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Bell Victorious in Shortened 600

It was announced back on May 22nd that for the third straight year, the longest and most grueling race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule – the Coca-Cola 600, was sold out. This past Monday, it was announced that former President and current candidate Donald Trump would be attending the event. Yes, indeed there was quite a bit of buzz (no Charlotte pun intended) around the 65th running of the motorsports endurance event that always puts the nightcap on the biggest day for motorsports worldwide.

 

What was the reason for the added energy? The biggest storyline coming in centered around Kyle Larson. The 2021 Cup champion was looking to be the first full-time NASCAR driver to complete the Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 double header since Tony Stewart back in 2001. On top of that, Larson would be the first Cup driver in a decade to attempt the feat, the last being Kurt Busch.

 

On top of Larson’s headline feat, the fervor could be tied to the recent history of the event. While it has not had a crazy finish like we saw at Atlanta or Kansas earlier this year, Charlotte’s oval has become an example of just how well NASCAR’s NextGen car performs on 1.5 mile tracks. The racing in the Coke 600, which was stale at best during the Gen 6 car era, often dominated by one car (see 2018 Kyle Busch and 2021 Kyle Larson), has improved over the last 2 years. Connect the better product with a superstar storyline and the strategy aspect of this particular event, and you have all the ingredients in place for a good time.

 

The trend all this weekend and what the 600 is known for as an endurance event? Races are determined by aggressive pit strategy on the last yellow. This race had an extra variable added in that drove the pit strategy – Mother Nature.

 

Things started off in typical Coke 600 fashion with cars struggling with finding grip on the hot track and running as conservatively as possible to avoid an early demise. The field strung out single file with polesitter Ty Gibbs pacing the way all the way up to the first green flag pit stops of the evening at lap 41, cycling back to the top spot 10 laps later when Shane Van Gisbergen was the last to come in.

 

As the lengthy green flag run continued, William Byron eventually managed to run down Gibbs and take the lead at lap 72 up until 14 laps later when BJ McLeod lost the back end of the car and spun out in turn 4 to bring out the race’s first caution. Pit strategy immediately came into play with the timely yellow, as all the lead lap cars opted to come in and take a set of fresh tires and fuel. Once things went green, it was William Byron that resumed the lead, cruising to the stage one win.

 

Many of the leaders came back in under the stage break caution to make adjustments, including Kyle Busch, who was struggling so hard that his team was throwing the kitchen sink at the car with an extended pit stop, even going so far as to take some rounds out of the right front in an effort to increase grip.

 

When the green dropped for stage 2, Ross Chastain would jump to the point before being overtaken shortly thereafter by Christopher Bell at lap 123, leading to another uneventful stretch up to lap 142 when the next pit cycle began, which was highlighted by an issue with the defending series champion and Coca Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney.

 

When Blaney came in, the right front tire was not tightened all the way, which led to the wheel breaking and sending him hard into the wall. The impact was so hard it took away his ability to steer the car, which led to one of the stranger caution flags you will ever see thrown. As the Damaged Vehicle Policy clock expired to bring his night to an end, Blaney was asked to go park it in the garage. However, he could not steer the car to the garage entry road in the pits, leading to a need to throw a yellow so as to get a tow truck to take him back.

 

During that caution, 4 cars stayed out – Martin Truex Jr, Daniel Suarez, Josh Berry, and Chase Elliott. But as the stage rolled on, that gamble only paid off for 1 of them – Elliott. He went on to lead a lap, but the decision to stay out led to him being able to stay in the top 10 thanks to a couple of cautions – a solo spin on the backstretch by Noah Gragson at lap 170 and a spin that broke the toe link on the 21 of Harrison Burton – the latter of which ended the 2nd stage as Christopher Bell went on to take the green and white checker. That position was exactly where Bell wanted to be, given what was coming.

 

The next biggest story to come of the night was that the line of storms that threatened and delayed the Indianapolis 500, leading to Kyle Larson making the difficult choice to miss the start of the Coke 600 and hand the reins of the 5 car to Justin Allgaier, made an impact on this race. Radar started to show that it was inevitable the teams were likely racing to the rain. With the end of stage 2 at lap 200, the race was at the halfway point. With stage three started, the race became official in the event it would be called. They were able to complete another 45 laps, slowed by a caution for a Corey LaJoie spin at lap 228 and then again for rain at lap 245.

 

Prior to the final yellow, Kyle Larson made his triumphant arrival, borderline sprinting from the golf cart to his pit box to get ready to switch out with Allgaier. But, to add in to the killjoy of missing the start of the 600, Larson would not even get a chance to turn one lap. During the rain-induced caution, lightning struck, forcing a red flag and clearing of the stands. As the storm picked up, the track was lost and the possibility of finishing was left in doubt.

 

Around 11:30, the race was declared over due to extreme humidity creating a lack of progress in drying the track, giving leader Christopher Bell his first win in a “crown jewel” event.

 

“It feels so good. The last two Coca-Cola 600s, I feel like we’ve had the potential to go to Victory Lane, and both times we haven’t been able to do it. We’ve really been in a slump the last couple weeks. So, to come out here and have a banner day in such a high-profile prestigious event is really big for us. It was a much-needed day for sure”, said Bell following the rain-shortened victory.

 

The possibility of rain made for a mad dash from the moment stage three went green, with everyone trying to determine the stakes of a gamble.

 

“I don’t know exactly when I got told about the rain. I think it was right at the stage break. They said that the rain was coming and we likely wouldn’t get to the end of stage three. So, you could feel the intensity in the race pick up and people were being very aggressive for how early we still were in a 600 mile event because they knew that we were racing to the rain”, said Bell of the last 45 laps.

 

While many fans — particularly the 90,000 + in attendance at the track may be understandably frustrated with the decision to end the race with no further rain in the forecast, obviously Christopher Bell has a difference of opinion. After all, he did lead the most laps in this race, tallying 90 laps at the front, which is not easy even with clean air.

 

“It’s still a win for me. Like I said, the last two years, we’ve been really competitive in this event. It’s not like we just lucked into this thing. We led laps. I passed for the lead. We had great pit stops. The Pit Crew did amazing. The only thing is that it was just 400 miles instead of 600”, said Bell.

 

“I’m very proud of this 20 group because they have been working really hard to get us back to where we need to be. We’ve been extremely disappointed with how our season’s gone. I think that this win just goes to show the capability of this team is there and we’re good. We haven’t been performing like we want to. But, if we put all of it together, we can certainly be a contender week in and week out and I can be a guy that wins a handful of races year in and year out. I don’t want to be a one or 2 win a year guy. I want to be a 5 to 10 win guy”, Bell later added.

 

Not to be roost in the chaos of the weather, Justin Allgaier became a story with how he did filling Larson’s seat. In the early going, Allgaier found himself a lap down and knocking on the door of being out of contention. Knowing he needed to get back on the lead lap for Kyle Larson to have any chance at winning the race, he fought hard and worked his way back into the top 15, almost in similar fashion to what Jeremy Clements did in the Xfinity Series race Saturday, ironically also finishing 13th.

 

“I wanted to be in the top 10. I felt like when the rain came, we were finally on the verge of being able to break into the top ten. That’s what I really wanted. I was feeling good, everything was great, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t my job. It was unbelievable how fast the car was. I think it had more potential. My biggest weakness tonight was the dirty air — where to place my car, how to get myself in clean air. At the end of the day, I did my job to keep the car in shape and put Kyle in a position to go try and win the race” said Allgaier.

 

Other noteworthy finishes from this race were Brad Keselowski coming home 2nd, William Byron nabbing a third place finish, Denny Hamlin rounding out the top 5, Chase Elliott finishing 7th, and Josh Berry rounding out the top 10. Also of note, Kyle Larson, by virtue of not completing a lap dropped from a thirty point lead in the standings to being 3rd place six points back from new leader Denny Hamlin.

 

With the 600 in the rearview, the Cup Series heads to St. Louis area for the Enjoy Illinois 300 at Worldwide Technology Raceway. Green flag drops at 3:30 next Sunday on FS1.

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