The Washington Post

Bell joins Cup playoff as season’s 14th winner


loudon, n.h. — 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, 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 that there were so many laps left in the race, he didn’t need a reminder of how far the No. 20 Toyota had to go to reach the finish line. Plus, he already knew the way to reach Victory Lane at his favorite track.

Bell crashed the NASCAR Cup Series playoff — and tightened the pressure on the remaining winless drivers — by prevailing Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to become the 14th winner this season.

“That one was much needed right there,” the 27-year-old said.

Bell mastered the track where he won NASCAR Xfinity Series races in 2018, 2019 and 2021, holding off Chase Elliott.

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. But 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 laps for Joe Gibbs Racing. His only other Cup Series win came in the second race last season on the Daytona Internatio­nal Speedway road course.

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 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 standings — 19 points above the cutoff line.

“Earlier in the year, I felt like we were right on the verge of winning,” he said. “In the last couple of weeks, I thought we were pretty far away. Now here we are today.”

Bell’s biggest concern Sunday was trying to handle the 21-pound lobster awarded to the winner.

“If your racecar is fast and you have a first-place car,” he said, “it’s pretty easy to get to first as long as you do your job.”

Busch’s status surprises Gibbs

Gibbs said he’s surprised his team has yet to sign two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch to a contract for 2023.

Busch faced an uncertain future after M&M Mars announced that it would cease its sponsorshi­p at the end of this season. The company had sponsored Busch since he joined the team in 2008.

The search for a new sponsor has dragged on, and Busch has clearly been irked he doesn’t have a new deal. He did not offer specifics but said he has shopped himself to other teams, though championsh­ip-caliber rides are scarce.

“It’s been hard,” Gibbs said Sunday at New Hampshire. “We’ve worked really hard to try and get things done. It is hard, though. You’ve got to put a lot in place to make things work out. We’re working as hard as we can. We’re going after a number of different directions. So, yeah, I’m surprised at this point that we haven’t been able to get that finished.”

Busch, 37, has 222 wins across NASCAR’S three national series and is the only active Cup Series driver with multiple championsh­ips. He has one win this season and finished 12th on Sunday.

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