AVONDALE, Ariz. – Following two must-win situations in the Round of 12 and Round of 8 cutoff races, Christopher Bell excelled in those high-pressure playoff situations, giving his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry a proper shot at claiming all the glory this weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
In his third full season in the NASCAR Cup Series, the 27-year-old from Oklahoma finds himself in the Championship 4, after picking up a big mic drop walk-off victory at Martinsville Speedway.
Despite entering Phoenix as the most recent Cup winner, Bell doesn’t believe his strong results, including the Martinsville and Charlotte ROVAL playoff wins, will lead to momentum carrying over into the 2022 season finale.
“I was great through the Round of 16, and then it all got taken away in one race at Texas when we had the two flat tires,” Bell said. “Felt like I got momentum back at Charlotte road course, then we go to Vegas, 40 laps later, whatever it was, I get crashed out.
“I don’t really think momentum will play a key in it.”
Advancing to the Championship 4 for the first time in his Cup career, Bell will lean on the experience of his crew chief Adam Stevens, who won two Cup titles calling the shots for Kyle Busch.
With Stevens on top of the pit box, he led Busch’s team to the championship in 2015 and 2019. Now, he’s in a position to earn his third Cup title as a crew chief with a different driver.
According to Bell, the preparation leading up to the big championship has been totally normal, unlike any other week. Bell believes his Martinsville win was overshadowed by Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon,” but he’s perfectly cool with that because he could give his full attention this week to the most important race of the year.
“This is a moment that I never thought would be a possibility,” Bell said. “As a kid growing up, I never thought I would be contending for a Cup championship.
“Just trying to soak it all in and make sure that I’m ready to perform my best on Sunday.”
In five career Cup starts at Phoenix, Bell has two top-10s and an average finish of 17.0. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry will need to bring his A-game to the desert if he wants to hang with Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott.
Bell thinks it’s important to have a car that’s competitive on the long and short runs on the sprint to finish because the 312-lap race could end under each scenario.
“It seems like there’s a really big toss-up before short run and long run at Phoenix, similar to other places,” Bell said. “Phoenix is an important one because it is so different. Trying to get that right. It’s a little bit of a luck of the draw.
“You can very easily change your setup to be good on the long run and struggle on the short run. And then if you get a caution at the end, it’s all for naught.”
In Friday evening’s 50-minute practice session, Bell was the slowest of the Championship 4 competitors. He set the 20th fastest lap time and 32nd best in 10-lap averages.
Bell slightly improved in qualifying on Saturday by posting the 17th quickest time.
“The weekend definitely hasn’t started off how any of us had planned,” Bell said. “I was really happy with the changes that they made to the car overnight from practice to qualifying. I think that was a really big positive.
“That’s definitely been one of our strengths, is improving over the course of the race, improving over the course of the weekend.”