Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain Throw Playoff Hail Marys at Martinsville

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Don’t put Christopher Bell’s back against the wall; he’ll come out fighting tooth and nail. Twice in 2022, Bell has faced NASCAR Cup Series playoff elimination when nothing short of a win would let him advance.

And twice, Bell has delivered.

Leading the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway when a late caution flew, Bell had the unenviable position of deciding whether to pit for fresh tires. Ultimately, that was the call, and it left Bell mired in traffic.

But not for long.

Bell charged through the field, passing Chase Briscoe, who was in the same must-win situation and stayed out on old tires for the lead, with five laps to go to take his third win of 2022 and earn a spot in the Championship 4 alongside Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Ross Chastain.

Bell has been absolutely clutch in the playoffs this year. Next weekend will be his first appearance in the Championship 4 and he enters the race in a virtual must-win situation for the title. Can he make it a trifecta?

Not that you could, but don’t forget Ross Chastain. He’s been hot in the last two races, with a pair of runner-up finishes, but found himself outside the playoff picture in the final laps, racing Denny Hamlin for the last spot. Chastain had to finish within four spots of Hamlin to advance, and Hamlin was passing cars with ease while Chastain was just trying to hold them off.

Until the final lap, that is. Playing video games with his brother Chad growing up, Chastain had tried a move so crazy nobody had really tested its merit before. So, with his season on the line and the white flag in the air, Chastain simply sent it.

Instead of diving deep in turn 3 to try and bowl his way past a couple of cars, Chastain went to the outside and barely lifted off the throttle. He rode the wall through the corner and shot down the frontstretch, passing Hamlin on the outside to take a top-five finish and a shot at a title. His final lap broke the Martinsville qualifying record with a lap speed of 100.483 mph. The fastest lap previously was Joey Logano’s 2014 qualifying speed of 100.201.

Chastain has had run-ins with other drivers, but this move was clean. It was also an instant legend. While it shouldn’t become the default move at Martinsville (and it probably won’t, simply because most drivers don’t have the combination of skill and sheer bravery to pull it off) it’s going to be on the NASCAR highlight reels for years to come.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: Ross Chastain Did That

What… was the weekend buzz about?

Sunday’s race was everything a playoff event should be as far as the drama of making the final cut. Saturday’s (Oct. 29) Dead On Tools 250 was a great example of how not to go about it.

The championship field for the NASCAR Xfinity Series was set by that finish, and it didn’t come without controversy. There was plenty of contact throughout the pack, including several bump-and-run moves for the race lead and among the playoff drivers. AJ Allmendinger cut a tire racing Justin Allgaier for the position that might have meant the difference between advancing or not. But through it all, the racing was clean between them. Allmendinger, despite being eliminated from title contention, shook Allgaier’s hand after the race.

What you didn’t see was drivers crossing a line and dumping each other… except for the most important pass, the race lead in NASCAR Overtime. Ty Gibbs, angry with teammate Brandon Jones for earlier contact, hit Jones on the final restart – hard enough to buckle the car’s hood – and turned Jones into the wall, eliminating him from the championship race. NASCAR, which suspended Bubba Wallace for on-track retaliation two weeks ago, chose to allow Gibbs’ move, stating that it might not have been intentional and was for the win.

Many fans, drivers and even media disagreed.

Some thought Gibbs’ family relationship to owner Joe Gibbs played a role with NASCAR’s decision.

The move looked intentional; Jones was up the track a bit and Gibbs didn’t attempt to get inside of him before hitting the No. 19.

Will Jones retaliate at Phoenix? Don’t count on it; with the playoff implications for Gibbs, NASCAR wouldn’t allow it, and Jones is unlikely to risk being suspended for the season opener with a new race team.

Where… did the other key players wind up?

Pole winner Kyle Larson had good speed all day, leading 68 laps and finishing in the top four during the opening stages. With passing at a premium, Larson had a top-five car but not quite a winning one. He finished second to Bell and will compete for the owner’s championship at Phoenix with his No. 5.

Active Martinsville win leader Hamlin led the most laps of the day at 203, doing everything he needed to do to snatch another chance at a title that has eluded him. Hamlin may have lost the race in the pits, losing positions on stops a couple of times that he couldn’t quite regain. He finished sixth, just missing the Championship 4.

Spring Martinsville winner William Byron only qualified 25th and climbed to just 19th by the end of stage one, with race leader Hamlin squeezing by to lap him by the end of the stage. He got the free pass eventually but spent most of the day mired near the back of the lead lap. Byron finally found some forward momentum in the final stage, finishing eighth, but was never a serious contender to advance.

When… was the moment of truth?

The 2022 playoffs opened with very little actual playoff drama. The nine-race stretch has seen more winners who either didn’t qualify for the playoffs or were already eliminated than ever before. But if you missed the playoff insanity, it was on full display Sunday.

The four drivers in the title race are quite a group.

Logano, at 32, is the oldest. 2022 has been a changing of the old guard and it’s further highlighted by the group of young talents racing for the Cup. Like Bell and Chastain, Logano is ultra-aggressive, and while he’s relied on consistency to give him a shot, he’ll lay it all on the line Sunday.

Elliott is the seemingly unflappable cool cucumber, but he has to be that way in the car on Sunday. He’s selectively aggressive but if it comes down to that (and it probably will), he might be outmuscled. If it’s a handling game, though, he’s in the catbird seat.

Bell is the clutch hitter stepping to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. Unless something is wrong with his car, if he’s running mid-pack at halfway, it would be foolish to count him out.

Chastain has, more than the others, had to race for his life. On-track aggression comes from a place where he wondered where his next ride was coming from and how long it might last. Because of that, he’s willing to try just about anything to win. Chastain’s weakness is that Trackhouse Racing Team, as outstanding as it has been in just its second year, has no experience in a championship race. The other organizations all have multiple titles.

Bell and Chastain provided the moment of truth at Martinsville, but the real reckoning is coming.

Also of concern this week is Tyler Reddick, who retired from the race after complaining of not feeling well after what looked like a minor front impact; the No. 8 car was able to continue afterward. Reddick also suffered a hard crash last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

On the flip side, Alex Bowman will return to the driver’s seat of the No. 48 at Phoenix, his home track, after being sidelined since Texas Motor Speedway with lingering concussion symptoms. That’s good news; here’s hoping that Reddick is back in the seat this weekend as well.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

By the time you’re reading next week’s edition of this column, NASCAR’s champions will be crowned and the engines will be quiet for three months.

The Cup Series final four will feature two drivers who have never won a title, plus the possibility of different driver and owner championships. If Larson were to win at Phoenix Raceway, the No. 5 would secure the owner’s title for Rick Hendrick, but Larson isn’t eligible to win the driver’s championship.

The question is how hard Larson — and the rest of the field — will race on Sunday. Since this playoff format was introduced, the last race of the year has come down to the four championship drivers to the point where it’s exceedingly rare to see a driver outside the top four beat any of them, let alone be able to race for the win.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed by fans. Many believe NASCAR tells the non-championship drivers to back out and let the others go. And some think there could be more going on than that. It’s easy to see why; NASCAR issues the teams the tapered spacers used in the engines and a slightly larger opening on one would certainly give enough of an advantage that no other car could race with them.

What actually goes on is probably a lot simpler. Nobody wants to be the person who ruined another driver’s title hopes, so they don’t engage.

Will this year be different? Given the drivers who still haven’t won this year, plus throw in one or more who want to give a team a parting shot on the way out, and it might not be so polite. But if history means anything, it’s a four-man race.

How… did this race stack up with the spring race at Martinsville?

The Next Gen car struggled to be competitive in Martinsville’s spring event. It was almost impossible to pass, and the field quickly strung out.

The fall event was better. Passing for the lead was still at a premium, but through the field, there was more action overall. Moves had to be set up perfectly but could be made, albeit with more contact than in the past.

The playoffs probably did play a role; after this race, there were no more chances for championship-eligible drivers to advance. It’s also one final chance for the ones who missed out or have been eliminated and want to prove something with a trip to victory lane. (Considering the history of the championship race I outlined above).

Yes, this Martinsville finish was nothing short of legendary, thanks to Bell and Chastain, but the race itself was just OK. That’s actually a step in the right direction for the Next Gen chassis on short tracks.

Follow @Writer_Amy

NASCAR RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: MARTINSVILLE

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-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 filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living 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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DoninAjax

WHY are the 15 and 77 in the event? They showed why by bringing out cautions.

janice

ty gibbs needs to be suspended for a race. but we know that won’t happen. just wait til next year when he thinks he’s the big dog at jgr. i have a feeling he and hamlin might get into it.

a final 4 with 4 different owners. it’s been a while since that has occurred.

reddick sounds like he’s got concussion. the headaches he mentioned when on the track and in turns, sounds to me something with his vision from the hit in tx. sounds like another concussion from this year. hopefully nascar has dealt with this with the new rear end for next year.

chastain’s pass was incredible. but i believe nascar will have a new rule next year to avoid duplication from anyone else.

i think kyle busch is just getting crap cars since he’s leaving. truex hasn’t ran much better. they’ll both be glad when the season is over with.

Last edited 2 months ago by janice
Tom B

The caution light and freeze the field should of happened when seeing the #1 car hit the wall at full speed. It looked like the throttle was stuck wide open. Where is the concern for safety?

Bill B

Yeah right, NASCAR is going to throw a caution as they come to the checkered flag on the last 1000 feet of the last race to qualify for the championship race. The fans would have rioted and torn the track apart. Besides, the entire deal was almost over before anyone really realized what was happening. I do expect NASCAR to do something to keep that from becoming a viable strategy in the future.

janice

but chastain had control of the car. he didn’t “hit the wall” he just road the wall high, like a lot of drivers do at tracks, he just road it extremely high.

don’t worry nascar will stop this from happening again.

Jeremy

I’m sure you’re right, Janice, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it. So last lap at Martinsville becomes 40 cars riding the wall wide open to gain/not lose spots? That would suck and kinda becomes less like racing, does it not?

That said, I loudly applaud Ross and his ingenuity to be the first to try and pull off such a stunt! That’s old school playing in the unwritten area of the rule book stuff right there! And like previous brilliant schemes to gain an edge, NASCAR will have to add a line to the rule book regarding this practice. It was a legendary move though.

I haven’t been this positively excited about a NASCAR race finish for a long time.

Bill B

I agree with that last sentence. I stuck around for the post race and even followed it to Peacock.

I also agree that we can’t have this become the norm. It was cool to see someone outsmart the system, but it’s a loophole that will need to be closed.

I wonder if that would have been possible with the old car?

Last edited 2 months ago by Bill B
janice

funny i was think about the viability of the old car being able to do this. chastain’s car survived pretty well. even after he pushed keslowski out of the way.

janice

don’t worry a rule will be made that no extreme wall riding will be done to advance positions. kind of like the yellow line rule at the superspeedways. i can’t see everyone doing it either. just those trying to be the underdog in the last race of the season.

it was a feel-good story for that team and the entire trackhouse organization.

Wayne Young

Why was the yellow flag not thrown when he hit the wall?

Bill B

see comment above….

Mr Yeppers

DBC will be really interesting this week. Lots to “discuss”

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