New Hampshire finish leaves Bubba Wallace smiling

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LOUDON, N.H. — For once, nothing broke, backfired or needed to be explained by Bubba Wallace and his 23XI Racing team. 

“It’s been hell for me the last month,” he told NBC Sports’ Kim Coon after his third-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It’s actually been more like two months for Wallace and his team.

But Sunday was a day where things went right. Wallace scored his third top-10 finish of the season and his best result since placing second in the Daytona 500.

“We’ve had a lot of speed all year, and we’ve had cars capable of that,” Wallace said. “It’s finally good to see that come to fruition. That’s what our races can be like if we continue to do that. 

“Just take a page out of this book for everybody on the team to learn from. Myself, I made a lot of mistakes today, especially in the last 20 laps just trying not to lose focus. You’ve got two of the best behind you in (Kevin) Harvick and (Martin) Truex. 

“It’s all about hitting your marks. I can go back and watch and know how to do better. I’m sure we can do better, bringing a better car. We did excellent today, I’m proud of everybody, but you can always get better, right?”

His last top 10 was two months ago at Kansas, but that 10th-place finish was not a highlight for the team. Wallace had one of the faster cars that day but two pit road penalties sent him to back each time. Wallace left the track frustrated, telling NBC Sports that his “pit crew sucks.”

Two weeks later, Wallace’s car suffered minor damage in an incident shortly before the end of the second stage at the Coca-Cola 600. Because Wallace was involved in an incident, he was on the damaged vehicle policy and had three laps to get to minimum speed. The team told him to hang back from the pack on the restart to avoid another incident. Wallace didn’t achieve the minimum speed, following his team’s instructions and NASCAR parked the car after it failed to reach speed. A team mistake ended Wallace’s race early.

Two weeks after that, Wallace finished last at Sonoma when his engine blew after nine of 110 laps.

Earlier this month, brake issues ended Wallace’s race early at Road America. 

Since placing 10th at Kansas, Wallace had four finishes of 26th or worse in the last six races.

Not having any issues at New Hampshire meant as much as scoring a top-five finish. 

“They probably only had a top 10 car, maybe around a fifth-place car best, but they executed well, put a whole race together,” Mike Wheeler, competition director for 23XI Racing, told NBC Sports. 

“There’s definitely been some emphasis lately on trying to make sure we execute races.”

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On a day when Kevin Harvick was closing the gap to the playoff cutline, Christopher Bell’s victory put Harvick further behind the cutline with six races left in the regular season. 

Harvick trailed Bell by 19 points for the final playoff spot entering New Hampshire. Harvick ran well in the first two stages, outscoring Bell 15-7 in stage points. That closed Harvick’s deficit to Bell to 11 points entering the final stage.

Everything changed during the caution at Lap 206 of the 301-lap race for Todd Gilliland’s Incident. 

Crew chief Rodney Childers called for a two-tire stop for Harvick. Childers told NBC Sports that he had watched Kyle Larson move through the field earlier in the race after a two-tire stop and thought that would help Harvick, who had one of the stronger cars.

But the pit stop did not go as well as hoped. As Harvick exited his stall, Austin Dillon entered his in front of Harvick. They made contact, slowing Harvick.

“That cost us two rows on the restart,” Childers told NBC Sports. “If we could have put two tires on and started two rows further forward, maybe it would have been a little bit better.”

Harvick restated on the inside of row three, directly behind Truex. After the green waved, Harvick dived under Truex and they went three-wide. Truex was in the middle. Harvick got by and was seventh on Lap 210. Bell was 10th.

But Bell passed Kyle Busch, Truex and Harvick on the next lap to move to seventh, beginning his run to the front, aided by a four-tire stop.

Bell became the 14th different winner this season, leaving only two playoffs spots open to drivers without victories. That put Truex on the cutline. He leads Harvick by 68 points. 

“If you can’t win,” Childers said, “you probably don’t need to be in it anyway.”

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A no-call by NASCAR last week helped play a role in Christopher Bell’s win.

Bell had a wheel come off just after he left his pit box the week before at Atlanta Motor Speedway. There was little traffic on pit road and the tire rolled slowly and didn’t go far.

Earlier this season, NASCAR amended its rule on loose wheels that allowed it to penalize a team for losing a wheel on pit road. Series officials decided not to penalize Bell’s team because the tire didn’t go far from the pit stall and didn’t impact anyone else on pit road.

Had NASCAR elected to penalize Bell’s team, crew chief Adam Stevens and two pit crew members would have been suspended four races. That could have begun at New Hampshire if the team didn’t appeal.

Stevens said it was significant not to get the penalty because it would have come one week after the team swapped a tire changer and tire carrier with Bubba Wallace’s team and switched its other tire changer. 

“It would have been a bigger factor with the over-the-wall guys than it would be without my physical presence,” Stevens said after Sunday’s win. “With all the tools and communication, ways to communicate that we have, me sitting (at Joe Gibbs Racing) wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Certainly my two engineers are very, very capable, and they could probably answer the questions that I would need to answer without my input. That wouldn’t slow us down I don’t think.

“But if you’re going back to the drawing board with the pit crew roster, we just had one week to gel in Atlanta, and this was our second week for them to gel. 

“I don’t think you can in a couple practices, work all those kinks out, and obviously we feel like we’re putting our best foot forward there. To bring a couple new guys in would have been tough. I think that would have been the story.”