It is sometimes said that getting to the top is one thing and staying on top is another. Christopher Bell will be working to prove that he can stay on top after having proven last season that he could get there. The 28-year-old driver from Norman, Oklahoma won three NASCAR Cup Series races in 2022, two of which came in the most pressure-filled situations imaginable.
While 2021 was not necessarily a bad season. After all, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver won his first Cup race on the road course at the Daytona International Speedway. But this past year seemed to be more of a breakout effort for Bell.
And the driver believes he knows when the turning point for his team came. There was a particular moment in 2022 when he and crew chief Adam Stevens began to really click.
“I just go back to Las Vegas,” Bell told the media during a recent appearance. “I think Las Vegas was race three of the season, but Daytona we can’t really count, so we went to California and we were mediocre. When we went to Vegas in practice Adam felt like he was needing to steer the car one direction in balance and I was telling him to go the other direction. When he was able to give me what I was feeling in the car, we immediately went to the top of the speed charts in that practice session. I think that was the turning moment of him understanding if he gives me what I need in the car to be competitive then we can do that.”
Bell earned the pole starting position for the Las Vegas race before driving to his first top-10 finish of 2022 following disappointing results in the Daytona 500 and at Auto Club Speedway.
The driver who was highly successful in the NASCAR Xfinity Series became a regular in the top division of the sport at a difficult time. His rookie season came in 2020 when NASCAR had to make major changes to its schedule and race weekend procedures because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those coronavirus-related restrictions carried over into 2021 as the sanctioning body allowed very few practice sessions. Bell believes that hurt his progression at the Cup level.
“We really started clicking well and I feel like the biggest thing was Adam Stevens learning what I needed in the car to be successful,” Bell explained. “That was one thing we could have hit on in 2021 if we had had practice and qualifying, but not having that, it took us a longer time to get going. In 2022, having the practice and qualifying allowed us to gel and have success.”
By the second half of last season, the No. 20 was a regular at the front of the field. A win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway assured a place in the NASCAR Playoffs. Pressure packed victories on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway and in the season’s penultimate event at Martinsville Speedway allowed Bell to advance further into the post-season.
With greater success in 2022 came a more positive outlook going into each race.
“I feel like the biggest piece of that was having confidence in my equipment, having confidence in my car,” Bell insisted. “I hope that I have improved as a driver from 2021 to 2022. I feel like I could have performed well in 2021 if we could have had the opportunity to get on the same page and him(Stevens) give me what I needed to be successful earlier in our outing.”
Bell again referred back the early races of the season as crucial moments.
“In 2022, starting off the year in California and Vegas, those were two really big learning curves because we were able to make changes on the car and I was able to show Adam that if he gives me what I need in the car then I can be successful and be fast and be up on the speed charts,” he stated. “Whenever it came down to the Playoff races, at the end of the day, I knew that at the mile-and-a-halves I could hold my foot down, I could almost run wide open and the car wasn’t going to spin out and I wasn’t going to hit the wall because it was too tight. I had confidence in my team that they were going to give me the balance in the car that I needed to perform well.”
The fact that he made the Championship 4 was not necessarily a feat worthy of celebration in the driver’s mind. He wants and expects more.
“I definitely didn’t expect to be here,” Bell said. “But with that being said, I wouldn’t say that I was surprised either and I hope that I’m here next year but under different circumstances. It very much feels like win or lose. I ran 12th in the points last year and 3rd in the points this year but I lost both years. Hopefully I win one of these years.”
Bell is encouraged about his team’s prospects in 2023.
“I think the 20 group grew as a whole. I feel like we’re capable of starting out the year extremely strong in 2023 and I think the sky is the limit for us. My group is staying the same as far as mechanics, crew chief, engineers so I feel positive about what’s going to happen when we start off the next season.”
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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