Christopher Bell’s goal before the season was simple.
“I just want to be a factor in the races,” he told NBC Sports.
Too many times last year his parents called him after races to ask how his day went because he was so far back in the field they rarely saw him on TV.
Bell started this season as a factor — just not how he’d imagined. His bump draft turned Aric Almirola and triggered a 16-car crash in the opening laps of the Daytona 500. Bell admitted that “I wanted to crawl into a hole” afterward.
Sunday, Bell avoided calamity during a rock’em-sock’em final 10 laps. He used his fresher tires to catch Joey Logano and pass the former Cup champion to lead the final two laps on the Daytona road course and score his first Cup win.
“It’s a dream come true,” Bell said. “To win my first race at a road course, I didn’t expect that to happen.”
Nobody did. Although Bell won the 2019 Xfinity race at Road America, road racing isn’t viewed as his forte. He missed out on an extra time on the Daytona road course because he was not eligible to compete in last week’s Busch Clash. He was the only driver in the top five Sunday who did not run in the Clash.
Sunday proved to be the payoff for Toyota Racing Development, which has groomed Bell for years through NASCAR’s ranks.
It’s among the reason why Kurt Busch said before the season that the Bell “is the guy with the most pressure. He’s got a primary ride, an A+ team. … It’s his time to shine.”
Toyota’s investment and Bell’s potential were why Joe Gibbs Racing let Erik Jones go for Bell even when Bell struggled last season at Leavine Family Racing.
“(Last year) was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career,” Bell said. “I won a (preliminary night feature) race at the Chili Bowl, and that was it for the rest of the year. That’s obviously up against the Cup guys and on the dirt side, too. (Last year) was a really, really low point for me. To be able to come back in ’21 and win in the Cup Series this early on a road course is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
He got the opportunity because Chase Elliott, seeking his fifth consecutive points win on a road course, got stuck in traffic after pitting. Elliott led 44 of the first 57 laps, but went for fresher tires during a caution on Lap 57. A few cars stayed out. Elliott restarted 11th. Elliott never got higher than fifth before a late incident.
Logano was among those who did not pit. He took the lead when Elliott pitted. Logano extended his advantage to more than three seconds before Bell closed.
“I was hoping him trying to chase me down, he was going to make a mistake as an inexperienced race car driver,” Logano said of Bell. “You didn’t see it happen.”
Bell’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, wasn’t surprised.
“Once he got track position, he was very, very fast,” Hamlin said of Bell. “I noticed he was able to stay honestly closer to (Elliott) than what I was when he was leading. He’s definitely doing some good things.”
Bell took lessons learned earlier in the race and used it for his advantage later — such as knowing what it was like to run on older tires.
Crew chief Adam Stevens kept Bell on the track when most of the field pitted on Lap 12 of the 70-lap event. Bell restarted in the lead with three laps left in the first stage. He finished the stage 12th, unable to hold off many cars on fresher tires.
“I stayed there trying to score stage points,” Stevens said. “The whole field pitted behind us and we got run over. We were able to recover from that. We learned our lesson that if you go a good five, six laps, most of the field is going to come get tires.”
That’s why Bell pitted on Lap 57. Fast work by his crew got him out in 13.1 seconds. He restarted eighth, the first car on fresh tires. It was a matter of getting through traffic cleanly to get to Logano, while Elliott restarted 11th after a 14.8-second pit stop.
Bell’s victory completed a unique weekend sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing of first-time winners. Ty Gibbs won Saturday’s Xfinity race on the Daytona road course in his first career start.
Even more significant is that Sunday’s win put Bell in a playoff position. With the teammates Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch each expected to make the playoffs, Joe Gibbs Racing should have all four of its cars in the 16-team playoffs this season.
“To be in the playoffs already with him is a big deal,” Gibbs said.
It could make Bell quite a factor later this season as well.