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Christopher Bell and Chase Elliott, the two youngest drivers in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4, finished third and fourth, respectively, in the final standings. But the road back next year could be somewhat difficult for each.

Christopher Bell rode a pair of pressure-packed victories to his first Championship 4 appearance

Bell, 27, qualified for his first career Championship 4 after a dramatic win in the final race of the Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway. That victory came after he pulled off a similar last-gasp victory in the last race of the Round of 12 at the Charlotte Roval.

He ultimately finished 10th in the championship race at Phoenix Raceway after a slow final pit stop set him back from the leaders. Overall, it was one of the more up-and-down playoffs any driver has had in recent memory.

Bell needed those victories after three straight top-fives to begin the playoffs because of wrecks in the first race of the second and third rounds that left him with 34th-place results.

He had a flat tire in the Round of 12 opener at Texas Motor Speedway that set him back in the points standings and set the stage for the Roval win. Next, he was the unlucky bystander who got caught up in a wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to begin the Round of 8 when Bubba Wallace intentionally turned Kyle Larson on the frontstretch just 96 laps into the 267-lap event.

That necessitated the win at Martinsville to reach the final four and have a chance at his first Cup Series title in his third season in the sport’s top series.

Chase Elliott’s regular-season title helped him navigate a choppy playoffs

Elliott, meanwhile, entered the postseason as the top seed after winning the regular-season title, but his playoffs were far from smooth as well.

He also crashed out of the first race in each of the first two rounds. His playoff bonus points saved him in the Round of 16, and he won the second race of the Round of 12 at Talladega Superspeedway to automatically advance to the third round.

His only top-10 finish in the Round of 8 came at Martinsville to close the three-race round, but that was enough to get him to the Championship 4 for the third straight season.

However, the 2020 series champion had his hopes for a second title at the age of 26 dashed with 112 laps left in the season when he turned low on the frontstretch on a restart and caught the front bumper of fellow championship contender Ross Chastain. The contact sent Elliott into the inside wall, and he eventually finished the race two laps behind in 28th.

Bell and Elliott will have to fend off an ever-growing group of contenders to reach the Championship 4 again in 2023

Christopher Bell Chase Elliott
(L-R) Christopher Bell; Chase Elliott | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images; Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

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Both drivers appear positioned to continue to build on their success in the coming years, but another trip to the Championship 4 is anything but certain in the sport’s current era.

Yes, they both drive for premier four-car organizations, with Bell at Joe Gibbs Racing and Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports. Still, several other high-profile drivers will be looking to return to the final four after missing it in 2022.

Drivers such as Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick are all former champions who are likely to be strong contenders again next season. Denny Hamlin doesn’t have a championship, but he qualified for the Championship 4 three straight seasons from 2019-21.

Reigning champion Joey Logano figures to be in the conversation again next season, as well, and he has been in the title hunt in the final race of the season five times since the elimination playoff format debuted in 2014.

The Next Gen car NASCAR introduced for the 2022 season also expands the number of potential championship contenders, as it helped produce a record-tying 19 different race winners in its first year and helped a driver such as Ross Chastain blossom into a Championship 4 qualifier with Trackhouse Racing, which was in only its second year of existence.

If Chastain could reach the final four in 2022, several other drivers could possibly do the same in the coming years. Tyler Reddick won his first three career races in 2022 and will now join 23XI Racing, which won a pair of races between Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace this past season.

William Byron and Alex Bowman have both won several races across the past two years and drive for HMS, which is perennially one of the strongest organizations in the sport. Ryan Blaney came close to reaching the Championship 4 last year without winning a race, so he could very well contend again next year. Even second-year Cup Series driver Chase Briscoe came a few laps away from snagging a Championship 4 spot at Martinsville.

Those are merely a few names from what has become a much longer list of realistic contenders as the Next Gen car has leveled the playing field among large and small organizations.

Bell and Elliott will almost surely be in the mix again next year, but chances of them filling half of the Championship 4 two years in a row is far from guaranteed.

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