For the first time of his young NASCAR career, Christopher Bell is going to be racing for a championship on Sunday afternoon at the Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN). Bell’s Martinsville victory this past weekend stamped his name into the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 and for the 9th straight year, Joe Gibbs Racing has a driver vying for a title.
However, it’s not a feat that he expected to be in. You can go back to the beginning of this 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season and even in this playoff run to see why Bell was doubting himself and everything around him.
The Oklahoma native opened the year up with a 34th place finish in the season opening Daytona 500. A week later, it was 36th in Fontana. He did finish 10th in Vegas, but the two results after were 26th and 23rd respectively in Phoenix and Atlanta.
5 finishes of 23rd or worse in the opening six races of the 2022 season had him marred 29th in points. In just his second season with JGR in his No. 20 Toyota seat, he saw first-hand how you don’t get many chances to get it right here. Daniel Suarez was given two years then sent to the curb. Erik Jones had a three-year run in this very seat before being shown the door and not have his contract renewed. Jones’ struggles in 2020 paved a path for Bell to replace him.
Now in his second year, he was 29th in the standings with 1 win in 77 career starts. So, you can forgive him for being uptight and nervous about his future early on in the year. He doubted himself. He doubted his surroundings. He doubted his future. Was it this new car? Was it him not cutting it? What was it?
Meanwhile, his crew chief never doubted. He knew the kind of driver Bell was and had the upmost faith that they’d turn this season around. He knew they weren’t a 29th placed team in this sport and he didn’t have the 29th best driver. He had one of the best and kept his head down in ensuring this team maximizes their opportunities to turn this ship around in the right direction.
“Compared to the beginning of the season, we weren’t that far off,” noted Adam Stevens. “We suffered for finishing, we didn’t suffer for performance. I think we fell all the way back to 32nd in the points. We were certainly not a 32nd-place team.
“Our setups weren’t where they needed to be at the start with this new car, but we were learning. We were capable of running up front. We crossed the finish line at Atlanta one, P2, got bumped to the back for going under the yellow line. We were up front Vegas one, got loose over the bumps and spun out racing for the lead. That was potential performance. Two top fives gone that were well within our grasp.
“We had three or four events where we didn’t give him much to work with, Martinsville one, Phoenix one. We had a stretch of some good finishes and good runs. We’ve been competitive. We’ve had some pit stops get away from us. We’ve had some strategy calls get away from us.
“As a team, though, we knew that we had what we needed. I remember telling Bell when we were 32nd in points, he was distraught and concerned, I’m like, Dude, I do not know what you’re worried about. We have the performance, and the capability is right there, you’re just having trouble seeing it.”
Bell said he did remember that conversation and noted that Stevens was definitely a lot more positive than he was in that moment.
“It’s been there. It’s been there the whole time,” Stevens quipped. “We just haven’t had as many opportunities to show it as maybe we felt like we deserved or had coming to us. Hopefully we got one more in us.”
As the year went on, Bell’s stats ended up improving. 9 top 10 finishes in a 12-race span followed. Unfortunately, so did the parity of winners. While Bell rose to the top 10 in points this summer, he was also slipping towards not being in the playoffs if he didn’t win too.
That’s why his Loudon victory was so massive in July. It wasn’t just the fact it was his second win of his career on the Cup level, it was the fact that this win clinched him a berth to the postseason for the second straight year with JGR. This was big for his psyche.
It also made him a dangerous driver this postseason. The results turned. In the opening round, Bell was the only driver with a Top-5 finish in all three races. Could he win the?
Then he came back down again. Two cut tires that ended in a wreck in Texas led him to a 34th place result. He was 17th a week later in Talladega. Bell’s season was on the brink heading to the Charlotte ROVAL. Toyota’s have struggled on road courses with this Next Gen. With a must-win, he was honestly looking ahead to the offseason. Why bother?
Bell ran sixth before a lifeline came via a late race caution. Stevens called him down pit road for fresh tires on a day that passing was difficult. From 6th to 11th on a late restart. It was a Hail Mary. It worked.
Bell won in walkoff fashion. His hopes were high again because the Round of 8 tracks were strong ones for he and his team. Unfortunately, the opening two races looked a lot like the opening pair of Round of 12 results. Bell was an innocent bystander in the Kyle Larson and Bubba Wallace spat and finished 34th. Despite a front row starting spot in Miami, his car was junk and he faded to an 11th place result.
-33 heading to the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville. Here we go again. He was sad and disappointed heading to Charlotte but this time, his emotions were a bit higher.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s just been a roller coaster of emotions for sure,” said Bell. “I think I’ve been praying off-season for two out of the last four weeks, now I’m ready to race again.
“The round of 12 was extremely disheartening because I felt like the Round of 8 was going to be really good for us, and that would have led to a possible championship run. But then when we got out of Texas with a DNF, Talladega sucked, just being so down.
“The team behind me, everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, they still performed to their highest level. I feel like whenever I get in the car, put my helmet on, I try and do as good of a job as I can of not letting anything bother me.
“I don’t know, like no matter what’s going on behind the scenes, whenever you get in the car, you can’t let that bother you. They gave me a great race car today, the fastest car today. At the Charlotte road course when we needed to win, it worked out for us.”
Despite starting 20th, Bell would stay the course and take the lead in the final stage.
Then he was put in another position of peril again. A late caution forced another difficult decision for Stevens. He had clean air and the lead. It was as tough race to pass on. Do you come down pit road for new tires and risk a lot of cars staying out or stay out yourself and risk a lot of people pitting behind?
They took the risk of pitting. Bell went from first to sixth. He’d go from sixth back to first in the final 24 laps to score a second straight walkoff win. Now, he’s in the final round and says that with how his wins have come this year, he hasn’t had the chance to allow them to sneak in yet on the magnitude to what a run that he’s on right now.
“I don’t think it’s sank in yet,” Bell admitted on Sunday after his walkoff win in Martinsville. “One thing that is very unique about the Playoff system and the wins that we have had, you know, at least for me, I don’t feel like I’ve won a Cup race yet. I feel like I transferred into the Playoffs and get to race for a championship. In a way the Playoffs overshadow the race wins. Whenever you have a race win in the regular season, it’s cherished and you feel like it’s a big deal, where winning a race in the Playoffs, especially the way that we did, it’s like, Wow, we won three races this year.
“It just feels like we’re focused on the Playoffs, we’re on to the next round, and that’s what the shining star is, not the race wins right now.
“Maybe a couple weeks down the road, a couple days down the road, we’ll look back at it and say, wow, I won another race, which is really cool, at one of my worst racetracks statistically.
“Definitely short-term it’s not a race win, it’s an advance in the Playoffs. We get a chance to race for a championship. But long-term it is a race win.”
But how did we get here? How did this improvement come in such a short span?
2020 saw Bell drive for a JGR satellite team in Leavine Family Racing. It was his rookie year in the middle of a pandemic that saw the final 32 races run without practice and 31 of them without qualifying.
The stats read 0 wins, 2 top 5 finishes, 7 top 10’s, 0 poles and 18 laps led.
2021 led him to JGR. 1 win, 7 top 5 finishes, 16 top 10’s, 0 poles and 100 laps led.
Now he’s sitting at 3 wins, 12 top 5 finishes, 19 top 10’s, 4 poles and 573 laps led in 35 races this year alone. What changed?
Practice is what changed. Last year only 7 races had practice. This year, even in minimal amounts, he’s had practice time for every race.
“The 95, after living the success that I’ve had, specifically this year and 2021, looking back at 2020, I feel like that entire group didn’t get a fair shake at it,” Bell said. “Jason Ratcliff, I feel terrible for him. Everyone at LFR. The hand we were dealt with COVID, getting practice and qualifying taken away from us.
“Our equipment was good. It was not a question of equipment. It was a matter of not being able to showcase what we were capable of doing.
“By not having practice, not having qualifying, we weren’t able to get in a groove. I think a little bit of that happened to us last year. Like, we weren’t able to dial in what I need in a race car. I’m not able to tell him what I need in a race car until you get more reps at it and more practice sessions.
“That whole 95 group, it wasn’t a equipment problem, a personnel problem, it was circumstances that caused us from performing what we were capable of.”
“I would say maturity, that hasn’t changed. There’s no question that that wasn’t our issue last year,” he says. “It goes back to the reps and communication, us as a team understanding what he needs in his race cars.
“Even now that we’re developing that understanding, when we unload, despite our best efforts, a lot of times we don’t have it right. That 20 minutes of practice makes a huge difference. It makes a difference from missing the balance on occasion to being able to right the ship.
“Those overnight adjustments, just like this weekend, if we had to race how we unloaded, we weren’t going to win. We were able to make some changes and help the car do what he needs it to do.
“After practice sessions last year and the majority of this year, we understand what he’s looking for. If we can give it to him, he’ll run up front. If it’s Martinsville, I mean, Loudon, Kansas, Vegas, Texas, it doesn’t matter. If we can give him what he’s looking for in his car, then we’ll run up front.
“It’s just a matter of that fundamental understanding and then communicating, him and I, our engineers, to constantly chase that balance and that feel that makes him his best.”
Just look at how it worked for this past weekend’s race. Bell finished 20th on this track in April. They had a test here this summer and felt like it didn’t go well for them. However, they knew what not to do when showing up last weekend and that plus Denny Hamlin having been at the same test, they could use both sides of the spectrum and hone in on something that would work for Bell to succeed.
We didn’t have the best race here in the spring, but we learned a lot. Since then our program’s made a lot of progress.
“Didn’t have the best test here in August, but we learned quite a few things not to do,” admitted Stevens. “The 11 learned a few things that were working for him. We kind of took that and made it our own coming into this weekend.
“Had a decent practice. Bell had some feedback. The balance wasn’t where we wanted it. We had a decent lap time, especially with laps on tires. We really felt like if we could get the balance to hang on, that we’d have some speed.
“Didn’t qualify well, but we knew we had a good race car. That first run there driving from 20th up to 7th, I knew we really had something that could contend for the win. It was just a matter of keeping the balance where he wanted it and adjusting to the racetrack, putting him in a position that he could do his job.
“He just did such a good job being aggressive when he needed to be and taking care of the tires when he needed to and had the opportunity to. Just maximized the whole day.
“The pit crew had an outstanding day, stepped up to the plate. Nights like this, days like this, are what this 20 team is capable of. So it’s just a matter of everybody performing at their highest level and this was the result.”
Now Phoenix is up next and Bell is hoping with another winner-take-all moment, he can go 3-for-3 to close out the year in these races.
“It’s going to be who can bring the best car and do the best job,” said Stevens. “But I think we showed what this team’s capable of tonight.
“I feel really good about the spot we’re in. I feel really good about the progress we’ve made this year as a team, with our setups and our package, what we’re trying to accomplish.
“I know what the weekend is all about, and the week leading up to it is all about. We’re going to go there and see what we can do.”
“Yeah, I mean, this next week is easy,” he said. “We don’t have to focus on stage points or where we’re at compared to everyone else. It’s just one race.
“Like Adam said, whoever brings the best car and executes the best is going to win the race, the championship.
“Whatever happens happens, and I’m very proud to be in this position. The sport is all about people. Fortunately for me I ended up with the best people around me.”