By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Christopher Bell saved his title chances with an overtime win Sunday on the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a stunning finish that knocked reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Larson from the playoffs.
Bell entered the race 11th in the standings with four drivers set to be eliminated as NASCAR’s playoff field was trimmed from 12 to eight. He knew he had to win to avoid elimination, but seemed to have little chance as Chase Elliott dominated the final stage.
But a race void of any cautions suddenly flipped with five laps to go when a sponsorship sign flew off the speedway wall and landed on the track.
At last, NASCAR called a caution and the entire playoff picture changed.
Bell got fresh tires during the caution period and began charging his way through the field when the race restarted with three laps to go.
Then came the chaos.
AJ Allmendinger, winner of the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, passed Elliott for the lead. Then Kevin Harvick pushed Allmendinger off the track to take the lead and Bell kept making up ground. Elliott was pushed off track by Tyler Reddick and cars were spinning all through the field.
Another caution for a spin and a broken patch of curbing brought out yet another yellow and sent the race to overtime. Now Bell had a legitimate shot at the win.
He surged past Harvick in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at the start of the two-lap overtime sprint and pulled away. All the action was deeper in the pack, where Chase Briscoe and Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric were jockeying with Larson for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Larson, a 10-race winner last year and the most dominant driver in the country, was five laps down because he broke a part when he hit the wall earlier in the race in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. There was little he could do but hope that Briscoe and Cindric didn’t gain enough positions to bump him from the playoffs.
Cindric was spun in overtime, but Briscoe was relentless and got a boost from his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer, who used his Ford to hold up traffic to help Briscoe gain another spot and finish ninth.
Larson finished 35th and was bumped from the playoff field by two points.
Daniel Suarez, who had a power steering problem, was eliminated for Trackhouse Racing, as was Cindric of Team Penske and Alex Bowman, who on Sunday missed his second consecutive race with a concussion. Bowman and Larson’s elimination cut the Hendrick Motorsports title chances in half as only Elliott and William Byron advanced for the team that has won the last two Cup titles.
Advancing to the round of eight were: Bell, Briscoe, Byron, Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and Ryan Blaney. Chastain hit the wall to damage his Chevrolet and put Trackhouse Racing in danger of losing both its cars in the playoffs on the day it celebrated its 100th Cup start.
Suarez and Chastain finished 36th and 37th, right behind Larson.
KYLE BUSCH EFFECT
Kyle Busch last month signed with Richard Childress Racing for next season and the longtime Toyota driver’s move is already having massive ripple effects.
Childress said before Sunday’s race that fans have been visiting both the race shop in Welcome and the Childress Vineyards winery in numbers “not seen the Earnhardt days.” The late Dale Earnhardt won six championships driving for RCR, and the organization has not won a championship since Earnhardt’s final title in 1994.
Meanwhile, Childress has given Busch permission to pursue a seat in the Indianapolis 500, an endeavor he was not permitted to do in his 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. But finding a Chevrolet team that can field Busch has not been so easy.
Menards has a budget set aside and the desire to sponsor Busch, and John Menard even approached Team Penske, who he won the Indy 500 with in 2019 with driver Simon Pagenaud. Team Penske President Tim Cindric said before Sunday’s race the organization has already decided it won’t field a fourth entry in next year’s 500.
“Quite honestly, you know the last couple years we haven’t been our best at Indy, and we don’t want to dilute or distract from the three we already have,” Cindric said. “We’d only do a fourth car if it can win and not hurt the program. If you just want to do Indy as an adventure, that’s not with us.”
Arrow McLaren SP has its own difficulties in committing to a fourth car as the organization is already expanding to three teams next season. An additional Indy entry could stretch McLaren quite thin, but also, Menard wants his neon yellow colors on any car he sponsors and McLaren runs a uniform lineup of papaya orange cars.
Chevrolet, meanwhile, is very open to supplying an engine for Busch, reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Larson or even seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. All three drivers have expressed interest in running both the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 next year.
The opening race of the round of eight Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner and Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas earlier this year.
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