NASCAR Cup Series

Christopher Bell, in breakout season, facing must-win at Charlotte road course

October 6

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Christopher Bell knew quite 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 be looking at him as a potential threat in 2022. Still, for the rest of the regular season, he was noticed but maybe not top of mind as someone to beat.

"Race three or four," Bell said a couple of weeks ago about when he knew he could contend for a title. "Looking at California [in February], we performed well, and we were about a 10th-place car.

"Then we went to Vegas and won the pole and led the race until we lost the lead on pit road. Even from those races, we were showing capability of performing well and being a 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 playoffs. Entering the second round of the playoffs two weeks ago, he was one of only two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers left in the postseason and certainly the most consistent, with five top-5 finishes in the previous 10 races.

But two flat tires at Texas, where his day ended well before halfway, and a spin and speeding penalty coming to pit road at Talladega have put Bell in a tough position. He sits 33 points behind the cutoff with just the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course ("The Roval") left in the round. With two great stages, he might have a chance to advance on points, but he pretty much faces a must-win 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 a couple of good showings 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 happens, he has cemented himself as a driver who will contend for championships in the future.

And he knows pressure situations. He has had epic battles with 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson in sprint cars, including in the prestigious Chili Bowl midget nationals. 

"I’ve always known his talent and abilities," said Larson, who also has had his battles and disagreements with Bell in NASCAR. "I’ve been surprised that it’s taken him as long as it has to be consistently in the top three-to-five because, like I said, I’ve raced with him longer than anybody else has in the field, and I know the potential that he’s had.

"It’s neat to see him run up front — another dirt guy contending for a championship. ... I always enjoy seeing dirt guys win, especially from my neck of the woods in dirt racing."

Christopher Bell on his crash at Texas

Christopher Bell said he had no indication that his team would have tire issues in Texas and discusses how the crash will impact him going forward.

Bell has one of the best crew chiefs in the garage in Adam Stevens, who won two Cup titles with Kyle Busch. First paired in 2021, they had little chance to work together at the track except for races, as NASCAR had practice and qualifying for only eight events due to the pandemic.

This year, when they get at least 20 minutes of practice each week, they have shown what they've learned about each other after nearly two years of racing together.

"I know I’ve got the right guy on the pit box, that’s for sure," Bell said. "We’ve just been meshing really well together, really ever since the Next Gen came out [this year].

"Last year, we had less practice, if not any practice, so it was hard for us to get on the same page as far as what I need in the car to perform well."

Stevens has worked with Bell on how to handle not winning, knowing when to push the limits and knowing when not to. Cup racing, especially in the playoffs, is often about maximizing the day.

Bell admits, "I’ve been notorious for win or bust," and Stevens has helped him make the most of what he gets.

"He doesn’t like to get beat, which most competitors at this level are that way," 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 accomplished that goal. After a best of 10th in the first five races, Bell earned 10 top-5s in the next 24 events.

"You can't win every race, and sometimes it's not even smart to push yourself to do that, depending on where you're running and what you are up against. Keep the end goal in mind," Stevens said.

"He just did a fantastic job of running on minimizing mistakes and capitalizing on others' and keeping the train rolling."

Christopher Bell on adjusting to playoff racing

Christopher Bell has always been a win-or-bust kind of racer, but this year, he’s learning the nuances of playoff racing.

But now, Bell might actually need to have a "win or bust" attitude. In the previous two road-course races, he led 17 laps before finishing 12th at Indianapolis and eighth at Watkins Glen.

If he is going to win, he’s going to have to be deliberate in his moves and take calculated risks. Bell has one career Cup win on a road course — at Daytona last year.

"The Roval worries me, but I would say we’ve been the best road-course car of the Toyotas," Stevens said before this round started. "We tried some different things at [Indianapolis] and were markedly better.

"He's certainly more than capable on the road courses, and so [it's] just a matter of getting the car to do what he needs to do to be fast."

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What to watch for

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 gets out of shape on a road course, it often has grass or gravel to save it. But on the Charlotte road course, most of the track has walls on both sides.

That means drivers can’t get too out of shape. They can’t totally blow a corner, or they're going to suffer damage.

Granted, the Next Gen car appears to handle damage better than other cars. But no one will want to find out just how much on Sunday, especially not those fighting to advance to 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 will say that during the playoffs, a driver with little or no stock-car experience should not be approved to make a debut in a series.

But this feels right. Both drivers have extensive racing experience, and both are used to making decisions at high speeds thanks to their full-time IndyCar experience. (Daly also has two truck starts and one Xfinity start in his career.) Their presence could bring additional interest in the races from the fan bases they have built in IndyCar racing.

Could they impact the playoffs? Sure — just as any driver not among the playoff-eligible drivers could impact who advances. 

If NASCAR would approve drivers to race in non-playoff races, the playoffs themselves shouldn’t be a barrier to entry.

Social spotlight

They said it

"Shocker." — Rodney Childers, in a tweet, after NASCAR announced he was suspended four races for a body part modification

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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