Christopher Bell Has Gone and Ruined His Chances in the NASCAR Playoffs
Christopher Bell was arguably the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship favorite after round one of the NASCAR Playoffs. But only two weeks later, his title contention is nearly over.
Bell opened his third full-time Cup Series season and second in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing about as bad as any season could start. He crashed out of the Daytona 500 to finish 34th and had an engine problem the following week at Auto Club Speedway, leading to a last-place finish of 36th.
Christopher Bell had a solid regular season
He then gradually worked his way back toward the front of the field and front of the points standings. A string of four straight weeks in May with a finish of sixth or better got him back to 10th in the points standings by the beginning of June.
Bell was consistently running as well as he had at any point in his Cup Series career. But the historic parity of the first season with the Next Gen car model left him on the edge of the playoff field with only seven races left in the regular season.
Bell entered the July 17 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway eighth in the points standings but 16th in the 16-driver playoff standings because 13 other drivers had scored at least one win while he had not.
“I’m in a really scary position because the top two points guys are quite a ways out,” Bell said during a rain delay three weeks prior at Nashville Superspeedway. “And then that cutoff line is getting closer and closer (with) each new winner.”
Bell, who leads the series with four pole awards and ranks third with a 10.0 average starting position, began the New Hampshire race fifth. He finished sixth and ninth, respectively, in the first two stages. Chase Elliott then held the lead with 41 laps to go when Bell made the race-winning pass and cruised to his second career Cup Series win.
That victory solidified his spot in the playoffs, and he entered the 10-race postseason as the No. 10 seed.
Bell had a great first round but an awful second in the NASCAR Playoffs
Bell then ripped off three straight top-five finishes to open the playoffs, and had even clinched his spot in the second round before the first-round finale began at Bristol Motor Speedway. He was the hottest driver of a 16-driver group that failed to win any of the races in round one.
His second round has been a completely different story.
Bell was one of the many victims of tire problems in the Round of 12 opener at Texas Motor Speedway. He crashed twice in the first half of the race and ultimately finished 34th, last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers.
That set him back to 11th in the standings as the series headed to Talladega Superspeedway for what is traditionally one of the most unpredictable races of each season.
He won the pole and appeared primed to reverse a career trend at superspeedways in which he finished better than 13th once in his first 11 Cup Series races at either Talladega or Daytona International Speedway.
Bell stayed in the lead pack for much of the first half of the race but spun as he headed to pit road during Stage 2 and lost a lap to the leaders to serve a penalty for speeding as he entered pit road sideways, narrowly missing the inside wall.
Bell was able to get back on the lead lap at the end of the stage but rallied only to 17th by the end of the event.
“Just a terrible, terrible race overall for me,” Bell said after the race. “You know, we needed to come in here and maximize points, and unfortunately, we didn’t get to do that.”
He now heads to the final race of round two at the Charlotte Roval 11th of the remaining 12 playoff drivers, 33 points behind Chase Briscoe in eighth for the final spot to advance to the next round.
A win is likely Bell’s only chance to advance, but that could be an extremely tall task for a competitor who drives a JGR Toyota, which has seen all its cars struggle on road courses this season.
Bell is the only JGR driver to record a top-10 at any of the first five road courses on this year’s schedule. He finished third in the first road-course race of the year at the Circuit of the Americas and eighth at Watkins Glen International.
His first career Cup Series win was in 2021 at the Daytona road course, but he has finishes of eighth and 24th in his other two career starts at the Charlotte Roval.
He’s likely going to need much more than that to avoid an incredibly steep fall from the top of the playoff standings to outside of title contention altogether in just three short weeks.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference