Christopher Bell shakes up NASCAR’s Playoff picture with win at Loudon

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 17: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/WATTS Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2022 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

And then there were 14. Christopher Bell cruised to victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday becoming the 14th different winner in NASCAR’s Cup series this season and securing his spot in the Playoffs.

“Man, that one was much needed right there,” Bell said. “I’ll tell you what, that was a hell of a race from my viewpoint.”

Bell took the lead with 41 laps to go after a hard-fought battle with Chase Elliott after the races ninth and final caution. From there the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was able to stretch his lead out and score his second career Cup series win over Elliott by 5.7 seconds

For his part it was another second-place finish for Elliott who had pit road issues when he was forced back in for loose lug nuts during stops on lap 89.

“I felt like just a poor run of execution on my end throughout that last run,” Elliott said. “I feel like it took me a while to get past Joey and the 45 and had to run a little harder than I wanted to and then got in front of those guys and just made a couple mistakes and couldn’t get much breathing room.

“Christopher did a good job. Congrats to those guys. I know they’ve stayed close to winning, so that’s cool. But obviously for us, we were in a position where guys at this level really should close out a race if you’ve got the lead like that. Just poor effort on my part.”

For most of the 301 laps though it appeared it would be another JGR driver celebrating a win.

Martin Truex Jr. led from pole and for much of the race seemed nearly unbeatable. He won both Stages and led a race high 172 laps, more than his previous high of 141 at Loudon.

The entire complexion of the race changed however during the pits stops under the ninth and final caution brought out when Todd Gilliand went for a solo spin on lap 206. Truex dove to pit road followed by the lead group. He took two tires and was first off followed by Kyle Larson who took fuel only and gained five spots. Kevin Harvick who seemed to be Truex’s closest rival up to that point, took only two tires as well and came out third.

Elliott and Bell meanwhile took four tires each and came out seventh and eight respectively.

On the restart Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Cole Custer, who had stayed out, had the top three spots but would need at least a fuel stop to make it to the end. Harvick and Truex both seemed to struggle and fell back while Elliott led Bell towards the front of the field. Elliott took the lead on lap 247 followed by Bell. And after fighting through lapped traffic and door-to-door at times, Bell emerged with the lead on lap 260 and never looked back.

“That was so much fun racing with the 45, the 22 and the 9,” Bell said. “We were all running different lines. That was a blast.”

Bubba Wallace who had also taken 4 tires on the final stop was third.

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

Truex and Harvick completed the top five.

“We put two tires on there, which we all thought was the right thing to do and it just would not get going,” Harvick said. “We were sliding up the racetrack and it took seven or eight laps to get the car underneath and then about 20 laps to get the pace back. Then at the end, everybody was just out of tires.”

Denny Hamlin overcame several pit road issues to finish sixth, Brad Keselowski who tangled with Austin Dillon under a caution early in the race was seventh.  Trackhouse teammates Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez followed with Kurt Busch, who pitted for tires and fuel on lap 270 rallied to round out the top 10.

Bell’s win put his teammate Truex in a precarious position in the Points with six races left in the regular season. Truex leaves Loudon on the cutline, despite being 4th in the point standings, and in jeopardy of another winner bumping him out of the Playoffs.

“It just seems like we’ve been so close and then we’ve fallen off a little bit last week.,” Bell said. ”I was talking to my best friend, and I told him, earlier in the year I felt like we were right on the verge of winning and then the last couple weeks I felt like we were pretty far away, but here we are today.”

The Cup series heads to Pocono Raceway next Sunday for a single race that replaces the double headers staged there the last two seasons.

Photos: NASCAR at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday July 17,2022

NASCAR Cup Series Race Results Ambetter 301
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Loudon, New Hampshire
Sunday, July 17, 2022

1. (5) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 301.
2. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 301.
3. (4) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 301.
4. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 301.
5. (10) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 301.
6. (14) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 301.
7. (9) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 301.
8. (18) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 301.
9. (19) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 301.
10. (3) Kurt Busch, Toyota, 301.
11. (6) William Byron, Chevrolet, 301.
12. (17) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 301.
13. (28) Austin Cindric #, Ford, 301.
14. (8) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 300.
15. (29) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 300.
16. (20) AJ Allmendinger(i), Chevrolet, 300.
17. (16) Chris Buescher, Ford, 300.
18. (11) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 300.
19. (22) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 300.
20. (25) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 300.
21. (13) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 300.
22. (24) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 300.
23. (30) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 300.
24. (12) Joey Logano, Ford, 300.
25. (26) Todd Gilliland #, Ford, 300.
26. (31) Harrison Burton #, Ford, 300.
27. (23) Cole Custer, Ford, 300.
28. (15) Michael McDowell, Ford, 299.
29. (33) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 299.
30. (36) Cody Ware, Ford, 297.
31. (7) Aric Almirola, Ford, 282.
32. (21) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, Accident, 88.
33. (35) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, Accident, 5.
34. (34) Josh Bilicki(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 5.
35. (27) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, Accident, 4.
36. (32) BJ McLeod(i), Ford, Accident, 4.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 98.113 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 14 Mins, 45 Secs. Margin of Victory: 5.439 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 9 for 52 laps.
Lead Changes: 8 among 7 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Truex Jr. 1-95;J. Logano 96-120;M. Truex Jr. 121-188;H. Burton # 189-191;C. Briscoe 192-197;M. Truex Jr. 198-206;K. Busch 207-246;C. Elliott 247-259;C. Bell 260-301.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Martin Truex Jr. 3 times for 172 laps; Christopher Bell 1 time for 42 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 40 laps; Joey Logano 1 time for 25 laps; Chase Elliott 1 time for 13 laps; Chase Briscoe 1 time for 6 laps; Harrison Burton # 1 time for 3 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 19,23,5,9,4,20,45,10,24,11
Stage #2 Top Ten: 19,4,9,22,5,45,1,24,20,23