On a day that was dominated by Toyota, Christopher Bell finally broke through and won the Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday (July 17).
Bell continues to show his strength at the track. He has won three times in just as many NASCAR Xfinity Series races he has competed in there. He was also the runner-up in last year’s event, finishing second to Aric Almirola in a darkness-shortened race.
The win is also just the second career NASCAR Cup Series victory for Bell in his near three-year endeavor. His first came at the Daytona International Speedway road course in 2021.
Chase Elliott continues his hot streak with a second-place finish, his fourth top-two result in the last four races. Behind him, Bubba Wallace came home third, followed by Martin Truex Jr., the dominant car of the day (as well as the stage one and two winner). Kevin Harvick finished fifth to gather a much-needed top five in a season where his average result is the worst it’s been since 2014.
How Did It Happen?
Bell was having a relatively quiet day until the final stage, when his crew had some fantastic pit stops and launched him into the top five for most of the second half of the race. Still, he wasn’t the favorite as that last stage began.
That honor went to Truex, who led all 70 laps en route to a stage one win before backing that up with a stage two victory. The driver of the No. 19 was the clear favorite for the win at his home track once stage three went green, but one pit call changed everything.
A two-tire call turned out to be the wrong one, and on the restart, Truex got put three-wide. As has been the case this season, the once-dominant car didn’t handle as well in traffic, and Truex spent the rest of the race fighting for a shot that he never got. The fourth-place finish was just his third top five this season and his first since a fifth-place run at Talladega Superspeedway 10 races ago.
With Truex all but out of contention, the door opened for drivers who took four tires such as Bell, Elliott and Wallace to take advantage. After the drivers who just didn’t stop under the caution pitted, Elliott cycled to the lead, but Bell was right there. With 42 laps to go, Bell took the lead from Elliott and held onto it until he took the checkered flag more than five seconds ahead.
Who Stood Out?
While a playoff run might be out of the question at this point, it isn’t stopping Brad Keselowski from fighting for good performances.
The No. 6 team had an early run-in with Austin Dillon after the latter was upset with how he was being raced by Keselowski. Following a caution for a Kyle Busch spin, Dillon ran into Keselowski’s door to express his displeasure, to which Keselowski responded by dooring Dillon all the way down the backstretch and nearly spinning the No. 3 under caution.
THEY'RE FIGHTING WITH THEIR CARS!
Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon are wrecking each other down the backstretch! #NASCAR
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 17, 2022
Keselowski later had a run-in with Ross Chastain (then again, who hasn’t at this point?) and ran him low on the track just past the start-finish line. But when the dust settled, it was a solid top 10 for Keselowski, whose season has been nothing but bad luck ever since his 100-point body modification penalty after the first race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Who Fell Flat?
Alex Bowman left New England as quickly as he got there.
"He's looking for a ride and he drives like an idiot."
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 17, 2022
Bowman expressed frustration with the driver of the No. 42 on his radio.
💭 "God damn, motherf*cker gets fired, he's looking for a ride and he drives like an idiot." – No. 48 radio on the No. 42 of Ty Dillon
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) July 17, 2022
It’s certainly not the day anyone wants. Crashing less than 10 percent of the way into the race leaves teams feeling like it was a waste of time and resources journeying to the track. Bowman, while in the wrong place at the wrong time, probably wishes he had this race back.
What Did This Race Prove?
16 winners is possible. Very possible. More possible than it ever has been.
I know, I know, it gets discussed every year at the beginning of the season. But when we get to the year’s midway point, it’s usually determined that it won’t happen. But with six races to go, there’s still several drivers who probably could or should have won by now that haven’t (i.e.: Truex, Harvick, Ryan Blaney, to name a few). 2022 is the first year since the expansion of the playoffs from 12 to 16 that no one could point their way in or a driver with a win does not make the playoffs because we would surpass 16 winners.
Bell’s victory also shows that no winless driver is safe in the playoffs, no matter what position they are in in the regular season standings. Blaney and Truex are running third and fourth, for example, but are the lone two drivers currently in the playoffs on points. Two more winners and they’re out, despite being top five in the standings.
Seriously, think about this. Blaney is P3 in points and Truex is P4 and they have to be legit concerned about missing the playoffs! And only eight drivers in the series have more points than Harvick but it's looking like he'll miss without a win. Willllllllllllllllllllllllld. https://t.co/PeGL5plg2R
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) July 17, 2022
It just shows how important the “win and you’re in” format is, especially in situations like this year.
Shifting gears to the on-track product, New Hampshire seemed like the first race for the Next Gen car on a flat track where passing was possible, where drivers had to rely more on their handling than speed to get them around the 1.058-mile track. One of the big weaknesses for the Next Gen car has been flat-track racing, which has been a lot of “follow the guy in front of you and rely on pit strategy” type racing, but New Hampshire didn’t seem to follow that pattern.
Did NASCAR do something different from the last flat track the series went to (Road America)? While it was a one manufacturer domination-fest, there were still battles around the track, including a great one for the lead between Elliott, Bell and even Kurt Busch at one point toward the end of the race.
Tires went away and drivers were trying really hard not to wreck at the finish as grip was practically nonexistent on the track for anyone once Bell took the checkered flag.
It’s a step in the right direction for NASCAR in its areas to be improved with the Next Gen car.
Better Than Last Time?
This year, NASCAR did a lot better with judging the rain in the area. Instead of doing what it did in 2021 and starting the race despite the weather, it waited and let the rain pass before starting the event.
Rain began to fall six laps into last year's race at New Hampshire, taking out race leader Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 13, 2022
Darkness was not an issue this year, so the full 301 laps were completed. That’s something I’m sure Bell is happy about, as he most likely feels he could have passed Almirola for the win last year had the final eight laps not been cut due to darkness.
But both races had a driver who was on the verge of being bumped from the playoffs take the lead late in the race and get a clutch win to lock themselves in.
While the 2021 and 2022 races mirrored each other in several ways, the 2022 race flow was just better all around.
Paint Scheme of the Race
Well, the Toyota drivers probably confused all their spotters this week.
There were several paint schemes within the Toyota camp that were run by different drivers than normal at Loudon. Kyle Busch carried Bell’s DeWalt colors while his brother Kurt sported the black and blue SiriusXM colors, another Bell sponsor.
But the best one of them all has to be the electric green of the Interstate Batteries car, driven by Bus… sorry, Truex.
Martin Truex Jr. has a new look this week with a familiar JGR sponsor: pic.twitter.com/9zZHBwIksk
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 12, 2022
This scheme is awesome when Kyle Busch runs it, but to see it on a car other than the No. 18 makes it very unique.
Well done, Toyota graphic designers. Now please, for the sake of your spotters, never do something large-scale like this project again.
The mountains are calling.
The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway for its lone visit to Long Pond. Qualifying begins at approximately 3:20 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 23 before coverage for the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 begins on Sunday, July 24 at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.