During the closing laps of last weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Christopher Bell must have been having flashbacks.
Last season, Bell’s run to the Championship 4 hinged on two crucial playoff victories. The first one, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, ensured Bell’s passage to the Round of 8. Three weeks later, Bell won again at Martinsville Speedway, punching his ticket to the 2022 winner-take-all season finale.
And now, almost a year later, Bell had another championship race berth in his sights.
Sunday’s (Oct. 15) race ended with a 45-lap green flag run to the finish. For most of that time, Bell ran second to Kyle Larson and appeared to be making little progress chipping away at Larson’s lead. Then, with about 10 laps to go, Bell turned up the heat. Lap by lap, the No. 20 started to reel in the No. 5, cutting Larson’s advantage down to less than a quarter of a second.
By the exit of turn 4 on the final lap, Bell was right on Larson’s bumper. He tried to dive low on the frontstretch and pull beside the No. 5, but Larson held on to score his fourth win of 2023. The victory guarantees Larson a spot in the championship race. Bell is fifth in the playoff standings, just two points below the cut line.
“I don’t know what else I could have done,” Bell said about the finish. “I don’t know. I feel like that was my moment. That was my moment to make the final four, and (I) didn’t quite capture it. I don’t know.
“Coming to the checkered there, I knew that (Larson) was going to be blocking,” Bell continued. “So, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna try to go high,’ and he went high. And, I don’t know if I even had a run to get by him there coming to the line.”
It is true that Bell missed an opportunity to lock into the championship race. However, Las Vegas will not be his only opportunity to advance in the playoffs. Unlike Bell’s victories at the ROVAL and Martinsville last year, Sunday’s race was not a do-or-die situation for the No. 20 team. Two races remain in the Round of 8, and Bell could easily win either one of them. In fact, he might be a more dangerous competitor than ever.
Ever since Bell began competing in the Cup Series with Joe Gibbs Racing, he has demonstrated a rare ability to perform at his best when he is backed into a corner. In his first win, which came at the Daytona International Speedway road course, he ran down Joey Logano in the closing laps from several seconds behind, making the decisive pass in sight of the white flag. His second win, nearly a year and a half later at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, was less of a nail-biter, but it locked Bell into the playoffs at a time when his postseason chances were starting to look dicey.
However, Bell’s playoff wins in 2022 were the moments that really signaled his arrival on the big stage. He entered the race at the ROVAL 45 points below the cutoff. Only a win would keep his championship hopes alive, but Bell made it happen by charging through the field in just four green flag laps. He had the advantage of fresh tires, but Bell still had to avoid the chaos of two late-race restarts that dashed the hopes of several other title hopefuls. The No. 20 team served notice that they would not go away quietly.
Bell’s experience in the third round of the playoffs was remarkably like what came before. He lost a lot of points at Las Vegas after getting collected in Larson’s dustup with Bubba Wallace. An 11th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway did little to erase the deficit, and Bell went to Martinsville 33 points below the cut line in a virtual must-win situation. Once more, the No. 20 team rose to the challenge. Bell took control during the second half of the race, but he had to give up the lead to pit for fresh tires with 30 laps to go. Restarting back in the pack, Bell charged forward again and retook the lead from Chase Briscoe with five laps left. Ross Chastain’s Hail Melon stole the show, but Bell walked away with the trophy.
So far in 2023, the No. 20 team has not been tested to that level. Bell scored his only win of the season at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track. His playoff hopes were never in question from that point forward, and he spent the rest of the regular season knocking out good finishes most weekends.
During the postseason, the No. 20 team has clearly had the speed to advance through the first two rounds. Bell has avoided serious trouble so far, but he has not won a race despite earning four poles in seven playoff races. While drivers like Larson, Denny Hamlin and William Byron have emerged as the championship favorites, Bell feels like one of those guys who could make the Championship 4 if things go his way, but not necessarily someone who is going to jump up and take a spot for themselves like Larson did on Sunday.
However, what if Bell’s defeat at Las Vegas is the turning point? What if missing out on a victory last weekend provides that extra spark that the No. 20 team seems to be lacking? Although he lost at Las Vegas, it would be more typical of Bell to go out and win Homestead, or especially Martinsville, with his entire season on the line. He and his team pulled off miracle wins twice last year, and it would be foolish to think that they cannot do it again.
Larson may have left Las Vegas with the upper hand, but you have to wonder if Bell, with his championship hopes on the line, is right where he wants to be.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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