By Bob Pockras
FOX Sports Writer NASCAR
Christopher Bell knew pretty early in the season that he had a car and speed to be reckoned with.
His final results didn’t necessarily show the speed, but what he felt in the car made him believe that people should consider him a potential threat in 2022. Still, for the rest of the regular season, he was noticed but maybe not in mind as someone to beat.
“Run three or four,” Bell said a few weeks ago of when he knew he could challenge for a title. “Looking at California [in February]we performed well and were about in 10th place.
“Then we went to Vegas and took pole and led the race until we lost the lead on pit road. Even in those races we showed our ability to perform well and be a leader. title contender.”
Christopher Bell on the speed his team has shown all season
Christopher Bell thought his team had championship speed long before the rest of the sport recognized it.
The 27-year-old Bell is in just his third year of Cup competition and his second Cup qualifiers. Entering the second round of the playoffs two weeks ago, he was one of only two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers remaining in the playoffs and certainly the most consistent, with five top-5 finishes in the previous 10 races.
But two punctures in Texas, where his day ended well before the halfway mark, and a spinning and speeding penalty on pit road at Talladega put Bell in a tough spot. He is 33 points behind the cutoff with only the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (“The Roval”) remaining in the heat. With two big stages, he could have a chance to advance on points, but he faces an inescapable situation.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Bell, who finished eighth in the Roval playoff race last year and 24th in 2020. “The Roval has been OK for me. I had some good performances there. So we’ll go out there and do our best.”
This weekend will be the toughest task of Bell’s Cup career so far. But no matter what, he has established himself as a driver who will challenge for championships in the future.
And he knows the pressure situations. He had epic battles with 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson in sprint cars, including the prestigious Chili Bowl National Midget Championships.
“I always knew his talent and ability,” said Larson, who also had his battles and disagreements with Bell in NASCAR. “I was surprised it took him this long to be consistently in the top three against five because, like I said, I ran with him longer than anyone else in the peloton, and I know the potential he had.
“Nice to see him racing ahead – another dirt guy vying for a championship. … I always love to see dirt guys win, especially from my part of the country in dirt racing .”
Christopher Bell on his crash in Texas
Christopher Bell said he had no indication his team would have tire problems in Texas and explained how the crash will affect him going forward.
Bell has one of the garage’s best crew chiefs in Adam Stevens, who won two Cup titles with Kyle Busch. First paired in 2021, they had little chance to work together on the track except for races, as NASCAR had trained and qualified for just eight events due to the pandemic.
This year, when they train at least 20 minutes a week, they showed what they’ve learned about each other after nearly two years of racing together.
“I know I have the right guy in the pit area, that’s for sure,” Bell said. “We get along very well together, really since the release of the Next Gen [this year].
“Last year we had less practice, if any at all, so it was difficult for us to be on the same page in terms of what I need in the car to perform well. “
Stevens worked with Bell on how to deal with not winning, knowing when to push the limits and knowing when not to. Cup races, especially in the playoffs, are often about maximizing the day.
Bell admits, “I’m known for win or fail,” and Stevens has helped him make the most of what he gets.
“He doesn’t like to get beaten, which most competitors at this level are,” Stevens said. “I know I am. You have to balance that. You don’t want it to drag you down.”
This year, for the most part, they achieved that goal. After a record 10th in the first five races, Bell achieved 10 top-5 finishes in the next 24 events.
“You can’t win every race, and sometimes it’s not even smart to force yourself to, depending on where you’re racing and what you’re fighting against. Keep the end goal in mind” , Stevens said.
“He’s just done a fantastic job minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on others and keeping the bandwagon going.”
Christopher Bell on adapting to playoff races
Christopher Bell has always been a win-or-lose runner, but this year he’s learning the nuances of playoff racing.
But now Bell might actually need to have a “win or lose” attitude. In the previous two road races he led 17 laps before finishing 12th at Indianapolis and eighth at Watkins Glen.
If he wants to win, he will have to be deliberate in his moves and take calculated risks. Bell won a career cup on a road course — at Daytona last year.
“I’m worried about the Roval, but I’d say we’ve been Toyota’s best road race car,” Stevens said before the start of this round. “We tried different things to [Indianapolis] and were significantly better.
“He is certainly more than capable on road courses, and so [it’s] just a matter of getting the car to do what it needs to do to be fast.”
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Road racer Joey Hand made a great point about the Charlotte road course earlier this week when he said there are more walls around this track than a typical road course.
When a car twists on a road course, it often has grass or gravel to save it. But on the road course in Charlotte, most of the track has walls on both sides.
This means that the pilots cannot deform too much. They can’t totally blow out a corner, or they’ll take damage.
Admittedly, the Next Gen car seems to handle damage better than other cars. But no one will want to know how much on Sunday, especially not those battling to qualify for the next round of the playoffs.
Thinking out loud
Conor Daly makes his NASCAR Cup Series debut this weekend while Marco Andretti will make his NASCAR debut in the Xfinity Series.
Some would argue that during the playoffs a driver with little or no stock car experience should not be approved to make their series debut.
But that seems right. Both drivers have extensive racing experience and both are used to making high-speed decisions thanks to their full-time IndyCar experience. (Daly also has two truck starts and an Xfinity start in his career.) Their presence could bring additional racing interest from the fanbases they’ve built in IndyCar racing.
Could they impact the playoffs? Of course, just as any driver not in the playoff-eligible drivers could impact who advances.
If NASCAR approved drivers to participate in non-playoff races, the playoffs themselves should not be a barrier to entry.
Social Media Spotlight
They said it
“Shocking.” — Rodney Childers, in a tweet, after NASCAR announced that he had been suspended four races for a modification of a body part
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsport, including the last 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrassand register at FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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