Christopher Bell wins at Homestead, joins Larson in title race

Christopher Bell celebrates after winning Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Marta Lavandier / AP Photo)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Christopher Bell wasn’t thinking of winning the race.

Balance issues with his Toyota caused him to fall to 22nd after Stage 2 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But Bell took advantage of a late caution in Stage 3 and stormed from behind for his second win of the season.

“I can’t even say I was thinking of a win at any point in the day except maybe the last 10 laps,” Bell said.

Bell took the lead with 15 laps to go and held off Ryan Blaney for a win that locked him into next month’s NASCAR Championship finale.

Bell, who entered the race below the playoff cutline, will compete in his second straight championship race. He beat Blaney by 1.651 seconds Sunday and only led 26 of 267 laps in a chaotic race in which three playoff drivers did not finish.

“Today was a whirlwind for sure,” said Bell, who drives the No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing. “To be able to overcome and to be in that bad of a spot … it was just incredible that difference a couple pit stop adjustments will do to your car. “

There were 25 lead changes — one fewer than the track’s record of 26 set in 2011.

Blaney, who led for 53 laps, moved above the cutline — up from seventh. Tyler Reddick and William Byron finished third and fourth and are still vying for a spot in the Nov. 5 title-deciding finale.

Six drivers will compete for the remaining two spots next week in the final race of the round of eight at Martinsville Speedway.

Kyle Larson, last year’s Homestead winner, was out of the race at Lap 214 after he slammed into the pit road barriers trying to overtake Blaney for the lead. Larson was going too fast after heading into pit lane and said he didn’t expect Blaney to slow down as early as he did.

Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet clipped the rear of Blaney’s Ford, but Blaney was able to pit as the caution flag came out and continued.

Larson had been dominating the race, in which he was a favorite to win. He led for 96 laps before Blaney nudged ahead of him late in Stage 2 for the lead. Larson is already locked into the finale with his victory in the opening race of the round of eight in Las Vegas.

The crash briefly made it a race between Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, who took the lead on the restart. But JJ Yeley, Brad Keselowski and Ross Chastain were all involved in a wreck seconds later, causing the caution flag to come out for the fifth time in the race, which ultimately gave Bell room to stage a comeback.

After the restart, Hamlin slammed into the wall on Turn 1 and radioed that something broke in the steering and sent him into the wall. He was out of the race with 32 laps to go in an unfortunate turn of events for Joe Gibbs Racing — Hamlin’s teammate Martin Truex Jr., another playoff driver, left with an engine issue moments later.

Both playoff drivers will look for a better outcome next week.

“We’ve still got a chance,” said owner Job Gibbs. “That’s the way we look at it. We’re going to Martinsville. It’s going to be a classic, I’m sure, but we do have a chance.”

The race was named the 4EVER 400 presented by Mobil 1 in a nod to Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who will retire from NASCAR at the end of this season after 60 career victories and three NASCAR national series championships.

Sunday was Harvick’s last race at the track where he won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship nine years ago. He finished 11th Sunday.