the National Football League.
How appropriate that Christopher Bell had a “Walk Off Winner” in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Bell and his crew chief, Adam Stevens, swung for the fences like Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees.
Stevens made the decision to change four tires on Lap 105 after the first yellow flag of the race for an on-track incident on Lap 104 when a chunk of the wall had broken off and was on the racing surface.
“We needed a caution at the end,” Stevens said. “We had to do something different than the cars in front of us. At the point that we couldn’t restart on the front row, the motivation to stay was pretty small. We needed a win. We had to do the opposite of what those guys were going to do.
“We had they come and got tires, we would have had to stay. We weren’t going to pass ’em on equal tires.
“Thankfully we didn’t start too deep in the field, and Bell was able to get a tremendous restart and pass a bunch of cars before we got to the backstretch.
“It was kind of a do-or-die moment.”
Bell was 27 points out of the final transfer position to make the Round of Eight – the next three races in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. The only way Bell was going to advance was the win the race in extra innings.
Team owner Joe Gibbs, however, prefers football vernacular. As a three-time Super Bowl winning coach with the Washington Redskins of the NFL, he prefers this explanation.
What Bell did was a “two-minute drill” sending the game into “overtime” and winning it on a “Hail Mary.”
“It was all of those things,” Gibbs said afterwards. I think you got it. I think that’s kind of what it was for me.
“I always think, too, on a win like this, something like this that happens, I think back to J.D. (Gibbs, his son who passed away) spending his whole life building our race team. I always think about him. Our whole family does.
“It’s a big deal for us. Very emotional. We love being a part of all this and getting a chance to compete against the best race teams in the world. So, it’s a thrill when you get a chance to win something like this.”
As for Bell, he had a much simpler description.
“It was mind-blowing,” he said.
With the exception of two stage breaks, Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway ran 104 laps without an on-track caution.
And then, chaos ensued.
That is when Stevens decided to bring Bell into the pits to change four tires while the rest of the contenders stayed on the track on worn Goodyear rubber.
The end result was Bell rallying from 27 points below the cutline to advancing to the Round of Eight with a “Walk Off Win.”
“Just the whole race went green flag,” Bell said. “I thought we were just kind of biding our time, getting to the end of the race. I think I was running seventh or eighth. A couple guys were closing on me.
“I thought, ‘Man, I hope I can get out of here with a top 10, focus on trying to race for fifth in the points.’
“Yeah, the tide has changed.”
Now, Bell can think about winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship as one of the last eight remaining drivers who have a shot at the title.
So can Chase Briscoe, who was able to pass two cars on the final lap to get the final playoff position by just two points with a ninth-place finish.
The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, Kyle Larson, was eliminated after a broken toe link from hitting the wall put him five laps down after the repair. He finished 35th.
It began when Chase Elliott led the field to the green flag as the two rows of cars charged into the tight Turn 1 of the infield portion of the ROVAL. Noah Gragson, filling in for Alex Bowman who is out with a concussion, and Harrison Burton both spun before making the turn.
They were able to continue, and so did the chaos. A.J. Allmendinger, who led much of the race, was in the lead before he slid off track. Tyler Reddick hit the side of Elliott’s Chevrolet after Kevin Harvick had taken the lead.
Bell began to track down Harvick’s Ford.
But a piece of the curbing came loose onto the track and NASCAR officials threw the yellow flag, and then the Red Flag to repair the curbing.
Bell, seemingly out of the playoffs just a few minutes earlier, was now in position to win the race if he could get by Harvick and survive the final three laps of another attempt at overtime.
Prior to that, the race was fairly processional. Several playoff contenders, such as Daniel Suarez, had his power steering assist give out, creating a virtually undrivable car. Larson, who entered the race seemingly in safe position to advance, had a right rear toe link fail after making contact with one of the barriers.
Hendrick Motorsports replaced the toe link, and Larson returned to the track five laps down.
But on the first attempt at overtime, six cars crashed into Turn 1, while Bell passed Harvick for the lead in Turn 1.
Bell’s Toyota pulled away and Larson was just one point above the cutline.
Bell took the white flag and had built a good lead. Briscoe and Larson fought it out for position in an even side-by-side battle. Cindric spun in the chicane on the backstretch and that eliminated him from the playoffs.
Bell won the race by 1.739 seconds over Harvick to advance. Briscoe crossed the line and gained two positions on the track to gain the final transfer positions.
“It’s crazy the amount of emotions that you go through,” Bell said. “Really all race long I think the best I was, was fifth, the worst I was, was 10th or 12th, which was right in line with how I expected the weekend to go.
“There’s another guy over there, his name is Chris Ball, and he tells me all the time that you just have to be there at the end of these races. We see it time and time again where the fastest car doesn’t win.
“Today we were not the fastest car, but we put ourselves in position. My crew chief made a great call to put tires on, and it worked out where we won the race.
“We were there at the end.”
Larson, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, was eliminated.
Briscoe was out of the top 20 on the final restart and finished ninth. Briscoe was aided by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer, who held up Austin Dillon and Erik Jones. Briscoe was able to pass all three cars and had the positions needed to make the next round if he could get back to the checkered flag.
Ninety-minutes after the race, NASCAR released the following statement:
“NASCAR is reviewing data, video, and radio transmissions from the 41 car (Custer) following its incident on the backstretch during the final lap. NASCAR will communicate the results of the review early this week. Any potential penalties would not affect the Round of Eight field.”
Bell was seventh before the final caution and becomes the sixth walk off winner in a cutoff race in NASCAR history.
“I thought it was going to be a really tough road,” Bell said. “It was a really tough road. But there was an end to it.”
There is more road for Bell to travel as he joins seven other driver into the round of eight with a chance at the championship.
As for Larson, his road to a second-straight title is over.
“You give up that many spots, you know you’re going to be close,” Larson said. “Then the caution there. just made way too many mistakes all year long. Made another one today and it ultimately cost us an opportunity to go chase another championship.
“I’m extremely mad at myself and let the team down a number of times this year and let them down in a big way today.
“We’ll keep fighting. We’ll come back stronger. I’ll definitely come back stronger and smarter, make better moves out there. I’m just mad at myself.
“Bummer, but just got to move on.”
When asked how he can make this up to the team over the final four races, Larson responded like a true racer.
“Go race hard,” he said. “There is definitely no other person to blame but myself for today. I feel like our team put ourselves in position as well as we could on points. Got as many stage points as we could. I think it was plus 27 or 28 at the time when I screwed up. Just for no reason either. I wasn’t even pushing that hard at that moment. Got loose, caught my off guard.
“Yeah, just got to keep working on my craft, just be better, make a lot less mistakes.
“Like I said, I made way too many mistakes this whole year. You can’t win a championship like that. Yeah, no surprise that I made another mistake today and took us out of contention.”
Harvick finished second and knew that on worn tires, he was at a disadvantage compared to Bell’s Toyota on new tires.
“I knew we were gonna have to have a perfect corner there with Christopher having such fresher tires,” Harvick said. “He was able to get through traffic and was able to roll through a little bit more speed in turn one, turn two, turn three and turn four and just got in front of me, but we were able to hold Kyle off so it’s still a good day.
“The guys did a great job of putting us in position and having a chance. We were half a lap there from being in the right spot. It didn’t all work out, but still a good day.
“I knew we were in a bit of a pickle there with Christopher on new tires and I just didn’t want to blow the first corner, I wanted to give us a chance he was just able to roll more speed than we were and from there it was just kind of like damage control and make sure you bring the thing home and that’s what we did.
“They did a good job. They got us in position and that caution coming out killed us there. We were half a lap from coming to the white and caution, so they did a good job.”
Kyle Busch’s Toyota was third followed by Allmendinger’s Chevrolet in fourth. Justin Haley’s Chevrolet rounded out the top five.
Briscoe’s ninth-place finish saved his season.
“Man, what a wild day,” Briscoe said. “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. 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. To be easily in, then that debris caution comes out. Still, I thought we had a really good shot of making it in. Get wrecked on the backstretch. Crazy at the end of these races, especially the road course race, how much can change so quickly.
“I had no idea we were even going to have a shot.
“Truthfully, I knew we were probably out. I saw the 2 wreck (Austin Cindric), I thought maybe there’s still a chance. We had so much fresher tires than anybody. Johnny (Klausmeier, crew chief) pumped them way up to qualifying pressures, let me go attack, have the ball in my hands.
“I’m super proud of this race team. Pretty cool day for Ford Performance Racing. It’s cool. They’re based right here at Charlotte Motor Speedway at their oval. So got a lot of laps around this place in those cars. Yeah, a really cool day.
“I’m looking forward to the round of eight. A lot of really, really good racetracks for me. If we can get to Phoenix, we know we got a good car there, too.
“Just overall awesome day, proud of my team. Move on.”
Cindric finished 21st and missed advancing by just a few points.
“We were in a position where I needed one more spot,” said Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner. “I was working to get that spot. I haven’t seen a replay, but sounds like I got hit from behind, locked the rears, got sent back.
“No, I just screwed that up, so… I think he hit me there at the end. Doesn’t matter either way. Trying to drive a little desperate for 30-lap older tires than every car around me. Tried to make something happen.
“I probably could have done something better throughout the day, trying to figure out where to get track position, when to have tires, when not to. A bit of a cluster.
“We were golden there if that red flag wouldn’t have come out. Great spot to get in. The way these go. If we get the finish, we deserve at Texas, we’re not even in this position.
“It’s just frustrating. But that’s playoff racing. There’s a lot of guys who have had a lot worse luck in the Playoffs. Learned a lot in my rookie season, proud to have a shot to finish out the season strong and have fun the next couple weeks.”
The playoff standings are now reset heading into next Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Chase Elliott the leader at 4,046 followed by Joey Logano with 4,026, Ross Chastain with 4,021, Christopher Bell at 4,018, William Byron with 4,015, Ryan Blaney with 4,015, Denny Hamlin at 4,013 and Chase Briscoe at 4,009.