About this time last season, Christopher Bell’s focus was on the drivers he was battling to earn a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs. Even with his win in New Hampshire, nothing was certain as the cutoff race in Daytona approached because so many different drivers had won a race that there seemed to be very few guarantees until the sixteen driver lineup who would compete for the championship was officially set.
Bell spent much of his time in 2022 hovering around the Playoff bubble on the verge of not making it onto the list of contenders. His New Hampshire win did in fact ease some of that pressure but it was a tense time of not only monitoring the performance of his own team but also that of those drivers who threatened to upend his title hopes.
In 2023, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finds himself in the mix as a contender for the regular season championship which is worth 15 Playoff points going into the contest. With his earlier win this season in the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol and his current rank of third in the overall standings, the 28-year-old driver isn’t having to fight just to make it into the NASCAR Playoffs this time around, but his focus is still on those around him in the standings but just in a different way.
“We’re in a really, really important battle for the regular season championship,” Bell explained in a recent NASCAR Media availability. “There’s a lot of guys who are in the hunt. It is very similar. I would say it’s almost identical other than the people that you’re watching on a regular basis are different. Whenever I was on that Playoff bubble, you’re paying attention to the guys around the Playoff bubble and really anyone behind it who might be in contention to win.”
One regular season race from last season that almost derailed his chances particularly sticks in his memory. The difference now is that while one bad race might take away the possibility of winning the regular season, his Playoff position is essentially secured.
“I remember going to Sonoma last year, I had a terrible race, and we were right around that Playoff bubble line and then the entire top-3 or top-5 was behind me in points and someone who won the race was going to jump me and bump me out of it,” the Norman, Oklahoma native recalled. “I’m sure everyone who is in that bubble spot now is doing the same thing. Here we are a year later and you’re focusing on those three or four cars you’re racing for the points and one mistake or bad stage and you can lose a lot of points very quickly. We’ve got a lot of cars we’re trying to keep up with and outrun. I would imagine it’s fun to stay on top of.”
Of course, Bell not only made the NASCAR Playoffs last year but went into the season finale at Phoenix Raceway as one of the four drivers with a chance to claim the top prize. His NHMS victory got him there then triumphs on the Charlotte Roval and at Martinsville helped him advance to the next round even when it looked like elimination was at hand.
So far in 2023, there has not seemed to be that one dominant driver and team who appear to be the favorites going into the Playoffs. While William Byron, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have the most wins, no one has shown the ability to run off long strings of consistently good finishes.
Bell himself has placed 18th, 23rd and 29th in his last three starts yet holds the third position in the standings.
“It’s really crazy,” Bell declared. “My finishes have been atrocious lately and I’m still right in the hunt. That’s a good thing for me and hopefully if we can start cleaning up our finishes then I’ll be able to capitalize on that. It is crazy, it seems like people keep having mistakes and bad days that bring them back to where we are. You look at the 8 car of Kyle Busch- he’s right in the hunt and he was buried in the tire barrier at Chicago but he made it out of it.”
NASCAR’s top teams have learned how to play the Playoff game. Bell says that his team needs to make the most of their opportunities going forward.
“All the teams in the top-5 are doing a good job of maximizing the day when they have adverse conditions and we’re seeing a great points race out of it. The 20 group, we need to start finishing races. We’ve been running well and finishing really poorly. I think the capability of our team is strong but we haven’t been able to maximize that yet.”
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