AVONDALE, Ariz. — A video game move sent Ross Chastain to the Cup championship race, but it was a video game that helped start Christopher Bell on the path to Sunday’s title event at Phoenix Raceway.
A 5-year-old Bell was enamored with racing but after his parents bought a junior sprint car and collected sponsorship for it, Bell’s first race almost didn’t happen.
When it was time to climb into the car for the first time, he didn’t want to do so.
“I remember just being super nervous about the situation and not wanting to drive,” Bell said.
But his mother made a deal with him.
“I’ll buy you a Nintendo game if you get in one time,” Kathy Bell said.
Bell got into the car immediately.
“As soon as I got in, I fell in love with it,” he said, recalling the memory more clearly than what Nintendo game he got.
After he completed his first practice run, he exited the car and ran to his mom.
“Did you see me hit the wall?
“That was so cool!”
Bell never again questioned getting into a car.
When Bell climbed from his car after winning last weekend at Martinsville, his first words were “Mom and Dad we did it!”
They’ll be here at Phoenix to see if their son can win the Cup championship in his first appearance in the title race (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
When Bell mentioned his parents after the Martinsville race, it was as much for the counsel they had provided during the playoffs, which have seen him twice fall so far back in the standings he had to win the final race of a round to stay alive. He did so at the Charlotte Roval and then at Martinsville to earn his spot at Phoenix.
But the trials and tribulations of the playoffs wore on Bell.
“The biggest thing that hit me in that moment (at Martinsville) was they kept telling I was going to do it,” Bell said of his parents. “‘You’re going to make Phoenix. You’re going to make the Final.’ … So when I won the race, that was the only thing that I could think of, my mom and dad were right and we did it, we made the Final 4.”
Bell often keeps his emotions in check so such outbursts are rare, but Martinsville was special.
As they rode back home after the race last Sunday night, Bell’s wife, Morgan, was jolted by a sudden exclamation from her husband.
“He’s in the backseat going through all of his text messages and going through this phone and out of nowhere he just screams at the top of his lungs,” Morgan told NBC Sports.
Bell said it was “just the adrenaline” that elicited the reaction.
“It was a big moment, winning at Martinsville, and advancing where I am today is probably one of my biggest moments of my life,” Bell told NBC Sports. “That just goes back the lowest of lows going into Martinsville and … getting right back to the top.”
But Bell’s performance in pressure situations is a trait of the 27-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma.
“He has always been very, very good under extreme pressure,” Bell’s father, David, told NBC Sports.
David Bell saw it when he coached his son in youth basketball and their team played in the finals. While the team lost, Bell’s performance stood out, his father recalls. It carried through Bell’s dirt racing experience. He won the Belleville Nationals midget race in 2013 and won the Chili Bowl Nationals in 2017, ’18 and ’19.
He also won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2017 and made the Xfinity Series championship race in 2018 and ’19.
He faced more pressure Friday at Phoenix when practice didn’t go as well — he was 20th on the speed chart. It was as if the team had the rest of the field right where they wanted.
“That’s right,” crew chief Adam Stevens said with a smile. “We’re just setting the trap.”
Bell starts Sunday’s race 17th. With the way these playoffs have gone for him, it’s not surprising he would face challenges in the finale.
After a first round that saw him be the only playoff driver to score top-five finishes in each of those three races, things have been much more difficult.
He blew a tire on two different occasions at Texas, the second such incident causing him to hit the wall. At Talladega, he spun and was penalized for speeding on pit road, putting him in a must-win situation at the Charlotte Roval. Aided a four-tire pit call by Stevens late in the race, Bell charged to the win to move into the third round.
Bell called that the defining moment of his season to this point.
“I think that really says a lot about our team because it would have been very easy to give up going into the Roval, which we knew was not going to be a great race for us,” Bell said, noting the struggles of Toyotas on road courses this season. “As it turned out, it was not a great race. We were back half of the top 10 car. The yellow flag came out, and we were able to perform how we needed to perform to win.”
Those good feelings didn’t last.
Problems returned the following week at Texas in the opening race of the Round of 8. When Bubba Wallace retaliated and wrecked Kyle Larson, Bell was hit by Larson’s car and was done for the race. A week later, Bell finished 11th at Homestead. He entered Martinsville 33 points out of the final transfer spot. Again, a late four-tire pit call by Stevens helped Bell win to advance to Phoenix.
“I’m fully aware that I have the right guy on the pit box, absolutely,” Bell said.
This is just as Bell pictured when he was a child.
“He never wavered,” Kathy Bell said of her son’s desire to race. “That was the only thing he wanted to do, a professional race car driver. His dad said, ‘You need a Plan B, son,’ but he never got a Plan B.
Kathy admits she didn’t want her son to race but that changed one day.
“I was just praying about him,” Kathy said. “We had two older girls and I had wanted this little guy forever. So I finally got my little guy and he’s wanting to get in a race car. I really didn’t want him to do that. I was praying about it. … I heard clear as a bell this is my destiny for him. So I gave in and Dave said let’s do it. So we let him start racing.”