The circumstances around clinching his spot in the Championship 4 being so different from what happened a year ago means Christopher Bell is in a better place entering this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
“Just much more relaxed,” Bell said of himself on Thursday during media day. “I feel more prepared just because of the time we’ve had to get ready for this moment compared to last year being so far beneath the cutline and being in a must-win going into Martinsville (Speedway). We didn’t even talk about Phoenix until we left Martinsville, and now we’ve had two solid weeks to game plan what we’re going to do in practice and how we’re going to execute qualifying. I just feel much more prepared.”
Bell clinched his spot two weeks ago with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He is the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver and Toyota Camry represented in the final four. Just as he was last year.
But unlike last year, Bell didn’t have to stress until the last moment to earn a shot at the Cup Series championship. Bell was over 30 points below the cutline going into the elimination race at Martinsville Speedway in 2022 and had to win the race to advance, which, of course, he did. It was his second walk-off win.
The victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, however, came after Bell and his No. 20 team fought an ill-handling car and track position early in the day. It was a week after Bell felt his best opportunity to earn a spot at Phoenix had slipped away when he finished second to Kyle Larson in Las Vegas. Bell had started from the pole and led 61 laps.
In the Round of 8, Bell’s average finish was 3.3 with three top-10 finishes. He flew under the radar last weekend at Martinsville Speedway to close out the round.
Having worked his way into the championship race differently to last year, Bell hopes the result will be different, too. Twelve months ago he was in contention as the championship contenders made their final pit stops, but when one of his tire changers got his finger stuck between the nut and the spindle, it ended his chances.
Bell finished 10th in the race and fourth out of the four championship contenders.
“I learned a lot last year and one thing was, we weren’t super competitive last year,” Bell said. “We didn’t qualify well, we didn’t practice well, but whenever it came down to the end of the race, we still had an opportunity at it. I feel like most people didn’t see that.
“At the end of the race for the last green-flag pit stop, me and Joey [Logano] are within a second, I think, and then I followed him down pit road for the money stop in the championship event with … however many (laps) it was to go. So, with that being said, we weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be, and we were still in the thick of it.
“This year, we will be more competitive, and you’re not out of it until the checkered flag falls.”
Bell finished sixth at Phoenix Raceway in the spring.