Bell still focused on playoff seeding despite rough patch

Christopher Bell would have preferred not to be available to the NASCAR media during the timeslot he was scheduled for Friday at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

There was no malice behind Bell saying as much when approached, and it wasn’t as if there were ill feelings between the two sides, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver fully recognized that his availability timing was determined by his position in the NASCAR Cup series points standings. At 15th place, Bell was in the first portion of the day outside his hauler instead of being with the top 10 drivers inside the media center after practice.

It was okay, though, Bell conceded. And besides, isn’t it better to get all of the bad luck and troubles out of the way now instead of later in the season?


“Well that wasn’t our plan going into it by any means,” Bell laughed.

But now that it’s a reality for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team, why not try to put a position spin on it?

“Yeah and honestly, it’s not much different from the position I’ve been in the last two years,” Bell said. “It’s frustrating because, after 2022, we were like, ‘All right, 2023 is going to be the year we put it all together.’ Then 2023 happened and we were like, ‘All right, 2024 is the year we’re going to put it all together,’ and here we are again.”

Understandably, Bell has a sense of déjà vu. The regular season championship is the goal at the start of every race season, and winning a race early helps set the tone. Bell did that on the Bristol dirt in 2023, while this year’s triumph was at Phoenix Raceway.

Bell got a win on the board early in the year at Phoenix. John K Harrelsion/Motorsport Images

However, going into All-Star Race weekend last year, Bell was second in the championship standings, and the theme of Bell’s media availability that weekend was how his team hadn’t shown their full potential.

“Yep,” Bell remembered. “Last year at this point, we were right in the thick of the regular season championship battle, and now we’re not even inside the top 10.”

In the last six races, Bell has fallen from sixth place to 15th in the championship standings because of two DNFs and four finishes of 17th or worse. He’s led one lap and earned seven stage points in that stretch.

“We were focused on the regular season championship and trying to maximize our regular season, and then after the month of April that we had that is pretty much out the window,” Bell said. “So now, we’re back to where we were the last couple of years, where we’re out of the hunt, and we just have to pick up playoff points the only way that we can – and obviously that’s by winning races, winning stages.

“Most of it goes hand in hand with the regular season championship, but it does allow us to be a little bit more aggressive on strategy stuff, knowing that if it’s win or bust, we can kind of gamble a little bit more than having to take our top five or top 10.”

The regular season championship awards 15 playoff points, which is the equivalent of three race wins, to the driver. Finishing second in the regular-season championship standings awards 10 playoff points, with eight points to third place, and down to one point for finishing 10th. Even though the big point prize is out of reach, knowing full well the benefit of playoff points and seeding, Bell is all in trying to grab as many points as possible going forward.

“The more playoff points we accumulate, the better the regular season standings will be,” he said. “It kind of goes hand in hand, but like I said, the only difference is that the gambling and the aggression level can be a little bit riskier than if we were chasing the regular season points.”

Bell was working with a 12.7 average finish through the first seven races with five top-10 finishes. The stretch included four straight top-10 finishes going into Martinsville Speedway (April 7) when the slide began.

Bell’s slide began at Martinsville. John K Harrelsion/Motorsport Images

The team can perform no matter the racetrack and Bell is eager for them to “hit on it” once again. The streak could begin at any of the venues coming up over the next month that the series competes: the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway, the 1.25-mile in St. Louis, a repaved Sonoma Raceway, and the less than one-mile Iowa Speedway for the first time.

“It could come together at any week,” Bell said. “It just hasn’t yet.”

Part of doing so, however, is figuring out if they need to shake off perceived bad luck or hone in on a particular adjustment. Aside from a lack of speed, Bell said he wasn’t sure if it was necessarily one thing hindering them.

“The last couple of years, it seems like we’ve been held back by one particular thing, but this year it’s my same group of guys and our pit road performance has been really good, and it seems like the on-track stuff just hasn’t been very good,” he said. “Outside of the pole at Kansas, we just really haven’t showcased very much speed, and all of our team cars are doing really well, so clearly, we have the equipment we need to do it, but it’s just not jiving.

“With that being said, the way the format works in NASCAR, it’s three races at a time whenever you get into the playoffs, and nobody knows that better than me because I’ve been the guy that’s been down in the rankings and been able to climb the ladder and put myself in the final four.

“So, yeah, it’s been a disappointing start to the season, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re in the playoffs right now, and as long as we execute later on in the year, which I know we’re capable of, then we’ll be in good shape.”

Bell might have been well aware of his place in the media availability pecking order over the weekend, but it didn’t change his engagement level with the other side or willingness to discuss the situation. And with six months of racing still ahead, also offer a reminder that things have looked discouraging in the past before he and his team wound up in the final picture.

Story originally appeared on Racer