The early returns and first impressions for Christopher Bell last season couldn’t have been better. In just his second race as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, Bell pushed the No. 20 Toyota to victory at the Daytona International Speedway road course. He locked in an early spot in the Playoffs and looked like he was establishing himself as an unexpected championship threat.
“We won early, which was awesome,” Bell says. “But then that honestly left us a little bit disappointed later on in the year, just because after we won, we expected to be able to contend for more wins. Which we did, but we just, unfortunately, didn’t capitalize and finish them off like we expected to early on in the season.”
Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens spent the rest of last year chasing another checkered flag finish that never came. Instead, Bell — the 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion — finished the year with only six more top-5 finishes and 16 total top 10s.
“We had great runs littered throughout the season, but there really was no consistency,” Bell says. “And that’s what makes it really tough because we would have a great run one week, and then we’d have a couple of lackluster runs mixed in there too. So we never could just kind of get the ball rolling to where we could have a good run and build on it, build on it, build on it.”
Stevens joined Bell’s team as crew chief somewhat unexpectedly after the 2020 season. Previously, Stevens worked and won championships with Kyle Busch. But he and Busch disagreed on the direction of the No. 18 team, opening the door for Stevens at the No. 20. Much of the previous No. 18 crew came to Bell’s team for 2021. For 2022, Stevens is back with Bell.
“(Stevens) knows what it takes to get the job done, and I really respect that about him,” Bell says. “I love driving for his team as far as the mechanics, engineers — they’re great people, and I think that we have really good chemistry. We’ve just got to continue to get better on track.”
This year, better on track for Bell will show up in several ways, but he’ll look first at the chart of finishes and hope to see far fewer race-to-race swings. There were just eight times across 36 races last season when Bell strung together back-to-back top-10 finishes.
“I think if you look back at certain races throughout the year, we had great showings at places like Watkins Glen, Road America and Loudon,” Bell says. “Those were probably three of our best races throughout the year, but they were littered around races where we didn’t run good.”
Bell trailed his JGR teammates in nearly every statistical area. Bell’s average position across the season was 13.9 — a sizable distance from Denny Hamlin (7.4), Martin Truex Jr. (10.9) and Kyle Busch (11.6). “I think a respectable goal this year is to run top 10 in points,” Bell says. “And in order to do that, we gotta be way more consistent. We’ve got to get stage points, which is something that we were terrible at in 2021 [15th, about 300 fewer than Kyle Larson]. Ultimately we need to win a couple more races.”
Bell, 27, finished 12th in the standings last season after advancing to the second round of the Playoffs. But further advancement was derailed in the first race of the second round when he finished 24th at Las Vegas. A fifth-place run followed at Talladega Superspeedway before his title hopes ended with an eighth-place finish at the Charlotte Roval. This season, he’s focused on earning a third-round Playoff berth.
“I think it’s doable for sure,” Bell says. “If you can get to that, especially that round of eight in the Playoffs, you never know what can happen.”