Christopher Bell Didn’t Win the Championship 4 But Wins the Prize for the Wildest 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Season
Joey Logano won the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship, and Ross Chastain made headlines with his last-lap, wall-riding adventure at Martinsville Speedway, but Christopher Bell still might have had the wildest playoffs — perhaps even the wildest entire season — of any driver in the series.
At age 27 and in his third Cup Series campaign, Bell had a career-best year in almost every category. He won a career-high three races, tied for second in the series with 20 top-10 finishes, tied for the series lead with four pole awards, and ranked fourth with a 10.1 average starting position.
None of that seemed possible after the first five weeks of the season.
Christopher Bell had a terrible start to his 2022 season, putting his long-term prospects in question
Bell finished 23rd or worse in four of the first five events outside of a 10th-place run after winning his first Cup Series pole at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the third race of the year. He ranked 29th in the points standings nearly 20 percent of the way through the regular season.
That start came after he managed only one win through his first two seasons at the sport’s highest level. He went winless and finished 20th in the points standings in 2020 for his rookie season in the No. 95 car for the single-car operation of Leavine Family Racing in a one-year lease agreement with Joe Gibbs Racing a year after he had won eight races in the Xfinity Series while racing a JGR car.
He moved to the No. 20 car at the four-car Cup Series powerhouse of JGR in 2021 and won at the Daytona International Speedway road course in the second race of the season. That gained him entry into the NASCAR Playoffs for the first time despite a 10-race stretch during the regular season in which he managed one finish better than 14th.
Rumors started to swirl about Bell’s future with JGR after the organization gave up on Bell’s predecessor Erik Jones in the same car after three years despite two playoff appearances. It is also the same ride the now-two-time Cup Series champ Logano lost after his first four full-time seasons.
Bell’s 2022 season turned around with a third-place finish in late March at the Circuit of the Americas. That began a 10-race run that included eight top-10 results and bounced him up to 10th in the points standings.
His problem was the debut season of the Next Gen car model brought about nearly unprecedented parity in the series, with 13 different winners in the first 19 races.
Bell was up to eighth in the traditional points standings when the series headed to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the 20th race of the year, but he was clinging to the 16th and final playoff spot because there had been so many different winners. Kevin Harvick sat only 19 points behind with seven races left in the regular season.
Bell then qualified fifth and had a seventh-place average running position through the 301-lap race at the flat, 1.058-mile oval, but he passed Chase Elliott for the lead with 42 laps to go and earned the win that would get him into the playoffs.
Win at New Hampshire kick-started many highs and lows to complete the season
Then his season really got interesting.
Bell entered the postseason 10th of the 16 playoff drivers but recorded top-five finishes in each of the three races of the first round to suddenly make him a championship favorite.
A flat tire that ended his race at Texas Motor Speedway early left him with a 34th-place finish to open the Round of 12 and set him at the tail end of the remaining playoff drivers. He rebounded two weeks later at the Charlotte Roval and won the race, partly thanks to a debris caution for an advertisement that fell on the track, to advance to the Round of 8.
That round began much the same way Bell’s Round of 12 started. He finished 34th at Las Vegas after he was caught up in a Bubba Wallace-Kyle Larson crash.
He needed another last-gasp win in the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville, so he passed Chase Briscoe with five laps left to reach his first Championship 4.
Bell qualified 17th for the title-deciding race at Phoenix Raceway but still had a legitimate chance to win the championship.
As if the nerves of his first shot at a Cup Series title weren’t enough, JGR vice chairman and son of team owner Joe Gibbs, Coy Gibbs, died in his sleep Saturday night after his son Ty won the Xfinity Series title earlier in the day.
Bell ran as high as fifth Sunday at Phoenix but ultimately finished 10th and third among the Championship 4 drivers.
That was still quite an accomplishment after such an emotionally devastating morning and a start of his season that was so poor that whispers started to surface about his job security.
All of that speculation has dissipated, and now Bell will enter 2023 as one of the top contenders after a year that had him on as much of a roller-coaster ride as any driver in the sport.
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