By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. — For the second straight year, Christopher Bell will have a chance of winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway.
In fact, Bell is the only driver who has made the Championship 4 a year ago and return to the big dance. Similar to last year, coming in clutch was the name of the game for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
Only this time, he didn’t need to win the cutoff race as he punched his ticket to Arizona by winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Little did anyone know, Bell would be the only JGR racer in the title fight as both Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. failed to make the cut.
Bell’s mindset is excitement as he’ll hope to bring JGR another Cup championship which they haven’t done since Kyle Busch in 2019.
“Excited about the opportunity. Try to persevere. Go out there,” said Bell. “All four of us are going to be really competitive. I don’t think there’s going to be a runaway champion. I think it’s going to be a war and you’re going to have to execute on all fronts to win this thing.”
In many ways, Bell is the underdog among the men in the Championship 4 as Toyota have not had much of a presence at Phoenix since the current car debuted a year ago.
Something Bell isn’t thrilled about hearing and neither is the fact he hasn’t had the best of days at Phoenix. All of which he’d like to change in the 312-lap finale.
“It’s funny because my statistics have sucked at Phoenix since I’ve gotten into the Cup Series. Before I got into the Cup Series, I would have said it’s one of if not my best racetrack through Trucks and Xfinity,” said Bell.
“The Cup stuff, it took a little bit to get going. 2020, I mentioned Ratcliff, it wasn’t fair because we didn’t have — I guess we did have practice. I don’t know if we did in the fall of 2020.
“The Next Gen car was certainly a reset for everybody. The spring race of 2022, we were absolutely terrible. Then the fall race in 2022, we were better, not great, but better.
“In the spring of 2023, we were pretty competitive. We didn’t lead a lap, I guess, but I remember myself and Denny were inside the top five the majority of the day.
“We’ve made gains on it every single time. I have no reason to think that we wouldn’t be better yet this time.”
Crew chief Adam Stevens said Friday that it’s extremely important for Bell and the entire No. 20 team to click on all cylinders if they’re gonna leave Phoenix as champions.
“It was very important. I don’t know if it was more important because we’ve never led a lap. I don’t think we’re going to win this thing if we don’t lead laps,” said Stevens. “We just started so far off last time that we had a lot of ground to cover to even get in the mix.
“Starting closer just puts you in a lot better position. We don’t have to make big changes, we think, to be balanced, fast on Sunday. Starting a lot closer this time.”
During qualifying, Bell was in the second group and so was Ryan Blaney where he was seventh quickest in his group. Not enough to make the final round of qualifying as only the top-five per group advanced into the fight for the pole with William Byron leading the session.
Once qualifying wrapped up, Bell will roll of 13th, two spots ahead of Blaney, but already behind the 8-ball as the aforementioned Byron won pole and long-time rival Kyle Larson qualified fourth.
With that out of the way, Bell can slowly focus on the race at hand and hope for the best. With the level of respect from non-title contenders give out on the track, Bell isn’t as concerned about starting outside the top-10. The most crucial part of the afternoon will be the chaotic restarts where things can go haywire as seen with Chase Elliott last year when he was turned around by Ross Chastain in the final stage.
“I feel like once you get into this championship race, the field is pretty respectful of who’s racing for the championship. So that’s really good,” said Bell.
“Last year I was in a similar position. I think I qualified in the teens. It’s a long race. This is not a place where you can restart in the teens and then in a couple laps be in the top five. It just doesn’t happen.
“You have to be aggressive on restarts and you have to trust your other competitors that they’re going to race you with respect whenever you get into those four and five-wide positions where contact can happen.”
Time will tell how the championship will unfold as coverage of the finale begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC.