DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One question looms on Christopher Bell larger than any other before the NASCAR Cup Series season gets underway Sunday with the Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
After taking over the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, finally reaching the top of Toyota Racing Development’s pipeline, can the 26-year-old live up to his full potential? Last year, Bell finished 20th in the Cup Series points during his rookie season driving for Leavine Family Racing.
Now Bell is in one of NASCAR’s most coveted rides and anything short of making the playoffs would be a disappointment.
“It’s a necessity,” Bell said regarding the playoffs in last week’s media press conferences. “If I don’t make the Playoffs this year, that is not going to be ideal. That’s for sure. I don’t know what the results of that would be, but I don’t want to find that out.”
Bell’s talent is widely-known. He is the only driver not named Swindell to win three or more Lucas Oil Chili Nationals main events, one of the toughest events to win in North American motorsports. He is the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. From 2018-19, he won nearly a quarter of Xfinity Series races held (15 of 66).
However, talent and potential must develop at some point. That’s what Bell faces as he prepares for his second NASCAR Cup Series season.
“I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” Bell said. “Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach [Gibbs] provides all of the resources needed to have four championship caliber teams and that is the goal. Anything short of that is not good enough.
“This is my first year here,” Bell continued. “I don’t think people are realistically expecting me to compete for a championship this first year, but eventually that needs to be the end goal: to have a championship caliber team, and I hope I’m a championship caliber driver to lead that group.”
Bell finished with two top-five and seven top-10 finishes at the Cup level last year. His start to the season didn’t go well, with finishes of 21st, 33rd, and 38th in the opening three races. Bell didn’t complete his first, full Cup Series race until race the fourth event of the year at Phoenix Raceway.
By then, he was 32nd in points.
The path to Bell making the playoffs is ensuring a clean start during the first three races of the year at Daytona – on the oval and on the road course – and Homestead Miami-Speedway.
“I think that we have all of the ingredients that we need to compete for wins right out of the gate, but on the flip side, I’m definitely not going to be driving it 100% to win those races,” Bell said. “Last year, I got buried in points by not having a good opening stretch of races, and that is our number one goal: to see the checkered flags, get to the end.”
Established crew chief Adam Stevens, who previously guided Kyle Busch to two NASCAR Cup Series titles, will guide Bell through the most pivotal season of his career. Stevens moves to the No. 20 team after a six-year run with Busch.
“Adam (Stevens) has been really good about pushing that we need to build a foundation before we just go out here and start trying for wins,” Bell said. “I think we have all the tools we need to win really early, but on the flipside, I don’t want to make a mistake trying to win too early. I would like to collect some good finishes and build on that, and then compete for wins.”
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