LOUDON, N.H. (AP)Christopher Bell’s crew chief tried to give him a little bit of coaching – some encouragement with about 40 laps left in the race and a victory and playoff spot at stake – and was promptly told, well, basically to shush.
”He told me that he had it under control,” crew chief Adam Stevens said with a laugh, ”and he clearly did.”
Bell explained later there so many laps left in the race, that he didn’t need a reminder of how far the No. 20 Toyota had to go to reach the finish line.
Plus, Bell already knew the way to reach victory lane at his favorite track.
Bell crashed the NASCAR playoffs – and tightened the pressure on the remaining winless drivers – winning Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to become the 14th Cup Series winner this season.
”That one was much needed right there,” the 27-year-old Bell said.
Bell mastered the track where he won Xfinity Series races in 2018, 2019 and 2021 and was second in the Cup race last year, holding off Chase Elliott – last week’s winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Bell is the 14th driver to earn a spot in the 16-driver playoff field. With six races left in the regular season, it leaves open the possibility that more than 16 drivers could win a race and the final playoff spot or spots would be decided on points.
That’s a worry for another day for Bell.
”That car was not very good when it started the race,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. ”It was middle-of-the-pack. It was struggling. At the end, they got him going in the right direction.”
Bell chased down Elliott late and led the final 42 lap for Joe Gibbs Racing. His only other Cup win came in the second race of the 2021 season in the Daytona road course race.
Elliott finished second for Hendrick Motorsports and Bubba Wallace was third for 23XI Racing. Martin Truex Jr. dominated early and finished fourth and Kevin Harvick completed the top five.
”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.”
Elliott, who had led 13 laps overall when he was caught by Bell, finished first or second for the fourth straight race.
”We were in a position where guys at this level really should close out a race if you’ve got the lead like that,” Elliott said. ”Just poor effort on my part.”
Bell led JGR to its fourth win this season and 12th at New Hampshire.
Bell was one of those drivers who would have had to worry about his playoff chances during the rest of the summer stretch. He entered the race in 16th place in the points standings – 19 above the cutline. Bell reeled off five straight top-10 finishes over May and June before he ran into a recent hiccup with only one finish better than 18th over his last four.
”If you’re race car is fast, and you have a first-place car, it’s pretty easy to get to first as long as you do your job,” Bell said. ”I had a first-place race car at the end of that race. Basically, the third stage my car was the fastest one out there, especially on the long run. I did my job to maximize that.”
JGR, who supplies pit crews to 23XI Racing, swapped team members earlier this month with Wallace’s crew.
Bell’s biggest concern Sunday was trying to handle the 21-pound lobster awarded to the winner.
”Earlier in the year, I felt like we were right on the verge of winning,” Bell said. ”In the last couple of weeks, I thought we were pretty far away. Now, here we are today.”
Bell still has to work on expanding his New England fan club. He gave his Xfinity checkered flag last season to the only young boy he saw in the grandstands wearing a Bell T-shirt. Before Sunday’s race, Bell promised one kid wearing his shirt at a pre-race event hosted by his sponsor that he would give him the checkered flag with a win.
”And I did,” he said.
Truex won the first two stages and led 172 laps before he faded after a poor pit stop and finished fourth. Truex dominated early from the pole and seemed poised to snap a season-long winless drought. Without a win, Truex is on the playoff bubble. Ryan Blaney is third in the points standings and Truex fourth, yet both could possibly miss the playoffs without a win. This is the third time in the last 20 years (2002, 2003, 2011) there have been 14 winners in the first 20 races.
Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon used their cars as battering rams under a caution midway through the race. Dillon hit Keselowski in the door on the backstretch. Keselowski retaliated and smacked Dillon on the passenger’s side of the car and ran him off the track.
”We’ve gone at it a couple of times the last two years. One time, I hit really hard,” Dillon said. ”I just don’t like the way certain people race me.”
NASCAR’s Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway for its only stop of the year. The track long held two Cup races each year and Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch won the races in a doubleheader weekend last year.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports