Christopher Bell dominated the second half and won Sunday’s 500-lap NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Martinsville Speedway to claim a spot in the Championship Four Nov. 6 at Phoenix Raceway.
Bell, who advanced to the final four for the first time, faced a must-win situation Sunday and came through.
Bell’s victory was almost overshadowed by a last-gasp, last-lap dash by Ross Chastain, who bulled his way through the top 10 riding the outside wall to edge Denny Hamlin for the last playoff spot.
Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Bell and Chastain will race for the title in Phoenix. The highest finisher of the four will win the Cup championship. Logano qualified for the Phoenix four by winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The other three finalists qualified Sunday.
POINTS, RESULTS: Where everyone finished and the postrace standings
Chastain, who has had a breakout season for Trackhouse Racing, tried a crazy, rarely-seen strategy on the last lap. He pushed his car beyond its limits, jamming it against the outside wall and zooming past five cars while scraping the wall. He edged Hamlin at the finish line to surprise most in the crowd and many of his competitors. His last lap was run in 18.845 seconds, faster than the track qualifying record.
The stunning run by Chastain, which he said he had tried on a NASCAR video game, sent his pit into a frenzy of disbelief and celebration.
Bell finished in front of Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Chastain. After the race, Keselowski was disqualified because his car failed to meet minimum weight requirements. He was dropped to last place.
Hamlin, who led 203 laps but faltered near the finish, ended the afternoon four points below the cutline. William Byron (minus-21), Ryan Blaney (minus-26) and Chase Briscoe (minus-61) also failed to qualify for the Phoenix championship hunt.
Bell took control of the race in the second half and was leading Blaney by a few car lengths with 34 laps to go when Landon Cassill crashed to bring out the caution flag. The leaders pitted for tires, but Briscoe, who needed a win to make the final four, stayed on track, hoping to keep track position with older tires.
Briscoe, who finished ninth, eventually lost the lead to the drivers with fresher tires. Bell passed him for first place with five laps to go.
Bell, who led 150 laps, said his team gave him the day’s best car.
“When our back is against the wall, looks like it’s over, they show up and give me the fastest car out here,” he said. “I don’t know, man. Words can’t describe this feeling.”
Words also fell short for those trying to describe Chastain’s dramatic come-from-behind burst. Forcing the car into the outside wall and riding it to the finish he needed was the sort of script no movie producer would accept.
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Surprisingly for the tight confines of Martinsville, much of the race was run without cautions (other than those at stage ends). This resulted in most of the field being at least a lap behind the leaders by the end of Stage 2. The first “non-stage” caution occurred on lap 274 when Chastain pushed Brad Keselowski into the outside wall.
The chances of Briscoe reaching the final four declined considerably when he was sent to the rear of the field for removing equipment. During a pit stop at the end of Stage 1, his gas can wound up in another pit stall.
Kyle Larson led 68 laps and Elliott 52 in the first stage, but Hamlin charged to the front with 10 laps left and won the stage. Hamlin also won the second stage. Hamlin led 140 of the race’s first 260 laps.
Stage 1 winner: Denny Hamlin
Stage 2 winner: Denny Hamlin
Who had a good race: Christopher Bell had the power when he needed it and scored in a must-win situation. The victory was the 200th for Joe Gibbs Racing. … Ross Chastain made an outrageous last-lap run that will be talked about for years to come.
Who had a bad race: Kyle Busch was lapped early and often. He finished 30th, six laps down. … Martin Truex Jr., usually a contender at Martinsville, was never in the mix at the front and finished 21st, two laps down. … Tyler Reddick parked his car before the halfway point, saying he didn’t feel well. He was examined and released from the infield care center. He finished last.
Next: The NASCAR Cup Series champion will be decided in the season finale Nov. 6 at Phoenix Raceway. The race will be broadcast by NBC.