A short run at the end of Friday night’s GoBowling.com 250 was just what pole winner Christopher Bell needed to charge into the second round of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs.
In a race that saw regular-season champion Justin Allgaier end his night with a hard crash into the Turn 3 wall with 24 laps left, and in a race that saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. lead the most laps in his only scheduled race of 2018, Bell surged past race leader Matt Tifft after a restart on Lap 237 of 250 and pulled away to beat Ross Chastain to the finish line by .566 seconds.
Assured of a place in the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs by virtue of his fifth victory of the season, Bell now can pay a stress-free visit to the Charlotte Road Course on Sept. 29.
“I tell you what, that’s pretty cool,” said Bell, who won for the second time at Richmond — both this season — and for the sixth time in his career. “It’s not very often you get to win with a car that’s not a winning car. So, we’ll take it.
“I want to thank my pit crew for the awesome pit stops tonight. (Crew chief) Jason Ratcliff did a great job making this thing better each and every time we hit pit road. I’m just pumped. To be able to sweep Richmond and get five wins on top of that, moving on to Round 2, I couldn’t be happier.”
Chastain, who won his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, started from the rear after his clutch locked up following a third-place effort in qualifying. Over the last 14 laps, he chased Bell, eventually running a much higher line around the .75-mile short track — but to no avail.
“I can’t believe I’m disappointed with second, but a dream come true to drive for you guys,” Chastain told his team over the radio at the end of his third and final ride in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
“I can never thank you enough. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Earnhardt, who led 96 laps, won the second stage under caution after the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Ty Majeski slammed into the inside SAFER barrier, the result of contact from teammate Ryan Reed.
“That’s the first stage win of my career,” a jubilant Earnhardt said on the team radio after taking the green/checkered flag.
“It got my expectations all messed up,” Earnhardt added after the race. “Man, I’m like, ‘Dang, I’ve got to win now.’ But we didn’t have the car at the end. We started on the outside (on the final restart), which was kind of tough. Just didn’t have what we needed at the end. But I’m glad that we got to lead a lot of laps. We ran really good for all the people that came down to watch us.”
Earnhardt, who finished fourth behind NASCAR Playoff driver Daniel Hemric, then won the race off pit road and led the field to green for a restart on Lap 159. He held the top spot until Katherine Legge — making her first oval-track start in NASCAR racing — hit the outside wall between Turns 1 and 2 to bring out the fourth caution on Lap 218.
After the race, Earnhardt hugged longtime friend and JR Motorsports driver Elliott Sadler, who announced he will retire from full-time racing at season’s end.
“We’ve been really close friends since we raced late models together,” Earnhardt said. “It just dawned on me in that moment, ‘We’ll never race (together) again.’ I’m glad he’s enjoying this.”
Tifft finished fifth, followed by Sadler, Tyler Reddick, Brandon Jones, Shane Lee and Ryan Reed. Bell took the series lead by 28 points over Hemric and 34 over Allgaier, who held third because of his points advantage entering the NASCAR Playoffs.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Allgaier, who clobbered the Turn 3 wall after contact between the Ford Mustangs of Austin Cindric and Cole Custer knocked Custer’s car into Allgaier’s. “Just unfortunate to be in that position, but at least we’ve got a good points lead.”