Christopher Bell’s first career NASCAR Cup Series win in February at the Daytona road course was big.
Not only did it alleviate some of the pressure that came with joining Joe Gibbs Racing, it alleviated the pressure of making the playoffs.
Before the season, the inaugural dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway was pegged as an opportunity race for Bell, who carries one of the most extensive dirt-racing backgrounds in the Cup garage.
MORE: Bristol Dirt weekend schedule
He still sees it that way. But he’s glad to have that postseason berth already in his pocket.
“We’re gonna do everything we can to win another race,” Bell said during a Thursday media teleconference. “But it’s nice not having to rely on this and be like, ‘Man, this is our only way into the playoffs.’
“I think we have the opportunity for a great showing here, and I hope we can capitalize on that – get some playoff points, get some stage points, have a good, solid points day, and maybe come away with a victory.”
If Kyle Larson is the first name that comes to mind as a threat to win Sunday’s race at Bristol, then Christopher Bell is the second. That’s not just the bookies talking.
Bell’s impressive resume on dirt includes a 2013 USAC national midget championship, a 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Eldora, and three consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals wins from 2017-19.
He took part in Wednesday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race on a virtual Bristol dirt layout, finishing third behind winner William Byron. But he doesn’t expect the same experience to play out in the real world, inside his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“I don’t think the (virtual) track conditions were going to be what we’ll see (real world) at all,” Bell said. “After driving the (virtual) cars, I don’t think the (real world) cars are gonna drive that way either.
“…We’ll probably get a couple guys out front similar to (Wednesday). A couple of guys can drive away and really get going well. Then, you’re gonna have some guys back there struggling, all kind of racing together. But as far as track conditions, racing grooves, and car driving, I don’t think those three things will relate.”
Bell is more concerned about how potential rain and storms on Sunday could impact the track.
On top of extended downpours leading to extended track prep for making a raceable surface, he noted a “fine line” on how much water should be left in the dirt altogether.
“The more water content the dirt has, the softer the dirt’s gonna be, the more rough the race track is gonna be,” he said. “It’s gonna be interesting to see how they handle the weather this weekend.
“I’m all for having a little bit of water in the dirt to make it a more true dirt track than what we’re anticipating. But on the flip side, if the dirt has too much water content in it – a) the track starts getting rough; or b) our windshields get mudded up, the front of the cars are gonna get mudded up, and our engines will get hot.”
That wouldn’t help the show, which NASCAR and Bristol hope will be memorable for the right reasons.
The track has reached full, socially-distanced capacity in the grandstands for both Sunday’s Cup race and Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series race.
Bell said he wasn’t entirely sure what would lead those fans, as well as those watching on television, to consider Sunday’s Cup race great after the checkered flag. But he was hopeful that long, green-flag runs and a close finish would do it.
On the flip side, he knew exactly what he didn’t want to see on Sunday.
“We know it’s gonna be a full contact sport, and there’s gonna be a lot of beating and banging,” he said. “I just hope it’s not a demo derby.”