Playoff baptism awaits for Bell, Reddick, McDowell

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Christopher Bell says he hasn’t gone to his trio of veteran teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing for advice entering his first NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Instead, he’s leaning on the man that helped one of those veterans become a two-time Cup champion.

Crew chief Adam Stevens guided Busch to the 2015 and 2019 titles before moving to the No. 20 team this off-season to join the incoming Bell. In their second race together, they won at the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Now, Bell is relying on Stevens’ knowledge of what it takes to advance through the playoffs as the No. 20 team undergoes a change in philosophy.

“Since we won our first race … We’ve definitely been focused on trying to win more races and not on the stage points, and I think that really impacted our regular season points position,” Bell said Tuesday during Cup playoff media day.

Bell finished 15th in the regular season standings, which cost him extra playoff points awarded to the top 10.

“Now, as we focus on the playoffs, those stage points are going to be crucial for me and my team,” he continued. “Going after more wins in the regular season now turns into points racing in the playoffs.”

Bell is one of three drivers beginning their first playoff runs Sunday night at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The others are Tyler Reddick and Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell.

Bell, McDowell and Aric Almirola all start at 2,005 points after the reset (base of 2,000 points plus all playoff points earned in the regular season). Reddick starts at 2,003 points, 15th among the 16-driver field.

Sitting directly on the early cut line, Bell faces a different experience than the ones he had in the Xfinity and Truck Series playoffs.

In those divisions, Bell – the 2017 Truck Series champion – was usually a title favorite with playoff points to spare. His mentality going in was to simply avoid trouble.

Now, he has to be the aggressor while remembering the biggest lesson he’s carried over from his rookie Cup campaign in 2020.

“You have to fight for every point throughout, whether it’s a stage finish or a race finish,” he said. “Even if you don’t have a great car, taking that 15th- or 12th-place finish is a lot better than trying to get eighth or ninth with a 12th-place car and crashing.”

Maximizing points was how Reddick was able to beat Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot.

With that, Reddick can focus on proving his belief entering Michigan that his No. 8 team was capable of reaching the Round of 8.

While Reddick is the 15th seed, only 13 points separate sixth-seed Alex Bowman (2,015 points) from 16th-seed Kevin Harvick (2,002 points). With consistent results and a few breaks, things could shake in his favor.

What Reddick doesn’t need is an up-and-down three races like he had to close the regular season.

A crash led to a 21st-place finish on the Indianapolis road course. A cut tire late at Michigan put him 29th. And at Daytona, he had to overcome serious damage to his car to finish fifth and make the playoffs.

“You look at these three last races for myself – not exactly the most consistent, for sure,” he admitted. “It happens from time to time.

“It’s a nice little reality check, if you will, before the playoffs started of ‘OK, this is why we need to really stay on the plan that we have.'”

Then there’s McDowell, who says he didn’t feel “locked in” to the playoffs until it became clear there wouldn’t be 16 different winners in the regular season.

McDowell noted that he talked with former Cup driver and current Fox Sports analyst Clint Bowyer about handling the playoffs at a Ford event last week.

But the 36-year-old Arizonan is well aware of what it will take for him and his small Front Row Motorsports team to advance.

“I feel like we have the speed and the momentum to surprise some people in the playoffs, but we’re also realistic of where we’re at,” McDowell said. “I have to have three incredible races in order to advance in the next round and I know that, we know that, we’re not naive to it.

“We know where we’re at as a race team and what we need to do, so we’ve got to hit home runs here the next three races and if we don’t, we won’t advance. We all know that and we’re ready to see what happens.”