PHOENIX, Ariz. — Christopher Bell is in a familiar position.
For the second consecutive season, Bell has a crack at winning the NASCAR Cup Series title after a clutch Round of 8 victory. He won at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago, cementing his position in the Championship 4.
This year’s journey, though, was a little less dramatic. Last year, he won in walk-off fashion at both the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL and Martinsville Speedway to secure a championship opportunity. But having an extra week to prepare this year might be more beneficial, Bell explained.
“I don’t think we didn’t get to accomplish anything last year in our short preparation time, but everything just felt crammed and rushed, where now winning at Homestead allowed us to just be a little bit more methodical,” Bell said. “I’m sure it helps Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and my engineers make more educated decisions on what we’re going to put inside this Phoenix car as far as the setup.
“Just having that extra time to prepare has been really good. Last week, I don’t know, I feel like last week we did a lot of our homework, then this week was just kind of relaxing and preparing, relaxing and taking it easy.”
Bell didn’t have a dominant season, but he did more than enough to put himself in a position to win a championship. He won at Bristol Dirt in April and rattled off several top 10s throughout the spring and early summer.
As the summer rolled on, however, Bell faced adversity. Starting with a 29th-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the 28-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma battled inconsistencies throughout the remainder of the summer, taking himself out of contention for the regular-season title.
When the playoffs commenced, the No. 20 team returned to form. After a pit crew swap with the No. 54 team, Bell has finished in the top 10 in six of the nine playoff races, including the victory at Homestead.
A lot of that success comes from the leadership of Stevens, who won two titles with Kyle Busch before linking up with Bell at the beginning of 2021.
“I think our relationship now is as strong as it ever has been,” Bell said. “It’s just a matter of having trust in each other. I think that we’ve just gotten more and more trust in each other as we’ve gotten better and proven to each other that if he gives me a good car, I can drive it good.
“Adam Stevens, the leader, is kind of the head of the group. But it’s the experience around him, too. Myself being put in those positions. Adam has been put in those positions. Our pit crew, we have a very experienced pit crew that’s going over the wall for us. Having experience in these moments is what’s going to be key.”
Bell is the lone wolf representing Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2023 championship fight. Both Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. got eliminated last weekend at Martinsville while Ty Gibbs missed the playoffs in his first Cup season.
Toyota, however, hasn’t had much success at Phoenix Raceway with the Next Gen car. The manufacturer hasn’t led a lap in three races thus far and Bell got a career-best sixth-place finish at the track in the spring.
The No. 20 car finished the championship race in 10th last year, placing third in points.
“Phoenix has always been one of my best tracks before I got into the Cup Series. My Cup stats have not been good. I admit that,” he said. “Since the Next Gen car, we’ve improved on it. That first race at Phoenix was not good at all. The fall Phoenix race last year was a little bit better. The spring race was actually pretty good. I know we finished sixth, but the yellow flag came out late. We were certainly going to do better than that.
“We’ve made gains on it every single time. I have no reason to think that we wouldn’t be better yet this time.”
To win the championship, Bell will have to best Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron, as well as Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, last week’s winner.
Sunday’s race is set for 3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Joey Logano is the defending race winner and champion while Byron won in the spring.