In a playoff round that has been feast or famine for Christopher Bell, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry gorged to his heart’s content on Saturday at ISM Raceway.
Starting from 38th, Bell roared through the field to win the Whelen Trusted To Perform 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series race and advance to the Nov. 17 season championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Faced with a must-win situation entering the Round of 8 elimination race, Bell did exactly that. By the end of Stage 1, he had cracked the top 10. At the end of Stage 2, he was fourth. And on Lap 108 of 200, he took the lead under green for the first time, forcing his way past pole winner John Hunter Nemechek for the top spot.
The Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender never trailed after that, winning for the seventh time this season, the first time at Phoenix and the eighth time in his career. In a playoff format in which victory provides redemption for a multitude of ills, Bell rallied from first-lap crashes at both Kansas and Texas to earn his spot in the Championship 4.
“I’ll be honest, after Kansas and Texas, I just kind of accepted that we weren’t going to be able to get there,” Bell said. “I just came over here with a ‘Let’s have fun’ attitude. To start in the back, we didn’t really make our way up front that fast. I kind of got stalled out once I got into the top 15.
“I knew this thing was really fast, because [on Friday] in practice, it was really good… I’m just thankful for my team. They brought probably the best car we’ve had all year here this weekend. It’s a pleasure to drive ’em, and a race car driver is only as good as his race car. This thing was unbelievably fast.”
Bell joined Texas winner Cole Custer in the Championship 4 Round, along with Saturday’s runner-up Daniel Hemric and sixth-place finisher Tyler Reddick, both of whom advanced on points.
Matt Tifft ran third but fell short in the playoffs, as did regular-season champion Justin Allgaier, who won the first and second stages but sustained heavy damage to the right front of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet when Nemechek slid sideways across the track on Lap 145 and clobbered Allgaier’s car.
Allgaier later lost his brakes before finishing 24th.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Allgaier, who lost seven spots on pit road after sliding into his stall under caution on Lap 139. “But we did everything we could in the first two stages. We had a really fast Brandt Camaro. We had a lot of trouble today, seeing our pit stall. It was really difficult to see where we were at and navigate that. I lost us some spots on pit road.
“Ultimately, that put ourselves in a bad position. Got some damage, and we lost the brakes there at the end. At that point it was just about survival, finishing the race and getting as many points as we could gain.”
Likewise, veteran Elliott Sadler left Phoenix disappointed after early contact with the No. 40 Toyota of Chad Finchum cost him track position he could never regain. Sadler finished 11th and failed to advance to Homestead in his final year as a full-time NASCAR driver.
“I made too many mistakes today to give my guys an opportunity,” Sadler said. “It’s all on me. My guys work too hard and deserve to be a part of this Championship 4 at Homestead, but I just didn’t pull my part through.
“It’s going to be an emotional week. I have one race left, and my wife and kids are coming to Homestead, and we’ll make the most of it, but it’s definitely going to be hard to look my guys in the eye, knowing we’re not part of the championship.”
Austin Cindric, whose only path to the Championship 4 was to win at ISM Raceway, finished fourth. Ryan Preece and Brandon Jones were fifth and seventh, respectively, with Custer finishing eighth. Nemechek and Spencer Gallagher completed the top 10.
Pit notes: Chevrolet claimed its 19th manufacturer championship in the Xfinity Series after the drop of the green flag. The title is the fourth in the last five years for the automaker. … Akinori Ogata, a 45-year-old native of Japan, crashed in the first lap of his Xfinity Series debut. He spun again on Lap 100 and limped to an 33rd-place finish, 21 laps down.