One of the sleepers in this season’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, may come out of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable.
Third-year driver Christopher Bell has quietly been one of the most consistent drivers this season. Bell is tied with Ross Chastain for the second-most top-10 finishes this season (14).
Bell was 36th in points after two races. After a 10th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bell had two more finishes outside the top 20, putting the No. 20 Toyota squad in a hole to start the year.
But Bell and the Adams Stevens-led team kept plugging away, knowing that their luck would change.
“I think it was just misfortune early in the year,” Bell said. “The way the schedule lays out with Daytona (Fla.) starting the season. So much is out of your control there and then we went to California and ended up blowing up an engine. I think that a lot of it was just circumstantial stuff and we performed well in those first five races, we just didn’t have great box scores.
“Leaving those races, even though we were down in the points, I was still feeling good about our group and how we performed, and we finally started getting the results that we needed after we got some momentum on our side.”
Christopher Bell won his second career NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire. (HHP/Chris Owens)
The 27-year-old found that momentum and eventually struck gold in July, with a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his second career Cup Series triumph.
As Bell cruises into the playoffs for the second time in his career, the JGR driver feels the majority of the tracks on the 10-race slate are in his wheelhouse.
“So really, all of the tracks — minus Talladega (Ala.) – I really enjoy and have a lot of fun at,” Bell said. “The playoffs, I think, plays well into our strengths with a bunch of mile-and-a-halves. Phoenix, being the final four, is a great race track for me. We will see how we can do. Looking at the near future with Darlington (S.C.), Kansas and Bristol (Tenn.), I feel really good about all three of those tracks.
“The second round is probably going to be the hardest with Talladega and the ROVAL – I say that it’s all going to be hard — but Talladega and ROVAL definitely is a wild-card round.”
Stevens, who won two Cup Series titles working with Kyle Busch, has been Bell’s crew chief for the past two seasons.
“Adam is definitely one of the best crew chiefs that you can ask for,” Bell said. “A guy that has won two championships and before last year, I think he made the final four darn near every year with Kyle. He definitely knows the ins-and-outs of it. It is really cool to just be able to sit with him in his office.
“He has everything mapped on roughly how he expects it to lay out and how many points we need to win per event. He’s been around the block for sure, so I lean on him a lot to lead us down this path. I feel like if I do my job, we are going to have a really good shot at having a great showing.”
As the Cup Series makes its first stop on the playoff schedule this weekend at Darlington Raceway, it may help set the tone for Bell and the No. 20 crew.
Back in May, the team had a strong showing at The Track Too Tough To Tame, finishing sixth after starting third.
“Darlington is such a tough race track and the Southern 500 is such a long race that you just have to not beat yourself and guys are going to have adversity,” Bell said. “Last year, I think out of the 16 playoff drivers, darn near every one of them had their own problems throughout the race. Just making sure that you get through there clean is the No. 1 goal.
“The round of 16 has kind of been that way at least for me the last two years — just don’t beat yourself. Take your top-10 or whatever you are capable of, whether that is a top-10, top-five, top-three — you need to maximize your day and move on to the next one, but Darlington is a really easy place to get yourself in trouble and that is the No. 1 no-no going into the weekend.”