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It would be easy to ridicule Joe Gibbs Racing for the debacle that took Christopher Bell out of the running in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

So, let’s get started.

Atlanta was a near-miss for NASCAR Cup Series playoff hopefuls

Christopher Bell loses a wheel from the No. 20 Toyota after a pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022. | James Gilbert/Getty Images
Christopher Bell loses a wheel from the No. 20 Toyota after a pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 10, 2022. | James Gilbert/Getty Images

Atlanta Motor Speedway has become a de facto superspeedway, and whether that’s good is a topic for another day. (Hint: It’s probably not.) On Sunday, it created the sort of scenario we’ve become accustomed to at Daytona and Talladega: The Quaker State 400 was coming down to crunch time with unexpected contenders in the mix.

Corey LaJoie, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Justin Haley, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, Martin Truex Jr., and Christopher Bell were among the drivers in contention. The significance is that all are winless in 2022, and taking the checkered flag at AMS would have constituted a big step toward becoming one of the 16 reaching the playoffs.

The last lap turned into a nail-biter. After grabbing the lead, Chase Elliott threw a block that spun LaJoie into the outside wall. Elliott took the checkered flag under a yellow to score his third victory of the season and put some added distance between himself and Blaney in the standings.

The Cup Series moves to New Hampshire Motor Speedway next weekend still standing on 13 different winners and Bell clinging to the last playoff spot.

A mistake in the pits cost Christopher Bell his chance to win

Christopher Bell’s shot at winning ended on Lap 236 of the scheduled 260, though it wasn’t apparent at the time. While running sixth, Bell’s Toyota got loose coming out of Turn 4. However, the driver caught two breaks:

  • Despite the spin, he didn’t have a tire go down.
  • The incident took place just before pit lane, allowing him to drive through grass and then through pit lane to get back on the track.

Still, the caution flag came out. When Bell came back around, he pitted for tires. As the racing world saw, he came in with four and left with three. The jack came down, signaling Bell to hit the gas, but the left rear wheel lug nut hadn’t been secured. The wheel rolled away from the car as Bell pulled out, and that all but ended his chance to win.

Bell finished 19th.

The big JGR change to help Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace failed

Christopher Bell’s misfortune came five days after Joe Gibbs Racing assigned him three new pit crew members, two of whom came from Bubba Wallace’s 23XI Racing crew. (JGR handles assignments for both organizations.)

The fact that none of the new crew members on the No. 20 Toyota were directly responsible for the loose wheel that ended Christopher Bell’s chance of winning is immaterial because Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin touting the benefits, sold the changes as something that could help both drivers. This was despite the fact that it was Bubba Wallace making the most noise about his pit crew’s performance.

There are seven more regular-season races that may come to suggest otherwise. For now, however, it looks as though JGR merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Bell came into Atlanta 20 points above the cut line and left still 19 points to the good. He should have come out of the race with another 10 or more points and conceivably could have won if not for the pit-stop follies. And don’t forget that any number of other winless drivers were in contention right to the end. Had one of them won, then Bell could very well have left town below the cut line.

Let’s cut to the chase: Bubba Wallace is now down to maybe one chance (Daytona) of winning his way into the playoffs. Meanwhile, Bell is going to be in the hunt right down to the wire. It’s time that JGR throws some genuine support behind him instead of expecting Bell to compete with quality drivers while supported by a clown show of a pit crew.

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