AVONDALE, Ariz. – Christopher Bell has showcased his mettle and resolve for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing after three races in 2023.
The 28-year-old Norman, Oklahoma native has two top-five finishes, good enough to rank seventh in the driver’s championship standings. If Bell was not swept up in a mid-race restart crash, Bell may have three top-five results to start off this year.
Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens have focused onward with their consistent, strong efforts each weekend. Contrary to the recent aggressive, flat out approach prevalent with Gibbs’ NASCAR Cup Series program in the past 15 years, the No. 20 Rheem Toyota Camry team have been smooth and steady.
Heading into Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Bell started his weekend with a middling performance in Friday’s 50-minute practice session at first blush with the speed charts.
Posting the 24th fastest effort and 16th quickest 10-lap run, the sanguine racer saw some positives with his practice runs.
“I thought practice was very similar to how the majority of my races have been recently I felt pretty strong in the long run and pretty weak on the short run,” Bell said. “Hopefully, we can get that tilted a little bit to help with our fire off speed.
“I thought it felt similar. I don’t know if I’m biased towards it because I really like it, but I made passes in practice that I know that I absolutely wouldn’t have with the old package. I don’t know. I’m happy. I hope the other drivers feel the same way.”
Prior to the start of the 2023 season, NASCAR announced some changes to the short track and road course package aiming to decrease downforce and allow the drivers to have more input with passing opportunities. The first sampling of these changes takes place with the 312-lap race at the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway
So far, Bell seems encouraged by NASCAR’s changes. At the same time, he understands that Friday’s practice session was a mere glimpse into the big picture.
“I felt like I could pass a little easier and I felt like I could maintain my position easier when I was following guys, but we will know more on Sunday,” he said. “That is hard to say because you don’t know what tires other guys are on, so that is very hard to say.
“Whenever you are on equal tires, it is going to be tougher, than when you have fresher tires. But in general, I felt like the traffic was better than what we had in the past.”
The 2022 Championship 4 contender does not have to worry about too much passing for Sunday’s race as he qualified fifth. Much like his prior two Cup spring race efforts, he repeated his strong qualifying efforts.
Now, Bell looks to snap his feast or famine start to the 2023 season. Moreover, he hopes to score Toyota’s first Cup race of the year after Chevrolet’s perfect start to the year.
In Bell’s six previous starts, he has three top 10 results, including a pair of ninth place finishes at Phoenix’s 2021 races and a 10th in last fall’s season finale.
If the trend continues to hold for Bell and his No. 20 team, it is not a forgone conclusion to consider the Oklahoman as a genuine contender for this 312-mile race. When it comes to a driver who is so smooth yet unnoticeable until the finish, Bell fits the mold which may be fine with him if it results in his first win of the year.