LOUDON, New Hampshire – In the waning light, Christopher Bell met the NASCAR question with a bemused grin and knowing laugh, about 30 minutes before darkness actually fell at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Did series officials call the end of Sunday’s Cup Series race too soon?
“I finished second and I was closing in on the leader, so yes, they called it too soon,” Bell said after finishing 0.697 seconds behind winner Aric Almirola (and coming up a spot short of sweeping the Cup-Xfinity weekend at the 1.058-mile oval). “But I’m sure Aric was saying it was dark for the last 50 laps, and that’s the thing. And then we call it with eight laps to go, what’s eight more laps?
“If the yellow flag comes out, OK, call the race. But eight laps? That’s, what, four minutes? What’s four minutes going to do in the grand scheme of things? I ran second, so I’m sure (Almirola) was saying it was dark the whole time.”
— Christopher Bell (@CBellRacing) July 19, 2021
Indeed, Almirola joked he “could see perfectly” until he took the lead “and then it got dark really quickly,” but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver later conceded it wasn’t dangerous when he took the checkered flag on Lap 293 of a scheduled 301 shortly after 8 p.m. ET and about 20 minutes before the listed sunset.
The conditions offered much more visibility than the Nov. 1, 2015 playoff race that ended in darkness at Martinsville Speedway.
Almirola, whose victory had major playoff implications because he was outside a provisional berth on points. said he still could see fans clearly in the frontstretch grandstands while doing his winning burnout in the No. 10 Ford.
“It honestly wasn’t that bad,” he said after qualifying for the playoffs with his first victory in nearly three years. “There was enough light to keep racing. It was definitely dusk, but it wasn’t dark.”
NASCAR warned teams under caution after the end of the second stage on Lap 185 that the race, which was stopped for one hour and 41 minutes after a controversial caution flag on Lap 7, could end early because of darkness.
But that yellow flag was the last of six in the race, and it seemed the race would end at its scheduled length until Lap 283 when NASCAR informed teams the race had 10 laps remaining (with Bell 1.2 seconds behind Almirola).
“We just felt like it was getting too dark and needed to call it,” NASCAR executive vice president of competition Scott Miller said. “It’s just as simple as that. Completely based on the raceability. We rely on the communication from the teams and spotters. They were about half thumbs up and half thumbs down. We have tinted glass on the front of the tower, and it’s much harder for us to see out, so it started to become a little bit iffy even knowing which was which.”
Third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said the call was “pretty smart. You have to keep in mind that what you can see on TV is not what you can see in the car, and you can always see a lot less in the car than you can even on site, so whether it’s Circuit of the Americas where we had no visibility or here, bad things happen when you can’t see.”
It was unclear whether NASCAR ever had given such a 10-lap warning before to teams.
The Sept. 30, 2007 race at Kansas Speedway is believed to be the most recent Cup race to have been shortened (by 85 laps) because of darkness (Kansas had yet to install lights until 2011).
NASCAR shortened that event first by 42 laps when it was restarted after two red flags for rain caused a delay of nearly three hours. Another 15 laps were cut off after three caution flags in the first 30 laps after the race resumed.
Adam Stevens, crew chief for Bell, said a 20-lap warning might have been better and added “if you’re going to start races at 3:30 p.m., then you need to have a track that has lights because you’ve locked yourself into any kind of delay.” But Stevens also said NASCAR was “in a tough spot.”
“There’s a line in the sand somewhere,” Stevens told NBC Sports. “I don’t know how you determine when you cross it. There’s definitely a point where it’s too dark to race. Do I think we crossed that? No. Am I biased? Yes.
“I think that was a fair way to do it. It would be nice if there was some kind of subjective criteria of when to pull that trigger. But it’s one of the very few times they’ve had to do that, too, so maybe in the future they could come up with something like that.”
Bell had to flip his tinted visor up for the final 50 laps but felt the conditions were safe enough as he charged from fourth to second in the final 25 laps while pursuing his second victory of the season.
Bell was 1.7 seconds behind when he passed Keselowski for second on Lap 274. He cut Almirola’s gap to 1.2 seconds when NASCAR made the call to shorten the race, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver sliced off another half-second over the final 10 laps.
“I wish we had eight more laps,” Bell said. “I don’t even know if I would have got him in the eight. It was really hard to pass, so he was going to make me earn it, but it was going to be a hell of a race.”