Chaos reigns at Charlotte with Kyle Larson out, Bell and Briscoe advancing
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
CONCORD, N.C. — Let chaos reign.
NASCAR's playoff format isn't designed to reward the best driver of the season. It's designed to create pressure moments and see who can emerge.
Kyle Larson, the defending Cup champion, saw his hopes for back-to-back championships end Sunday. Some will be frustrated by that, and some will love that part of the playoffs, as a driver many expected to contend for the title is out after the quarterfinal round.
That's sports. But maybe nowhere other than NASCAR can things change so rapidly. It's the drama of a competition that can turn on a dime — or, in the case of Sunday, on a sign.
For 104 of the 109 scheduled laps, it didn't appear that there would be much chaos on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, the final race of the second round of the playoffs, after which the four winless championship-eligible drivers with the fewest points in the round would be eliminated from title contention.
Then an advertising sign, of all things, ended up on the track, and NASCAR had to throw the caution, bunching up the field for a restart with three laps remaining.
The drivers couldn't go two laps without a few wrecks, as those desperate for points tried to make something happen. That resulted in a piece of curbing coming up and NASCAR having to stop the race and set up a two-lap dash to the finish.
There were spins in the final laps but nothing to bring out the caution, and as the dust settled, Larson was on the outside looking in by two points.
Chase Briscoe was in before the cautions, then out, then looking like he would get in. Then he spun, and then he went from 21st to ninth in the final two laps to earn enough points to make the next round by beating Larson by those two points.
"What a roller coaster," he said.
Christopher Bell needed that sign to fall, or else he would not have won and advanced. He was able to take a risk by putting on fresh tires after the caution for the sign, and then he was able to get up to the lead. His only way to advance Sunday was with a win, as he didn't have enough points.
"We see it time and time again where the fastest car doesn't win," Bell said. "Today we were not the fastest car, but we put ourselves in position."
It was all chaos on a road course designed for just that, as it uses a portion of the oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway and a relatively tight road course that weaves through the infield of Turns 1 and 2. A couple of chicanes are added on the backstretch and frontstretch to create passing zones.
It's fun to watch, but racing purists probably cringe because Charlotte is not a traditional road course. It creates the drama of a driver thinking he's in good shape and then all of a sudden crossing the finish line on the outside looking in.
Is it fun to watch? Is it a little absurd that things can be left up to chance? It depends on how one looks at it. Some will say Larson lost a chance at a championship because an advertising billboard ended up on the track. Larson will say it was his mistake that put him in the wall and in that position.
This type of chaos will also bring every NASCAR decision into scrutiny. William Byron wouldn't have advanced if a NASCAR-appointed appeals panel hadn't reinstated the 25 points he was docked for spinning Denny Hamlin earlier in the round. As it was, Byron's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Larson was out.
NASCAR also is looking at whether Cole Custer slowed on the final lap to help Briscoe earn a spot, but any penalties would likely be imposed only on Briscoe. And this all fell on the heels of Talladega, where a driver needs the right push at the right time to make moves.
"Luck is such an important part of it," Hamlin said after he advanced.
As they say, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Bell was lucky and good — and that was good enough to advance. He has been one of the fastest cars all season and was being talked about as a championship contender until he started the round with two flat tires that ended his day early at Texas, followed by a frustrating Talladega.
But in the end, Bell went from thinking he was out of the playoffs to being three points above the cutline with the reset standings.
For those who like drama, it's awesome. For those who compete, it can be flabbergasting, though with this format now in its ninth season, drivers and teams are more resigned to the fact that the results of a three-race playoff round can be up to the racing gods.
You would think someone such as Bell's team owner, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, would have seen everything there is to see in pro sports. Yet even he couldn't have predicted what happened Sunday.
"An unbelievable day," Gibbs said. "You don't experience stuff like this. You really don't."
Thinking out loud
It will be fun to see AJ Allmendinger back in the NASCAR Cup Series full-time next year. He is full of energy and emotion and will relish what would be a third chance at Cup stardom.
Except he doesn't want to be a star. Allmendinger just wants to enjoy racing and win some races. And he has that chance at Kaulig. He won at the Indy road course last year and was in position to win Sunday at the Charlotte road course one day after winning the Xfinity race at the track for the fourth consecutive year.
Allmendinger will bring energy, feistiness and attitude to the Cup Series. For someone who thought television commentating was his future four years ago, this should be an enjoyable ride.
Stat of the day
With Allmendinger fourth and Justin Haley fifth, this was the first Cup race with two Kaulig Racing cars finishing in the top 10 — and, of course, the first race with two Kaulig cars in the top five.
They said it
"I was never going to give up. It took every bit of it there at the end." — Briscoe after advancing
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.