Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Christopher Bell Wins, Chase Elliott Spins at the ROVAL

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

With his back against the wall, Christopher Bell gambled on a pit stop after a late yellow flag, which was notably sparse at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL on Sunday (Oct. 9). Bell restarted in 11th with fresh tires and did everything he could to put himself in position to take the lead in the Bank of America ROVAL 400. While other drivers overdrove in the waning laps, Bell drove methodically, avoiding the spins and shoving that ended the hopes of others. Bell raced his way to second but Kevin Harvick had opened up a significant gap in front of him; the question became whether he’d be able to catch the veteran.

That question was answered when a real estate battle in the backstretch chicane ended with a broken curb, drawing another restart. With Harvick’s lead erased, Bell’s fresh tires were all he needed to take the lead and draw away in overtime.

Bell entered the day facing playoff elimination. Anything less than the win would have ended his title bid. Bell showed maturity and perseverance on his way to the win, and, hopes alive once again, could be an early favorite for the championship if he can put together a strong next round.

And don’t forget Kyle Busch. A top five might not seem like much reason to celebrate for the two-time Cup champion, but Sunday’s third-place finish is Busch’s first top five in over four months since his runner-up result at World Wide Technology Raceway in June. In that span, Busch had two top 10s before Sunday, 12 finishes of 20th or worse and five outside the top 30.

Busch flew under the radar all day but came up big at the end, avoiding the late drama.

Entering his final four races for Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch would certainly like to carry a little momentum into 2023. But the good news for Busch fans is that while his numbers this year are his worst since 2014, he bounced back from that one just fine, winning the 2015 Cup title.

What… is the buzz about?

Even as the controversy about safety heats up, what really had people talking this week was a controversial decision by the appeals board to modify a penalty incurred by William Byron at Texas Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago. Byron, angry with Denny Hamlin after contact on track, intentionally spun Hamlin under caution. NASCAR responded by fining Byron $50,000 and 25 points, but the appeals board doubled the fine but rescinded the point deduction.

For Byron, it meant the difference between entering Sunday above the playoff cut line instead of well below. Without the 25 points he was fined, Byron would have been eliminated. Instead, it was his teammate missing the next round.

But in a sport where safety is at the forefront, the decision is a questionable one. When Kyle Busch intentionally hit Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in a Camping World Truck Series race at Texas in 2011, Busch was immediately suspended for the remainder of the race weekend, including a Cup playoff start. Both NASCAR’s decision not to suspend Byron the following weekend and the board’s decision to overturn the points penalty are contrary to both precedent and the ongoing safety discussion. Perhaps next time, NASCAR should immediately park the driver or issue a suspension like it should have done in the first place. That way, he actually pays for crossing a major line.

Where… did the other key players wind up?

Pole winner Joey Logano played the strategy game, choosing stage points over timing his pit stops from the end of the race the way some others did. Logano won stage one and scored the 10 points it comes with, but the result was that his pit stop under caution mired him in traffic. With passing at a premium, Logano was never able to regain a foothold and he finished 18th.

Defending race winner Kyle Larson slapped the wall and the resulting damage to the No, 5 meant that not only would he not defend his race win, but will not have the chance to defend his Cup title. The sting of the 35th-place finish is dulled compared to the sting of outright elimination, especially since teammate Byron will move on after a decision that has generally meant suspension for a driver in the past. Larson is joined in his early exit by Austin Cindric (finished 21st after a late spin) and Daniel Suarez (finished 36th with mechanical problems). Elliott’s teammate Alex Bowman did not start the race due to ongoing concussion symptoms and was eliminated at the start.

Point leader Chase Elliott and Logano are the only former champions with a shot at a second title in 2022. Elliott did what he does best for most of the day and held a big lead as the laps ticked away. But a caution that was either well-timed or terribly timed depending on who you root for wadded up the field and Elliott’s lead was gone before completing a lap after the restart. He finished 20th.

When… was the moment of truth?

If Elliott’s fans were looking for a sign for their driver, they found it. Literally. Elliott appeared to have the race in hand in the final laps with a four-second lead over Saturday’s Xfinity Series winner, AJ Allmendinger, but a piece of billboard came loose from the wall and landed on the track. That drew the yellow and the chaos that had been notably absent all day reared its head. As soon as the race restarted, cars were sliding and banging doors. Allmendinger muscled past Elliott, Harvick muscled past Allmendinger, and from there it only got crazier. Harvick opened up a sizeable lead, and had the race stayed green, he had a chance at a win and a bit of a shot at NASCAR for last week’s penalties (more on that in a minute). More chaos and a broken piece of curbing drew a red flag and overtime, and Bell’s fresh tires proved to be the deciding factor on the restart.

If we’ve learned anything from late restarts on the ROVAL, it’s that cars can’t barrel into turn 1 three or four wide. So, naturally, on just about every late restart ever, drivers have barreled into turn 1 three or four wide and hoped that this time it would end differently. Spoiler: it didn’t. It wasn’t quite like the first race the track hosted (that only looked like lemmings jumping off a cliff), but it still claimed a couple of spinners.

The final laps were not without controversy. Cole Custer, who did not make the playoff field this year, lost several spots in the field, including one to teammate Chase Briscoe, who was locked in a heated battle with Larson for the final spot in the Round of 8. He then threw some hard blocks with Briscoe just ahead of him and clinging to the final spot in the next round. NASCAR has said it will take a look; the blocking was aggressive but not really out of line, but letting his teammate have a free pass in that situation is another story.

The finish was action-packed after the billboard made its appearance, but the race itself was tame. Whether that was drivers playing it safe for playoff or safety reasons or something else, it was almost a Sunday drive. Almost.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series is off to Sin City this coming weekend with just four races left and a lot of drivers with a lot to prove. For the playoff drivers, this next round might be a welcome relief from the chaos of the last. The three-race slate leading into the final at Phoenix Raceway features two intermediate ovals, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, before the final cut at Martinsville Speedway.

With most of the first six races won by drivers either not in the playoffs or eliminated from contention, the contenders will be out to retake the spotlight as a win in the round guarantees a chance at the title.

But there are also plenty of others with something to prove. There are more former champions either not in the playoffs or eliminated than there are eligible to win a second title. 2012 champ Brad Keselowski and 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. have yet to win this year and you can bet they’ll be gunning for a trophy before the year is out. Kyle Busch and Harvick are also out of the playoffs but certainly capable of winning, along with just-eliminated Larson. Harvick has a chip on his shoulder after having his backmarker-finishing car pulled for a teardown (NASCAR usually takes top-five cars) and subsequently hit with a massive points fine just days after Harvick slammed the sanctioning body on the safety of the Next Gen car.

How… is the title hunt shaping up?

Sunday’s race provided a little shakeup. With one driver (Bowman) eliminated before the green flag, the final spots were far from decided. Mechanical problems decided two of the three cuts with the third coming down to the overtime finish. A spin by Cindric took him out of the final spot while Larson and Suarez went down with car gremlins. In Larson’s case, it still came down to the final lap, as Briscoe passed just enough cars to take the spot.

But out of the eight drivers still standing, is there a clear-cut title favorite? Not really.

Elliott has had the most success this year, but he has had enough races where he didn’t look like a champion that it could go either way. Ross Chastain has rebounded lately and had a fantastic early season, but he hasn’t endured the pressure of Cup playoffs before. Neither has Briscoe, and he’s been so inconsistent this year that while you can’t write anyone off, he’s probably the first one who would be if this was a different year.

Hamlin’s season without the wins is mediocre at best, and of the remaining drivers, he’s struggled the most to close a title out. He gets in his own head in the playoffs. He could pull one off, of course, but he has yet to indicate that he’s not his own worst enemy.

Bell had a great first round in the playoffs followed by a second round where he was a late caution away from elimination. He might be a favorite if he looks strong the next two weeks.

Byron has been okay since a torrid early season. The question there is if he can close the deal at Phoenix if he makes the final cut. The same goes for Ryan Blaney, who has had the consistency, but hasn’t pulled off a win and the champion will almost surely need to win at Phoenix if past history is anything to go by.

That leaves Logano, who has quietly made a case for himself as a favorite by staying out of trouble and getting the finishes he needs to advance and stay in striking distance. But he hasn’t led a ton of laps late in races and he hasn’t quite had a winning car recently.

It’s a strange year. There’s no clear favorite to win it even this late in the season, but no clear favorite to flop either.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bill B

I want to see Blaney win the championship without winning a race. That would be awesome.

janice

i remember a few years ago saying the same thing about ryan newman. be real interesting to see the reaction of peers if chastain would pull a miracle and win the championship.

Bill B

Given how many non-playoff drivers have won in the last few weeks, this might be the best chance possible of seeing a non-championship driver winning the last race.
But I wouldn’t bet any money on that happening.

DoninAjax

It’s been evident for years that NA$CAR wants one of the four to “win” the final event and the other drivers have been told not to interfere with the four who spend the whole event up front. But I still pray that all four are eliminated in an incident involving one of the unworthy drivers. The network then shows the title winner’s car torn up at the trailer in the garage for the rest of the telecast while the shills in the booth have nothing to talk about.

Echo

Cole’s blatant blocking lands Larson back in the show.

Bill B

I would never put anything past NASCAR but I doubt they want to open that can of worms again.

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