Christopher Bell beat William Byron and Ryan Blaney on a late race restart at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 22, to pick up his second NASCAR Cup Series win of the season and punch his ticket to the Championship 4. Blaney came home second, with Tyler Reddick third, Byron fourth, and AJ Allmendinger rounding out the top five.
For the second year in a row, a win in the Round of 8 has earned Bell a spot in the Phoenix finale, and just two spots remain for the other six playoff competitors to continue their championship bids.
But What Really Happened?
Homestead put on a show, plain and simple.
All of the talk about how the championship race needs to move away from Phoenix, the debates on where the race should go, and all that other jazz should be over after today, because today’s race not only proved it should be at Homestead, it proved it should’ve never left in the first place.
The championship race topic has been a controversial the past two years, and it ramped up once again when NASCAR released the 2024 schedule a couple weeks ago with Phoenix still listed as the finale.
Over the course of Phoenix’s short history of championship races, its track record is pretty lackluster, with 2021 being the only one that produced any sort of excitement.
On the flip side, Homestead never really failed to produce excitement, drama and memorable finishes in its time as the finale, and in my opinion has actually suffered from not being the title race over the past two seasons.
Some of the blame for last year’s lack of excitement can be pinned on Kyle Larson, who took the field behind the woodshed so to speak and dominated, but today was a nice rebound after last year’s race was a dud.
Diving deeper into the stats, at first glance the two tracks seem to produce about the same, as the three Phoenix races so far in the Next Gen car have had 10, 11 and 14 lead changes. In those races, there has been an average of 9.2, 7.6 and 7.9 green flag passes per lap, which seems pretty good.
As for Homestead, we don’t have 100% of the data from this year’s race, but what we do know is that there were 11 lead changes a year ago with an average of 12.2 green flag passes per lap, and there were a whopping 25 lead changes in this year’s race.
However, if you look closer, you’ll see the difference. Take out lead changes within two laps after a restart, or due to a pit cycle, and there was only one green flag pass for the lead during each of the past two spring races at Phoenix, and only two in last year’s championship race.
On the other hand, despite Larson’s dominance, there were three green flag passes for the lead in last year’s Homestead race, followed by five this year.
So why is this? It all boils down to the car, and the track. It’s no secret that the Next Gen package is not good on short tracks; this is put on full display at Phoenix, where it was already hard to pass to begin with. There isn’t much room to move around and get out of dirty air, so the effect is amplified.
At Homestead, you see the exact opposite. The Next Gen car puts on its best shows at 1.5-mile racetracks, and at Homestead drivers can run all over from top to bottom, and the plethora of different lines means drivers can move out of dirty air and race side by side for laps on end.
Phoenix may pass the stats test in some categories, but it will never pass the eye test the way Homestead does for a championship race — and that’s ultimately what gets fans to tune in and watch, especially for such a marquee event. It’s time for NASCAR to admit it made a mistake and give us back a South Florida sunset for the championship race in 2025.
Who Stood Out?
There were comers and goers throughout the day, but in the end it was Bell who stood out above the rest.
Bell started the day down in 13th but quickly made up ground in the early stages. He cracked the top 10 for the first time on lap 13, and he stayed put in the back half of the top 10 for the remainder of stage one, where he finished ninth.
From there, however, it looked like it was all falling apart for Bell, as he began a free fall through the pack. He fell outside the top 20 by lap 116 and never really recovered for the rest of stage two, even being in danger of going a lap down at one point.
Frustration began to boil over inside the No. 20 team, as Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens had a heated exchange on the radio in the closing laps of the stage. Bell finished outside the top 20 in stage two, but things began to turn around from there.
By lap 182, Bell had found his way back to the top 10, and completed his first green flag lap inside the top five on lap 218. Bell then took the lead for the first time on lap 130 with a three-wide move for the lead around Blaney and Byron. Suddenly, a day that looked like near disaster an hour prior looked like a golden opportunity.
When the yellow flew again seven laps later, the field came down pit road again for tires, and for the second week in a row, the No. 20 team cost Bell the lead on pit road during the final stop of the race. Yet this time, the results were different than a week ago at Las Vegas.
Ultimately, Bell worked his way around Blaney and then Byron in the final 16 laps, then drove off into the sunset.
Who Fell Flat?
Larson. What a difference a week, and a year makes.
Just one year ago, Larson led 199 laps en route to one of the most dominant wins we’ve seen so far in the Next Gen car. Just last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Larson led 133 laps on his way to his fourth win of the season, securing his spot in the Championship 4.
Today, it was the same story but with different results. Once again, the No. 5 seemed to be the class of the field, taking the lead on lap 54 and ultimately winning stage one. Larson took off once again in stage two, leading a majority of the stage before fading late to third at the end of the stage.
Larson dropped back at the beginning of the final stage before working his way back up to the second spot by lap 194. As the run progressed, Larson continued to breakeven with race leader Blaney, and it seemed as though whoever got on and off pit road with the lead would be able to control the race from there.
Larson knew he had to make up time, and that started with charging the entry to pit road — so that’s exactly what he did. The only problem was that race leader Blaney didn’t.
Larson carried a ton of momentum toward the entry of pit road, all while Blaney simultaneously backed up the entry to pit road. Larson’s dominant day ended in the yellow barrels soon after.
Neither Larson or Blaney did anything particularly wrong. It was a simple fact of Blaney being conservative and Larson being aggressive, and Larson just about plowed through the back of the No. 12 as he opted to take out the barrels instead.
Larson took the car behind the wall, and after leading 96 laps on the day, he was credited with a 34th-place finish.
None of this really matters for Larson, as he’s locked into the Championship 4 at Phoenix in two weeks’ time, but it’s still a missed opportunity to put pressure on the competition for the No. 5 team.
Better Than Last Time?
Absolutely, no doubt about it.
Last year was the Kyle Larson show. He dominated in every aspect of the race, leading all but 68 laps, and at one point held a 10-second lead.
This year, on the other hand, was entertaining from start to finish. Larson probably had the best car once again, but the competition was a lot closer this year.
Not to mention, when Larson made the mistake and barreled his way onto pit road (no pun intended), it turned the race upside down. All the sudden, we had new players at the front and an even playing field with the best car out of the race.
The three-wide restart battle between Bell, Byron and Blaney alone was more exciting than anything from last year’s race, followed by the Blaney and Hamlin battle that ended with Hamlin in the wall and Martin Truex Jr. blowing up before the ensuing restart.
This year’s race had a whopping 25 lead changes compared to last year’s 11, and seven cars led 10 or more laps in this year’s event compared to only three a year ago.
None of this was aided by more cautions either, as both races saw the caution flag fly five times, with the only difference being three natural cautions a year ago and four this year, one of which led to the end of the stage.
Paint Scheme of The Race
As the Cup Series made its annual stop in South Florida, there was no shortage of paint schemes that brought the heat to sunny south beach. Three schemes that made their debut earn honorable mentions this week, those being the Ally Miami Vice-themed colors on Alex Bowman’s No. 48.
The Grimace-inspired McDonald’s colors aboard Bubba Wallace‘s No. 23 also deserve some love.
However, it was the return of some familiar colors that stood out above the rest.
The nostalgia effect of seeing Kevin Harvick back in the Budweiser colors that won him a title at this very track nine years ago was incredible. Such an amazing tribute to an amazing career that’s coming to a close.
One last chance for the championship hopefuls.
The Cup Series makes its second stop at Martinsville Speedway, as NASCAR’s shortest track hosts the penultimate race of the season. The Cup Series is set to qualify for the Xfinity 500 on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 1:20 p.m. ET, with the race set for Sunday, Oct. 29 at 2:00 p.m. ET, live on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
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