Christopher Bell vying for 1st NASCAR title: "The sky is definitely the limit"
Christopher Bell knows that Joe Gibbs Racing doesn't always show patience with young drivers.
Daniel Suárez lasted two years after winning an Xfinity championship for the organization. Erik Jones won nine Xfinity races for JGR but after three years in Cup with only two wins, he was shown the door.
So Bell heard some of the speculation that if he didn't perform in 2022, his third year with the organization, that he might end up looking for a ride.
That was when he had just one victory and nine top-5 finishes in two years of Cup racing. And then he started off 2022 mired at 29th in the standings after five races.
But just four weeks later, he was in the top 15 of the Cup standings.
Joe Gibbs Racing executives had seen enough to be convinced that he could be a future superstar. And in the spring, Bell quietly signed a multiyear contract extension.
"If you think about when he came to us in Cup, it was during a really tough time," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "We were in COVID. We were having no practice. He was getting thrown on to race tracks that he had never raced on. He went through that whole year and did a great job of going through that year.
"Then the next year, stepped up, kept improving. I think what happened with us this year, we could see in him the way he was kind of advancing, and so we ... stepped up earlier in the year, signed him to a long-term deal."
No one said a word about the extension, partially because Bell works without an agent (and therefore there is no incentive from the agency to get the word out) and partially because the team was in a very public negotiation with Kyle Busch, one which resulted in no agreement and Busch heading to Richard Childress Racing next year.
They likely knew that signing Bell but losing Busch could become a storyline. So Bell and Gibbs just carried on knowing he had a long-term deal rather than possible options that could have kept Bell in the seat for 2023.
"I wish we would have done a 20-year deal right now, the way this has worked out," Gibbs said with a laugh Tuesday.
If Bell keeps running the way he has the last few months, he probably is glad it isn't a 20-year deal as he would be a hot commodity and probably can get more money in his next negotiation.
But Bell obviously is glad to know he has a home at JGR, which has paired him with two-time Cup champion crew chief Adam Stevens. The pair have clicked over the last two years, and Stevens was able to guide Bell on how to manage the longer Cup races.
"That was a huge, huge deal for me to have a team believe in me, to give me a long-term contract, which is an amazing statement from Joe Gibbs Racing that they believe in me," Bell said.
"I'm very thankful for that."
He potentially could have a Cup championship on his résumé. The driver who finishes best Sunday among Bell, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott will earn the 2022 title.
After the first three playoff races, it appeared Bell might be destined for the title as he had finishes of fifth, third and fourth. But accidents in the opening race of the next two rounds and mediocre finishes in the second race put him in must-win situations at the Charlotte road course and Martinsville.
At neither track would Bell be considered a favorite. But he found a way.
"There's not a place we go that he's not capable of winning," Stevens said. "There's nothing that you ask of him that is delayed or out of reach or something that he doesn't want to do if it means he's getting better.
"The sky is definitely the limit."
Bell seemed a little bothered by comments that he could lose his ride in the JGR No. 20 earlier this year.
"I think a lot of people had written me off as a driver, written the 20 car off [saying] Christopher is going to get fired." Bell said after the win in Charlotte. "I got that all the time, that I'm getting replaced. The 20 car is the revolving door, he's going to be out of here.
"Maybe I'll get to stick around a little bit longer now."
When Bell said that, he had signed his extension months earlier, so he was just playing the crowd.
Maybe he was being a little dramatic. Who could blame him? His playoffs certainly have been that way, as he stared elimination in the face twice in October and then had to rally at the end of both races just to stay alive in the playoffs.
"It's just been a rollercoaster of emotions for sure," Bell said. "I think I've been praying for the offseason for two out of the last four weeks — now I'm ready to race again."
Whether he wins the championship or not, Bell appears set to make more championship runs for JGR in future seasons.
"Christopher is our young guy," Gibbs said. "And I just think we all know how important drivers are to what we do, ... When you get somebody like Christopher to come along, and as young as he is and the way he's stepped in there and what he's been able to do,
"I think it's great for our future."
What to watch for
NASCAR is not putting resin down in Turns 1-2 and will move the resin application closer to the wall in Turns 3-4. They hope that creates two lanes of racing by increasing the grip where drivers would run in Turns 3-4. It is likely that Turns 3-4 will be more racy than Turns 1-2.
And when it comes to the end of the race, would anyone try to hammer it and use the wall as Chastain did at Martinsville? The turns could be too sweeping for it to work, but that doesn't mean someone won't try with a championship on the line.
Just how far will drivers go? Obviously, NASCAR will let just about anything be fair game if battling for position (see the Xfinity finish at Martinsville) so it just depends on a driver's ethics.
As far as anyone other than the Champ 4, watch to see how much help any teammates give — NASCAR will definitely be watching to make sure whatever comes is in the general course of racing and not egregious.
Thinking out loud
Time for some predictions!
Who will win the Truck title? Zane Smith.
Chandler Smith won at Phoenix last year and Ben Rhodes returns as the defending champion. Ty Majeski has the momentum with two wins in the last three races. But Zane Smith has left Phoenix heartbroken the last two years, and the fact he was leading until being passed by Rhodes with eight laps left still gnaws at him. Zane Smith will get the job done this year.
Who will win the Xfinity title? Josh Berry.
Noah Gragson has eight wins this year, including Phoenix earlier this season. Justin Allgaier has won at Phoenix and is the veteran of the finalists. Ty Gibbs is a threat nearly every week but is mired in drama. Berry has the mix of experience in racing (albeit not in NASCAR national series) as well as having been good at Phoenix (third in March) to get the job done.
Who will win the Cup title? Christopher Bell.
Chase Elliott has the most wins this year with five, Joey Logano has had the advantage of having clinched a spot in the championship race a few weeks ago with the Vegas win, and Ross Chastain has shown he will do about anything with everything on the line — and was second at Phoenix in March. But Bell won New Hampshire, which is a track similar to Phoenix, and he has shown the ability to win in pressure situations with walk-off wins in the last two elimination races.
Have a question? Respond to this Twitter post with your question:
Here are this week's questions and answers:
Any news on who is driving that 41 car next year? —Jason
It will be Ryan Preece or Cole Custer. Preece seems confident he could bring more funding than he has in the past. There is a possibility that whoever isn't in the 41 would drive the Rick Ware Racing No. 15 car next year as part of an alliance with SHR.
Is the RWR 15 charter in danger of getting repossessed by NASCAR? —Cam
That would be less likely if Preece or Custer gets in that car with additional SHR support. The No. 15 car appears as if it will be in the bottom three among charter teams for the second consecutive year. If it is in the bottom three for three consecutive years, NASCAR can repossess it. But NASCAR doesn't have to, and if NASCAR feels RWR is making a strong effort, it might choose not to repossess it.
They Said It
"There definitely could have been a less dramatic sort of way to get in. We could have gone and won a couple stages and won the race, and that would have been just fine, too."
—Trackhouse owner Justin Marks on the Ross Chastain move