The opening round of the playoffs couldn’t have gone much better for Bell, who finished inside the top-five in the three races at Darlington, Kansas, and Bristol. The Toyota driver has not won a race since New Hampshire back in July, but he has been one of the best drivers in the series since then.
Team owner Joe Gibbs touched on that after Bell’s victory that day. "Christopher, we really, in a lot of ways, held him back during the year. There are things that happened when he could have won races."
Following his victory at Loudon, Bell finished fourth at Pocono. He had a runner-up finish at Richmond, followed by another top-ten result at Watkins Glen. He ranks second in top-fives and top-tens this season and his three poles are tied for the most among all drivers. Bell also has the second-best average finishing position this season.
Going into the Bristol race last week, Bell was the only one of the 16 playoff drivers that was locked into the next round. While that prevented a lot of stress and pressure, the goal was still to win the race. He nearly did that, until a stroke of bad luck found his No. 20 Camry.
Bell was leading at Bristol with 64 laps to go when a flat right-rear tire sent him into the wall. He was able to recover for a fourth place finish, but it was a big blow as far as the standings are concerned. The bonus points for winning a race would have been a major boost for Bell, but he enters Texas this weekend in seventh place, 27 points behind leader Chase Elliott after the reset.
The fact that he was so close had Bell frustrated. "It's terribly disappointing," the 27-year old said after the race. "That’s two weeks in a row we have had speed, and the car underneath me to win the race and haven’t done it."
"I'm really proud of everyone with this No. 20 group. They keep bringing Camrys that are incredible to the racetrack. It makes me really excited about where we are going, especially Texas, which is one of my best race tracks. Hopefully, we can carry this momentum."
The momentum that Bell mentioned is something that has quietly molded him as the top driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing organization. With Martin Truex Jr missing the playoffs and Kyle Bush now eliminated, it is just he and Denny Hamlin carrying to torch. Bell has done quite well at this track, finishing third in each of the last two points-paying Texas races.
Now in his second year as a playoff driver, Bell feels much more confident. "My performance over the regular season this year definitely makes me feel more comfortable in my position than I was a year ago at this time. Last year, I didn’t feel like we performed like a team capable of racing for a championship and this year I feel like we’re able to do that."
When asked if he felt like he was a "sleeper" in the playoffs, Bell remained humble. "I don’t really think that’s for me to decide. In my head, I know where I think I rank up. Just trying to showcase what we’re capable of on the track. I feel like every time we go to the racetrack it’s really fun right now, because we have potential, and we know we have the potential to win week in and week out."
The NextGen car has performed extremely well on tracks like Texas, which Bell expects to continue. "It seems like these cars have excelled at the mile-and-a-halves. We’ve seen great races at the beginning of the season when we went to these style race tracks. I would expect that to continue. I think that everybody has evolved and got their stuff driving a lot better." The key for Bell (and Hamlin) lies at the feet of Toyota.
Last week Hamlin, Truex, and both 23XI Racing cars battled power steering issues. Truex also blew up at Darlington while leading and Busch has had two engine failures in the last three races. Regardless of how well Bell drives, it can all be taken away in the blink of an eye if Toyota continues to have issues.
In addition to reliability, Toyota has not performed very well on superspeedways and road courses this season. With those two looming the next two weeks, this weekend at Texas is crucial for his championship hopes, and the overall chances for Toyota.
Bell knows that this Round of 12 is arguably the most important one in the playoffs. "Looking at the next seven races, I would say Texas is the most important race, outside of Phoenix. Texas is kind of the one place where you can control your destiny into the next round and the winner is going to feel really good if it is a playoff car."