After being the most successful driver in the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Christopher Bell entered Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 in a must-win situation, following two bad races at Texas and Talladega.
Looking further into the task at hand for the third-year driver, Bell’s journey to victory lane at Charlotte’s ROVAL would be made even more difficult by the complete lack of speed that Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota have had on road courses with the Next Gen car.
To be quite frank, any chance that Bell had at winning his first championship in the NASCAR Cup Series looked to have run its course with six laps remaining, until the non-stage caution of the event was displayed.
Running in seventh at the time of the yellow, Adam Stevens elected to bring Bell and the No. 20 Toyota Camry TRD down pit road to put on four fresh tires, which left the Norman, Oklahoma native restarting 11th with three laps to go.
And for a 2.28-mile road course that proved to be nearly impossible to pass on, Bell sliced his way through traffic pretty quick, jumping into third place by the time the field came back to the start-finish line, and the runner-up spot before another caution was displayed.
The 27-year-old would get one more opportunity to secure that walk-off victory that he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team needed to advance to the next round, restarting on the front row alongside Kevin Harvick.
Extreme degradation of the tires made Bell’s job look fairly easy, as he quickly moved around the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to pick up his third career victory in the NASCAR Cup Series, and his second of the season, all while advancing to the ‘Round of 8’.
Now, while Bell was capturing this monumental win, the prospect of the No. 20 parking in victory lane made things even more intense in the middle of the pack, as at least five drivers had a part in the battle for the final ‘Round of 8’ transfer spots over the closing laps.
Three of the drivers involved in the battle – Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez, and Ross Chastain – were helpless as positions shuffled in the final laps, as each was multiple laps down due to mechanical issues.
Suarez, who was looking to be in a fantastic position to advance, lost power steering assistance in the early stages of the race’s final stage, muscling his No. 99 CommScope Chevrolet Camaro around the 2.28-mile road course, until a temporary fix could be made.
For both Chastain and Larson, wall contact caused both drivers to break toe links in the closing laps of the event, sending them both multiple laps down while repairing the damage to their entries.
Then, it came down to Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe, who were scrapping for positions inside the top-15 after electing to stay on the track for the race’s penultimate caution, keeping the points battle super close.
With things getting tighter and tighter, Briscoe got turned around by Austin Dillon entering the backstretch chicane, which triggered an eight-plus car accident that involved Playoff drivers William Byron and Joey Logano, while also tearing up the turtles.
After the track underwent repairs, Cindric was in prime position to advance to the ‘Round of 8’ as a Rookie of The Year contender for Team Penske, before he dove into the chicane too deep, making big contact with Brad Keselowski and spinning around, losing all his track position.
When the smoke cleared – from all the late-race carnage – Briscoe had used the spin to his advantage, strapping on new tires and blasting through the field to finish in ninth place, scoring enough points to advance him to the next round over Kyle Larson.
The ninth-place result made Briscoe one of two championship-eligible drivers to finish inside the top-10, alongside race-winner Christopher Bell.
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch finished in second and third, avenging their first-round eliminations with top-five results. Rounding out the top five were Kaulig Racing teammates, AJ Allmendinger and Justin Haley, scoring the organization’s first double top-five.
Chris Buescher came home with another top-10 result on a road course, finishing in sixth-place for RFK Racing, while Bubba Wallace brought home another top-10 in seventh. Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, and Austin Dillon completed the top-10.
Austin Cindric (21st), Kyle Larson (35th), Daniel Suarez (36th), and Alex Bowman were the four drivers to be eliminated from championship contention, after a hard-fought battle throughout the ‘Round of 12’.
Alongside the aforementioned Bell and Briscoe, Denny Hamlin (13th), William Byron (16th), Joey Logano (18th), Chase Elliott (20th), Ryan Blaney (26th), and Ross Chastain (37th) will make up the eight drivers still fighting for a title.