HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Frustrations were bubbling, the car wasn’t where they wanted it and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team was staring down the barrel of a result that was going to push them to the cusp of elimination in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
At the end of Stage 2 and with Christopher Bell sitting 22nd in the running order, it felt laughable to think he could leave Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday with a victory. At that point, just leaving with a top-10 finish would’ve been a remarkable comeback for a team whose championship hopes were teetering.
Yet, 100 laps later, following a somewhat chippy radio exchange with crew chief Adam Stevens, a chaotic sequence that sidelined multiple contenders, a timely caution, and unflappable driving that exhibited why he’s considered one of NASCAR’s top talents, there was Bell performing a smoky burnout on the frontstretch to signify a win that locked him into the Championship 4 field for a second consecutive year.
“Heck, no, I can’t even say I was thinking of a win at any point in the day except maybe the last 10 laps,” Bell said.
Homestead represented the third time in the past two years Bell has produced a victory in a critical playoff race. A year ago, he won a pair of cutoff races where in both instances anything less than a win would’ve meant elimination. Although this wasn’t quite the situation on Sunday, as he still could have conceivably advanced without a win at Homestead, there were no guarantees. A win was his surest path to the Championship 4.
While things certainly appeared dire at the conclusion of Stage 2, no one should be surprised that Bell instead found a way to thrive. Repeatedly coming through in such moments has quickly become the norm for a driver who’s just in his fourth season and already has earned a well-deserved reputation for being someone who rises to the occasion in big moments.
“He just loves it. He loves trading paint and racing for the win,” Stevens said. “The closer you can get him to the front, the better he does. That’s just the makeup of a real racer and somebody who was born to do this.”
Bell acknowledges that he feels like he thrives in pressure-packed moments where the stakes are heightened, but it’s a reputation he also shies away from. He insists a driver is only as good as the car they’re provided, and often the biggest difference between winning and losing at the Cup level has more to do with factors other than who’s turning the wheel. When he won on the Charlotte Roval and the short track at Martinsville in last year’s playoff, he credited the car Stevens gave him.
“I’ve always been one that says that the car is everything,” Bell said. “The driver’s job is to maximize the car. If the car is fast, you do good. If the car is slow, you do bad. I think today was the epitome of that. We were really struggling. I was the slowest car on the track at one point in the race. A couple good adjustments later, we became one of the fastest ones.”
There is no arguing that all drivers need an equally great car, but Bell deserves a significant share of credit for transforming into NASCAR’s Mr. Clutch. He’s evolved into a driver who, if given a car capable of winning, will go and do that. He will downplay his three playoff wins as a byproduct more of the team around him — and there is no denying JGR consistently has some of the fastest cars on the track — but a look at where Bell got those wins offers strong evidence that he had a large role as well.
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The Roval, Martinsville and Homestead are each regarded as “driver tracks,” the kind of places where a driver’s ability does make a tangible difference. And in all three instances, Bell’s talent largely carried the day.
This was on full display Sunday over the closing laps. On a track where running the high groove, mere inches from the wall, makes it incredibly easy for a driver to slip up and commit the kind of mistake that can cost them a win, Bell was flawless, doing so even while hotly pursued by Ryan Blaney, whose car had proven faster all afternoon and was closing in on the No. 20 Toyota.
Not many drivers would’ve executed like Bell did. They would’ve panicked, overdrove and committed the kind of errors that can tarnish a driver’s reputation. It occurs all the time. Especially in the playoffs, especially on a track like Homestead.
Bell, however, thrived, just as he did at the Roval and Martinsville a year ago. There was no panic, just stone-cold execution. That is a testament to him, not the car.
“Bell is a generational talent in this sport,” Stevens said. “He is as good as they come. He’s still learning. We’re still learning each other as a team. If you get him close, he can get the job done. We’ve proven it time and time again. We got to do a better job as a team and as a company keeping him in contention. When we do that, he’s able to claw his way up there and make stuff happen like the great ones do.”
The payoff is a return trip to the Championship 4 where in 2022 Bell was largely an afterthought, finishing third among the four title finalists. And when NASCAR rolls into Phoenix in two weeks for its title round, Bell won’t carry with him the label as the “favorite.”
Such distinction belongs to either 2021 champ Kyle Larson or his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, who has a series-best six wins this season. Larson is already assured a berth based on his win last week in Las Vegas that saw him hold off Bell in a photo finish, while Byron is likely to join him as he’s a comfortable 31 points above the cutline heading into Martinsville.
Larson and Byron, should he qualify, have earned that status. But Bell leaving Phoenix with the championship trophy would be no upset.
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(Photo: James Gilbert / Getty Images)