Christopher Bell’s triumph in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 shouldn’t come as too much as a surprise. Yes, Chase Elliott was yet again the class of the field, but Bell was right there with him in the end.
Elliott, led all but 12 laps at the time of his final stop under the “weather” caution. Bell was right there stalking him though. He pit with Elliott on that same lap.
On the restart, Bell was 12th. He came up to win in the closing laps. He had a top five car all race, so we shouldn’t be surprised. If that caution never flies, he was going to finish second at the very least.
This is all just the start of what is going to be a breakout season for Bell. He expected this.
“I knew going to Joe Gibbs Racing that this is my time,” Bell said following his first career Cup win on Sunday. “I’m either going to put up or shut up. I’m very grateful for how it’s played out so far between the first two weeks.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to drive for the Coach, have all of our great partners. Those guys are who made it happen. I just want so bad to be in this No. 20 car for the rest of my career. I need to perform well to do that. I just got to stay after it.”
This car made the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 but was a first round exit each time. It missed the postseason last year. Two races in, Bell has clinched a playoff berth.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “To have Christopher, everything that he kind of fought through last year and then to come back this year. When you think about it, Christopher got in that car last year and never made a lap and was going to racetracks. It was a lot to overcome. And he did show speed at a number of racetracks.
“It was great for him to get that victory. … To have Christopher already in the playoffs, it’s a big deal for us, for sure. It’s hard to do, put it that way.”
Gibbs made the tough call to get rid of Erik Jones for Bell. Jones, had some bad luck. Bell, had a tough year with Leavine Family Racing. Gibbs, didn’t want to lose Bell so he picked him over Jones.
Jones won twice in 108 starts in that ride. Bell is 1-for-2.
“This is the happiest moment I’ve had in a very long time,” Bell said. “2020 was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career. I think I won a race at the Chili Bowl on my prelim night, and that was it for the rest of the year. That’s obviously up against the Cup guys and on the dirt side, too. 2020 was a really, really low point for me.
“To be able to come back in ’21 and win in the Cup Series this early on a road course is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life. Yeah, just can’t wait to see what we can do on the ovals and build on this.”
Hamlin, says it’s not like this should be a shock either. A road course win? Sure. But, he said this call is a playoff team anyways, so it’s not like he stole a spot.
“On a road course, yeah, I’m surprised,” Hamlin said of Bell’s win. “But honestly he’s got an experienced crew chief over there, Adam Stevens. Once he got track position, he was very, very fast. I noticed he was able to stay honestly closer to the 9 car than what I was when he was leading.
“He’s definitely doing some good things. He was very, very fast. It was a well-earned win, too. It’s not like he backed into it. He had to drive to the front. A great two days for JGR, really the future of JGR.
“It’s great for our organization. The more competitive cars that we can have in the Toyota stable, the more information that we can share, and it will be good information. It’s very, very difficult, as we know, in our sport to have four cars that are all very good and competitive. Certainly I believe that we can have that this year. It’s already starting off really well.
“90% of the people that know anything about the sport, 95% really would put the 20 car in the Playoffs one way, shape or form anyway. I don’t think that that’s really taking up a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”
Joey Logano said that Bell drove beyond his years on Sunday. He said he hoped Bell would allow the pressure to get to him and make a late mistake.
“I was hoping him trying to chase me down, he was going to make a mistake as an inexperienced race car driver,” Logano continued. “You didn’t see it happen. You didn’t see it with Ty last night either.
“These younger guys coming in, not that Christopher is that young, but he just looks like he’s really young. He had a lot of racing experience. He’s been in these situations a lot where he’s racing for the win, whether in the midgets, whatever dirt cars these guys drive. You’ve seen him race for wins late in the race. That experience probably helped him a lot tonight.”
Bell, said that he just kept doing as he was all day prior.
“I just kept doing what I was doing all day long,” Bell continued. “Whenever we took the green flag, I felt like I was really patient. Kyle (Busch) tried to go three-wide around me at the start. I knew that I was okay. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) kept asking what I needed in the car and I didn’t really need anything. Just took my time to get going, get up to speed and really proud to be here.”