AVONDALE, AZ — Christopher Bell’s improbable NASCAR Cup Series playoff run came to an end on Sunday in Phoenix but unfortunately, it wasn’t how he envisioned that it would go. In his first ever Championship 4 appearance, Bell finished 10th on a sun filled day in the Arizona desert which as a result, he didn’t take home the championship hardware with him.
It started off as a tough morning for the Oklahoma native. To find out Coy Gibbs passed away overnight was not the news that Bell wanted to hear. It had him questioning on if he should even race. Everyone within the organization was. It wasn’t until right before the driver intros that they were told it was a go for them.
“Yeah, about the same as what it was through the whole playoff, the last handful of weeks. You wake up first thing this morning and super excited and thrilled with life and where you’re at and the opportunity given to you. To receive news like that a couple hours before you get in the car is extremely tough,” he says.
“That was an experience like I’ve never gone through in my entire life. In that moment you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong and you don’t know if you should get in the race car and race, if you shouldn’t race.
“Myself and Denny and I think the other JGR drivers were all in the same boat. We just didn’t know what to do. Then Dave Alpern actually came back to the racetrack right before we left for driver intros, and he told us that we need to go out there and race, and that’s what we did.
“Definitely just an incredible twist of emotion and a perspective change for sure. You think that this is the big picture, and then whenever you get news like that, you realize that it’s a small picture in the grand scheme of things.
“Just really kind of puts it in perspective that what we’re doing here is not the big picture for sure. Yeah, just thinking of Joe. I just can’t imagine what Joe is going through and the entire Gibbs family. That’s the important piece.
When he did strap into his No. 20 Toyota, it was tough to block out the emotions, but Bell did it the best that he could. He started 17th but went up to 11th at the end of the first stage. In the second stage, his car was starting to come around and even while saving fuel, he was sixth at the end of Stage 2.
Bell was kind of just there.
However, a pit call on Lap 249 to bring him down first among the Championship 4 members paid off. He entered the sequence in 7th and came out in 5th. Joey Logano went from 3rd to 4th and was now within the grasps of Bell.
The problem is, Logano just had that much of a better car and eventually started pulling away. Then Bell got a caution to bunch it back up and for one more pit stop. However, it was a slow stop due to troubles on the right rear which dropped Bell 11 spots and relegated him down to 16th.
He’d not recover.
“Yeah, you know that that’s pretty much taking your chance away from competing for it,” Bell said of that stop.
“But I think from what they told me, Caleb, our jack man, got his finger smashed or something, so the last thing we want is an injury on the last race of the year, so I hope he’s okay. It just wasn’t meant to be, and that’s about all you can say.
“There were a couple things that we definitely could have done different today, but ultimately the 22 was lights out all weekend, winning the pole and being super strong in practice. We were just kind of playing catch-up, the rest of us were playing catch-up to him. The best car won the championship for sure.”
Still, it’s a season that will always be remembered for him.
“Yeah, I think the season was successful,” he says. “To get to the Final 4 is what every driver in NASCAR’s goals are. I’m very proud of that effort. With 40 or 50 to go, the last green flag pit stop we put ourselves in position to race for it. You can’t ask for much more than that.
“Looking towards next year, I think we have potential to be stronger yet, and certainly we have room to improve at Phoenix. Yeah, I’m very content with where we ended the season and proud of the effort on this 20 car. I’m excited about the future with Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Bell’s playoff run will be talked about for years to come. This is a championship shy of being in the category of Tony Stewart’s miraculous 2011 playoff run to a title. Bell faced elimination twice and won each time to place him in the Championship 4 on Sunday in Phoenix. Both instances faced a tough pit call in the end to send Bell down pit road for new tires. Each time he won the race outright.
In the Charlotte ROVAL, a race Bell had to win or he’d get eliminated, he didn’t have a race winning car. He was 6th inside of 10 to go. Then a caution came and Adam Stevens called Bell down pit road for new tires. He exited the pits 11th. He’d win in overtime.
Three week later, here he was again, 33 points below the cutline in the Round of 8 elimination race. He’d start 20th last week in Martinsville. On a day that passing was proved difficult, Bell stormed his way to the front. He had a race winning car but pit from the lead with 31 laps-to-go. He’d restart 6th.
7 times has someone came from behind in a cut race to win. Bell has 2 of those 7 and each came in the last 5 weeks. Sunday’s race at Phoenix was a winner-take-all. With being battle tested this postseason, Bell and his No. 20 Toyota team didn’t flinch but also came up just a few spots short.
Is this is team now from a drivers standpoint?
Kyle Busch is now departing to Richard Childress Racing. Ty Gibbs likely replaces him. Martin Truex Jr. is on the final year of his contract now for 2023. Denny Hamlin isn’t getting any younger and has never won a title. One could say in a few years, only Bell and Gibbs will be on this roster with 2 new drivers joining them.
Which is why it’s possible to say that 2022 was Bell’s coming out moment and time the baton got passed to him as JGR’s new lead driver.
“Yeah, I think that the longer that we’re together, the better that we’re going to get to be,” said Bell. “Just his communication, his style of crew chiefing is way different than any other crew chief that I’ve dealt with and drove for in the past.
“The longer we’re together, the more that we understand each other.
“It’s just trying to build on that. I’m proud to drive for him, obviously. The practice has really, really helped us get closer, and I think that we can continue to build on that and make gains moving into next year, too.”
Bell had 1 win, 9 top 5 finishes, 23 top 10’s, 0 poles and 118 laps led in his first two seasons in the sport. This year alone, he had 3 wins, 12 top 5 finishes, 19 top 10’s, 4 poles and 573 laps led.
“As far as Adam Stevens, he’s definitely one of the best in the business,” he said of his crew chief. “A race car driver is only as good as the car underneath of him. Time and time again Adam gives me the opportunity to showcase my talents. Just grateful to have him as a crew chief.
“I can’t stress that enough, that a driver is only as good as the race car that he’s given. Adam is the guy who is giving me great cars.”
What’s clicking this year to where it didn’t for Busch and Stevens is the return of practice and qualifying. While it’s still not as much as it used to be, even the smallest amounts are helping Bell learn to know what he needs to improve his car and relay that onto Stevens to help make it happen.
“Yeah, I mean, honestly, I think if last year we would have had practice and qualifying, we would have been able to perform just as well,” Bell continued. “Just really my first two Cup seasons, not being able to qualify and showcase our speed that we have week in and week out had really hurt my stats and my performance as a driver.
“This year is the first year that I’ve had practice and qualifying, been able to showcase our speed and what we’re capable of doing week in and week out.
“I mean, with that being said, I think practice has helped, too, because it’s helped Adam learn what I need in the car to be successful. So I think practice and qualifying goes hand-in-hand.”