Christopher Bell made his entry into the Championship 4 a week early this year.
Bell passed William Byron inside a 25-lap dash and punched his ticket into the title race next month, winning NASCAR’s 4EVER 400 playoff race at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday afternoon.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver restarted third on Lap 242 after teammate Denny Hamlin hit the wall for the fifth caution.
In his No. 20 Toyota Camry, the 28-year-old Bell moved by Byron with 15 laps to go and went on to record his sixth career Cup win and second of 2023 (Bristol dirt race) by 1.651 seconds.
“That race was a whirlwind,” said Bell, who led twice for 20 laps. “I was ready to throw the towel in there in the second stage and I got really frustrated on the radio. We kept after it. … They gave me what I needed. Whenever we got some clean air, this thing was good.”
Last Sunday at Las Vegas, Bell caught Kyle Larson off the final turn but could not pass him.
Bell’s triumph advanced him to the Championship 4 in two weeks at Phoenix Raceway, where he will join Larson and two other drivers to be determined by next week’s Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway’s short track.
Last season at Martinsville, Bell earned a walk-off win to advance to the championship weekend in the Arizona desert.
Added Bell, “This is better than a dream come true.”
Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Byron and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top five.
Larson and Bell’s wins top the standings, followed by Byron and Blaney.
Four drivers reside under the cut line: Reddick, Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Chris Buescher.
After Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brought out the first caution by hitting the Turn 2 wall, Larson captured Stage 1’s bonus points — his eighth stage win in 2023 — under the yellow flag by beating Brad Keselowski.
In an uneventful Stage 2 that had drivers battling a tight condition on their cars, Larson dominated almost completely, but Team Penske driver Blaney passed him with his No. 12 Ford with three laps to go for his fifth segment win.
Disaster struck for Larson with 54 laps left in the day’s most bizarre incident.
Trailing Blaney as they came to pit road, Larson rode in hot, made slight contact with Blaney as the Ford driver slowed and drilled the sand-filled barrels buttressing the pit-road wall to cause a red-flag period.
“I was just maximizing all I could,” said Larson, who led a race-best 96 laps. “I didn’t expect him to slow so early. … From my vantage point, (he) just slowed down a lot, but from (watching a replay) it just looks like I bombed it in there.”
With 32 laps to go, JGR’s Hamlin hit the Turn 1 wall hard then teammate Truex lost an engine, ending the day for both.
–Field Level Media