The NASCAR Cup series headed to Virginia for the second to last race of the 2022 season. With only Joey Logano locked in to the Championship 4, seven other drivers came into the race with their hopes to have a shot at a championship still intact, but not assured.
Ross Chastain (+19), Chase Elliott (+11), and William Byron (+5) came into the race above the cut line, while Denny Hamlin (-5), Ryan Blaney (-18), Christopher Bell (-33), and Chase Briscoe (-44) were the four drivers below it.
Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott rolled off on row one, followed by fellow playoff drivers Chase Briscoe and Ryan Blaney. Chastain started ninth, Hamlin in 11th, and Bell in 20th, and Byron rounded out the seven non-locked drivers in 25th.
The race’s first two stages were relatively uneventful, with no cautions for cause between them. Larson and Elliott led much of the first stage before yielding the lead to Denny Hamlin who would go on to dominate, winning both stages. All told the racing was tame, bordering on boring – which is not a surprise given how the spring race went as the Next Gen car continues to struggle producing engaging short track racing.
Of note from the first two stages, William Byron was lapped in both stages. He would get the free pass at the conclusion of the first stage, but was not so lucky at the conclusion of the second stage, joining fellow playoff contender off the lead lap entering the race’s final stage.
Both Byron and Briscoe would see their fortunes change for the better in the final stage however, as Ross Chastain would lock up his tires underneath Brad Keselowski, sending the 6 for a spin and causing the first incident yellow of the day, allowing Byron to get the free pass. Not too long after that with 181 to go, Austin Dillon would suffer a brake failure and make heavy contact with the outside wall, causing a caution that would give Briscoe the free pass.
Under that second yellow the field would pit, with Denny Hamlin – who had dominated the day to that point – having a slow pit stop, losing three spots on pit road, yielding the lead to JGR teammate Christopher Bell. Bell was in a must win scenario to advance for the second time in an elimination race in these playoffs.
It looked like the race may come to gas milage, but with 108 laps to go JJ Yeley spun off the front bumper of Corey LaJoie in turn three and brought out the third caution of the final stage. The whole field pitted under the caution, with Christopher Bell maintaining the lead, while fellow must-win driver Ryan Blaney took over the second position from Chase Elliott.
Denny Hamlin also lost two more spots on pit road, narrowing the gap between he and Ross Chastain for the final championship spot to just two points with Chastain holding the tiebreaker. Chastain would lose four spots on the restart however, with Hamlin holding serve in fifth place, extending his points lead over Chastain to six points. Bell and Blaney would run away with the top two spots in the meantime.
Bell seemed to be setting sail, but after catching lapped traffic Blaney closed the gap to just a couple tenths with about 50 laps to go – but Bell would quickly extend the lead back to over a second once he hit clean track.
With 34 to go, Landon Cassill would blow a right front tire and make heavy contact with the turn three wall. Under the caution, most of the leaders would pit, but Chase Briscoe – who was running ninth and under the cut line – would stay out, as would Cole Custer. Kyle Larson, and Brad Keselowski, and William Byron would win the race off of pit road by taking two tires. Christopher Bell would come off fourth after a four tire stop, putting him sixth in the field. Hamlin meanwhile had yet another slow pit stop, putting him behind Ross Chastain.
The race went back to green with 24 laps left with Briscoe, and Custer on the front row. Despite being on old tires, Briscoe set sail on the field and jumped out to a big lead over his teammate Custer. Further back in the field, Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain traded paint several times as a year’s worth of frustration almost boiled over for Denny Hamlin, with the driver of the 11 almost wrecking Chastain – but cooler heads prevailed as Chastain let Hamlin go ahead.
With 10 to go, Hamlin would make a pass on Joey Logano, giving him a one point advantage over Chastain for the final spot with Briscoe still in the lead. Hamlin made another pass with seven to go over Cole Custer as Christopher Bell closed up to the rear bumper of Chase Briscoe.
With five to go, Bell put the bumper to Briscoe and took the lead. Ross Chastain, meanwhile, made two passes on Chase Elliott and Cole Custer to take over the final spot, but Denny Hamlin immediately passed Briscoe and Byron to retake it.
Christopher Bell would hang on to win, and punch his ticket to the Championship 4… but that wasn’t even close to the biggest story.
Ross Chastain pulled one of the absolute craziest moves in the history of the sport – a full on NASCAR Heat style wall-ride all the way through turns three and four to move all the way up to fifth place from 10th in one corner and steal the final Championship 4 spot from Denny Hamlin.
Of the move Chastain would say, following a huge applause from the Martinsville crowd: “I played a lot of NASCAR 2005 on the Gamecube with Chad growing up – I never knew if it would actually work. I did that when I was eight years old. I grabbed fifth gear down the back and full committed. Once I got into the wall I let go of the wheel.”
Denny Hamlin meanwhile will not get another shot at collecting his first career championship, saying “You gotta execute all day – we just didn’t control the race when we had control of it.” Of Chastain’s move, Hamlin said “When you have no other choice it’s easy to do that, but you gotta execute. Great move”
So with that, the Championship 4 is set: Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, and Ross Chastain will compete for a championship at Phoenix next week.
Photo Credit: Joe Gibbs Racing on Twitter