In a turn of events that bordered on the unbelievable, Christopher Bell found his only path to the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
On fresh tires, thanks to a strategic pit stop under caution on Lap 105, Bell passed Kevin Harvick to the outside through Turns 1 and 2 after a restart on Lap 111 and pulled away to win Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course.
With the victory, Bell transferred to the Round of 8 and simultaneously eliminated reigning series champion Kyle Larson, who brought his No. 5 Chevrolet to pit road on Lap 98 after hitting the wall and breaking the right-rear toe link on his car.
Larson finished five laps down in 35th and was ousted from the Playoffs by two points. After spinning in the backstretch chicane on Lap 107, Chase Briscoe recovered to finish ninth on fresh tires and grabbed the eighth and final berth in the Round of 8 by the two-point margin over Larson.
Bell didn’t have the fastest car on Sunday, but he and crew chief Adam Stevens took advantage of two late cautions to make the winning move.
“Man, you’ve just got to be there at the end of these things,” said Bell, who entered the race 33 points below the cut line for the Round of 8. “I keep watching all these races where the fastest car doesn't always win. No secret that road courses have not been our strength this year.
“We were just there at the right time. We obviously weren't in position to win (before taking tires). We rolled the dice, gambled, and it paid off for us.”
A chagrined Larson blamed himself for his ouster.
“I just made way too many mistakes all year long,” Larson said. “Made another one today. Ultimately cost us an opportunity to go chase another championship.
“Just extremely mad at myself. I let the team down a number of times this year, and let them down in a big way today.”
Austin Cindric and Daniel Suarez also suffered elimination. Cindric spun entering the backstretch chicane after the final restart on Lap 111 and finished 21st, missing the Round of 8 by 13 points. Suarez fought his No. 99 Chevrolet after his power steering failed during the third stage and came home 36th, leaving him nine points behind Briscoe for the final transfer spot.
Briscoe restarted outside the top 20 on Lap 111 and took advantage of Cindric’s spin, his own aggression and a block from Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer, who held up cars Briscoe needed to pass on the final lap.
“Yeah, man, what a wild day,” Briscoe said. “It took every bit of it there at the end. To be easily in, then that debris caution comes out (on Lap 104). 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 races, how much can change so quickly.
“I had no idea we were even going to have a shot (on the final restart). Truthfully, I knew we were probably out. I saw the 2 (Cindric) wreck, I thought maybe there's still a chance. We had so much fresher tires than anybody. (Crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) pumped them way up to qualifying pressures, let me go attack, have the ball in my hands.”
What had been an orderly race for 103 laps descended into chaos after NASCAR called the third caution of the race on for debris in Turn 6, ending a 50-lap green-flag run.
That’s when Bell brought his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to pit road for tires. He restarted 12th on Lap 107, and by the time he returned to the finish line—due in part to a pile-up in Turn 1—Bell was pursuing Tyler Reddick for the second position.
On Lap 108, Bell slipped past Reddick and was chasing Harvick when a second debris caution for a melee in Turn 2 forced the race to overtime. On the final restart, Harvick was a sitting duck on older tires, but he managed to hold off Kyle Busch for the second spot.
Joining Bell and Briscoe in the Round of 8 are Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, William Byron and Ross Chastain. Elliott led a race-high 30 laps and appeared headed for his third victory at the ROVAL before the caution on Lap 104.
After the Lap 107 restart, Elliott, who had qualified for the Round of 8 with last Sunday’s victory at Talladega, spun through the grass outside Turn 6 following contact from Reddick and came home 20th.
Logano, the pole winner, took the first stage wire-to-wire but was buried in traffic after a pit stop on Lap 27 and finished 18th.
AJ Allmendinger ran fourth after leading 24 laps, followed by Justin Haley, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Reddick, Briscoe and Austin Dillon.
With points reset entering the Round of 8, Elliott holds the top spot in the NASCAR Cup standings with a 20-point edge over second place Logano.