In 2022, NASCAR rising star Christopher Bell pushed his No. 20 Toyota Camry to places not every driver dared.
Bell wasn’t willing to try himself when he first arrived at the Cup Series in 2020.
But to win, he realized he had to take risks. Bell reaped the rewards during his third season, capturing 3 wins with plenty of chances for more.
“The biggest thing is just being able to put the car right on the edge of the level and not spinning out or not crashing,” Bell told the Orlando Sentinel. “As your confidence gets up, you’re able to do that more and more. That’s how you ultimately become faster.”
Bell aims to take himself and his car right to the edge this week and position himself to win his sport’s biggest prize — the Daytona 500.
The 28-year-old Oklahoman will have to change his fortunes during the 65th running of NASCAR’s premier event next Sunday at iconic Daytona International Speedway.
“I’ve run in the event three times and I’m 0-for-3 finishing,” Bell said. “Hopefully we can change that streak this year.”
He certainly arrives with momentum following a breakout season.
After winning 23 times in the Xfinity and Truck series in four years, including an Xfinity-best eight times in 2019, Bell was considered the can’t-miss kid when he arrived in 2020.
The Cup Series’ steep learning curve humbles even the best young drivers. Restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic turned Bell’s rookie season into a lost one.
With practices and qualifying, Bell had only race day to learn how his car responded.
“For me as a young driver, it was a detriment,” he said. “Without practice you don’t have an opportunity to try different setups with the cars. Each driver needs something a little bit different to make themselves comfortable in the car and be able to go fast and produce lap time.
“Whenever you don’t have practice, you get one shot, so you build your car with the setup you think you need and if you’re not good, that’s it; you’re just not going to perform well that weekend.”
Bell posted a pair of top-5 finishes among 7 top-10s but generally was in the middle or back of the pack. His Daytona 500 debut ended in a crash.
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Swapping his No. 95 Toyota with Leavine Family Racing with the No. 20 with Joe Gibbs Racing quickly produced results in 2021. During the season’s second race, Bell outmaneuvered Cup Series stalwart Joey Logano to win on Daytona’s tricky 3.61-mile road course.
While it was Bell’s only win, he posted 4 more top-3 finishes. Bell’s breakthrough was still a year away.
Besides 3 victories in 2022, Bell tied for second with 20 top-10s and tied for third in the series with 12 top-5s. To see how far Bell had come in getting dialed in, compare his average start of 10.1 with 23.7 in 2020 and his 573 laps led with just 18 two years earlier.
Bell also displayed the versatility top drivers possess. He won on a 1-mile setup in New Hampshire, the Charlotte road course and the Cup Series’ shortest track (0526-mile) in Martinsville.
He also won the pole for both races on the 2.66-mile tri-oval at Talladega Superspeedway.
“Definitely a year to be proud of and build on,” Bell said. “I hope that’s not the end goal. We want to win more. But it was good for me to know I can compete at the sport’s top level.”