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June 23, 2024

Bell weathers conditions, rolls to victory in weekend sweep at New Hampshire

LOUDON, N.H. — Christopher Bell continued his dominance at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, claiming a sweep of the NASCAR race weekend, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver really had to earn that broom in Sunday’s weather-challenged USA Today 301.

The 29-year-old Oklahoman beat Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe to the finish line by 1.104 seconds in overtime in a race that lasted six hours — including a two-hour-plus rain delay — and ultimately ended with the field on wet-weather tires, marking only the second time in NASCAR history a points-paying race used the newly developed tires for damp conditions.

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos: NHMS

Bell’s No. 20 JGR Toyota led a race-best 149 of the 305 laps Sunday, a day after he won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the 1.058-mile New England oval. He is now one of four drivers to have three NASCAR Cup Series wins on the season. It was his ninth career series win.

Bell was so excited with the victory he even promised he would “pick that sucker up,” referring with a smile to the traditional lobster given to race winners in Victory Lane, something he previously was reluctant to do.

“It was literally the tale of two different events. You never know how this thing is going to shake out whenever you change so many things like that and have adverse conditions,” said a beaming Bell, who now has seven wins in 11 national series starts at the New Hampshire track — collecting his fourth NASCAR Xfinity Series win on Saturday. “I personally love adverse conditions because you’re always trying to think outside the box.

“When we went back out [on wet-weather tires after the red-flag delay], I was feeling around and it felt like the normal Loudon groove was really really slippery so I tried to just run down or up, but [crew chief] Adam [Stevens] really put the tune on this thing, and it was running good. This is really cool.”

SHOP: Race winner gear

It was certainly new territory for the series and the sport. In years past, perhaps the race would just have been stopped when the rain showers came through, with enough laps in the book to make it an official points event.

But with the recent development of wet-weather tires for shorter ovals, NASCAR instead opted to wait out the showers and give the grooved tires a try on a damp track. NASCAR officials said they would have absolutely had to just call the race early had it not been for the tires.

“We’d have been done with 82 laps to go and instead it gave us a chance to go back to green,” NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer told reporters after the race. “Kudos to our drivers, our owners and especially [NASCAR CEO] Jim France for his vision.”

Those final 86 laps of competition — which included the overtime stretch with cars on the wet-weather tires — changed up the complexion in multiple ways. Drivers who had been out of the mix previously — like Briscoe and his SHR teammate, third-place finisher Josh Berry — worked their way forward quickly and kept Bell honest.

Others, such as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, who had been third when the race was red-flagged struggled a bit more on the wet-weather tires. Hamlin finished 24th.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, who was runner-up when the red flag flew, instead finished 25th after a collision with Michael McDowell in their contest for second place in the closing laps of regulation. McDowell was able to continue and finished 15th.

MORE: Collision foils Blaney, McDowell late

Briscoe smiled and said, “Two hours ago we couldn’t even run 25th and the rain saved us. Awesome recovery. This is one of my worst race tracks so to run second is kind of surprising, to be honest. The rain kind of saved us because if it wasn’t rain, we would have probably run maybe 24th but had a couple good restarts.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ Larson finished fourth followed by RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher — another driver who dramatically moved up in the field after the red flag.

23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick, who was leading the race when the red flag came out with 219 laps complete, finished sixth, followed by JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Legacy Motor Club’s John Hunter Nemechek, JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain — notable comebacks for Truex and Chastain, who were both involved in earlier caution periods.

The finish for Larson now brings him into a tie with Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott on top of the standings with Hamlin in third place, 40 points back. Elliott was involved in an accident with Joey Logano just before the red flag and finished 18th.

With eight races remaining to set the 16-driver NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, there was substantial movement in the bottom half of the standings with drivers currently in playoff position based on points not having scored a win yet.

Team Penske’s Logano, who finished 32nd Sunday, moved into the final playoff points position, and 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace dropped out of points eligibility after an accident with 35 laps left in regulation eliminated him from the race. Wallace finished 34th out of the 36 cars and is now 17th in the playoff standings, one position below the cutoff.

A handful of other playoff hopefuls found trouble in the course of the event, with Alex Bowman becoming the first retiree with engine woes on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He ended up last in the 36-car field.

Kyle Busch’s postseason hopes took another damaging hit after three incidents — a Turn 2 tangle with Noah Gragson in the second stage, a Lap 216 stack-up that sent his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevy spinning again, and finally a single-car crash into the Turn 4 wall under caution on a damp track before the race went back green.

The Cup Series’ next race is the Ally 400, scheduled next Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) at Nashville Superspeedway.

Note: Post-race inspection was completed without issue in the Cup Series garage, confirming Christopher Bell as the winner.

Contributing: Staff reports