After winning the Truck Series title in 2017 and making back-to-back Xfinity Series Championship 4 appearances in 2018 and 2019, Christopher Bell‘s rookie Cup Series campaign last season was a disappointment.
Driving for now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, Bell expected to be more competitive than what he was. He finished 20th in points with only a pair of top fives.
“It was pretty hard to mitigate it,” Bell recalled Thursday during a media teleconference. “It was a low point in my career for sure. I know I’ve said that time and time again, but you just start doubting yourself and, in this sport, you are kind of labeled as you are only as good as your last race.”
But entering a new ride with the elite Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021, Bell knew that while the pressure to perform would increase considerably, so would the opportunity.
He made the most of it last Sunday, when he earned his first career Cup win at the Daytona International Speedway road course.
Now, he feels like he’s back on the map.
“It’s been a ton of fun, and I’ll tell you what – it’s been really fun to be relevant again,” he said.
The victory is also a great start to the partnership between Bell and two-time Cup champion crew chief Adam Stevens, who joined the No. 20 team during the winter after a split with Kyle Busch.
As Bell tells it, he and Stevens talked about avoiding trouble early in the season. Last year with LFR, Bell suffered two DNFs in the first four races, which put him 32nd in points when competition was paused for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But that didn’t keep Bell from asking Stevens why they couldn’t win on the Daytona road course.
“His reply was, ‘There is no reason that we can’t, we just don’t need to push our issue too hard and make a mistake,'” Bell said. “I think looking at the schedule, we have opportunities to win littered throughout the course of the season.
“There’s not really – I don’t think there’s a weak link on the schedule for us at the moment.”
Another track Bell has been eyeing is the next one: Homestead-Miami Speedway, which hosts the season’s third race on Sunday afternoon. Bell had one of his better races there last season with LFR, finishing eighth.
At Homestead, the fast way around is also the most dangerous – up against the wall. Coming from a dirt-racing background, Bell is comfortable with hanging out there.
“We know there is a ton of speed if you get up right next to the fence,” he said. “The Cup cars are very, very sensitive and prone to damage. If you get against the fence, it’s really easy to cut a tire.
“That’s going to be something that is definitely going to be talked about amongst all of the teams, and it’s going to be fun to see who plays with the razor’s edge.”
With a win and playoff berth in hand, Bell and the No. 20 team can afford to take chances.
But, perhaps with his early struggles in 2020 still on his mind, he’s determined to get the solid result if he can’t get the trophy.
“For me, it’s going to be about seeing the checkered flag,” he said. “I want to make sure that I get to the end.
“If it’s the closing laps, and I’ve got a shot to win and I’m pushing hard, I think I’m going to get up there and try to make it happen. But I definitely want to finish.”