Behind Christopher Bell’s Smile Is One of NASCAR's Greatest Threats

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Christopher Bell’s Smile Hides a NASCAR ThreatIllustrations by Stephen Omark

This weekend, Christopher Bell will compete for his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway. It’s NASCAR’s equivalent of the Final Four, and he’s ready.

“How do I feel?” Bell asked Road & Track. “I feel, honestly, like a million bucks. I think I used the term ‘opportunity of a lifetime.’ Hopefully, you get many more opportunities in the final four, but you never know. I'm very grateful for the chance to race for a championship. I don't know what else to say. It's amazing."

Bell, 28, is authentically cheesy. He looks much younger than he is, and in a week as exciting as this one for him, you can hear his smile over the phone. He just sounds happy to be here.

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But under that smile, Bell’s becoming known as a major playoff threat in NASCAR. He wins big, when it counts, sometimes knocking season-long favorites out of contention. It was easy to see this coming; Bell’s been a successful dirt-track racer for years, and dirt-trackers are regarded highly in NASCAR—because when the car starts sliding around, they lack fear and overflow with composure.

“I appreciate that my motto is becoming a playoff type guy,” Bell said. “But honestly, I just want to be a guy who can win anywhere, any time of the year, any racetrack, any race.”

Arguably, he already is.

In modern NASCAR, four drivers ultimately race for the title. They get there by winning and performing well the whole season, but particularly in the series’ elimination-round playoffs. The format has been around for almost a decade now, replacing a system where drivers’ cumulative points decided the champion. The playoffs culminate in the “Championship Four,” where the highest finisher among the final four drivers in one race—this year, at the mile-long oval in Phoenix—wins the title. One mistake or mechanical failure can ruin a whole season.

homestead, florida october 22 christopher bell, driver of the 20 rheemwatts toyota, drives during the nascar cup series 4ever 400 presented by mobil 1 at homestead miami speedway on october 22, 2023 in homestead, florida photo by sean gardnergetty images
Sean Gardner

Bell qualified for the Championship Four early by winning at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval a few weeks ago. Homestead was a disaster for him early on, and he told Road & Track there was no point during the race when he thought: “I’ve got this.”

“Not until the white flag flew, that's for sure,” Bell said. “Holy smokes. It was such a chain of events that led us to winning. There was one point in the race where I felt like our final-four hopes were over, because I was running in the 20s and [fellow playoff driver] Ryan Blaney was leading, which was worst-case scenario for me.

“I'm like: ‘This is how it's going to end.’ Then the race turned so quickly.”

For most of the day at Homestead, Bell’s car was bad. He almost got lapped by the leader at one point, and his crew chief, Adam Stevens, came over his radio to say: "We need to fight hard. To try to stay on this lead lap."

“OK," Bell said sarcastically. "I'll start trying.”

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Bell’s team brought the car back with adjustments. When a late-race caution bunched the field up, Bell drove through and took the lead with 15 laps to go. He held on for the win and an automatic spot in the Championship Four.

Bell apologized for his snark, which is easy to write off as part of his polite personality—especially since yelling and cursing on a NASCAR radio is normal. But it was more than that.

“I mean, that's not my style,” Bell said. “Myself, my engineers, my crew chief, the pit crew—we all have a common goal. It's not like we're out there competing against each other. I feel like a lot of teams make it feel that way, where it's the driver versus the crew chief. Our team has never been like that, and I don't want it to be. I felt bad for snapping at him.

“The only way that you succeed is if everyone pulls the rope the same direction. It's very easy to point fingers, but ultimately, we all do want the same goal, so you have to work together.”

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This is only Bell’s second time in the Championship Four. His first time was last year, when he qualified with a last-minute win at Martinsville Speedway.

Bell finished third of four drivers at Phoenix in 2022, and he isn’t sure what’s better for his championship hopes: having time to relax before the final race, like this year, or carrying adrenaline from scraping his way in.

“I'll let you know after Phoenix,” Bell said. “But as of right now, I feel much better than I did last year. It's been so nice to have more time to prepare for Phoenix, and I think I'm going to feel much more up for the challenge.

“Last year, it felt rushed. Literally, you couldn't even think of Phoenix, because you were outside the cut line and so focused on the task at hand in Martinsville. We didn't even use the word ‘Phoenix’ in our vocabulary until Sunday night after Martinsville. Then the hauler [with the race cars] has to leave, I don't know, Tuesday, to get out there in time. You have 48 hours to prepare for Phoenix.”

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The NASCAR playoffs are a tight, ever-changing points battle, with drivers fighting for spots on track to catch up to—or distance themselves from—competitors. Often, it’s only by a handful of points.

But Bell thinks he’s good at not letting that system make him emotional.

“Now, granted, I did have a minor meltdown on the radio [at Homestead],” Bell said. “But I never once focused on the fact that we were racing for a final-four berth. I was focused on the task at hand, which was maximizing my lap time and making sure that once I got the lead, I wasn't going to get passed. I wasn't even thinking about Phoenix until I came off of turn four and I saw that checkered flag, then it hit me. I'm like: ‘Oh my gosh, we're going back there.’”

Bell’s tendency to focus on the micro comes from his crew chief, Stevens, who won two Cup championships with driver Kyle Busch. That approach isn’t universally shared among Bell’s competitors, and fellow Championship Four driver William Byron told Road & Track he wants in-race stats and points updates based on the current running order.

But when Bell asked Stevens for a points update on the radio during one elimination race, Stevens said: “I have no idea. If you tell me where everyone's going to finish, I'll be able to tell you the points.”

“That was his way of saying: ‘Don’t get distracted. You have to focus on what's inside of your control,’” Bell said. “My crew chief is spectacular at managing the playoffs. He's made the Championship Four seven of the last nine years, which is absolutely insane, and probably a record that'll never be beaten. I've got the best leader in the garage, and I think it's more a strength of his than it is of mine.”

homestead, florida october 22 christopher bell, driver of the 20 rheemwatts toyota, drives during the nascar cup series 4ever 400 presented by mobil 1 at homestead miami speedway on october 22, 2023 in homestead, florida photo by james gilbertgetty images
James Gilbert

Bell started racing in NASCAR during the playoff era, not when cumulative points decided a champion, and he enjoys the drama the playoffs create.

“One thing that I actually was talking to my parents about is that with this format, every race you do is the most important race,” Bell said. “When you start the playoffs at Darlington, that’s the most important race of the season. Once you get through that one, the second race becomes the most important race. It all keeps building and building until you get to Phoenix.”

homestead, florida october 22 christopher bell, driver of the 20 rheemwatts toyota, celebrates after winning the nascar cup series 4ever 400 presented by mobil 1 at homestead miami speedway on october 22, 2023 in homestead, florida photo by james gilbertgetty images
James Gilbert

Bell’s now known for making it to Phoenix, thriving when it counts at the end of the year. But he wants to be more than that.

“I want to continue to grow as a driver,” Bell said. “I don't want to just win in the playoffs. I want to be a champion-caliber driver who has up to 10 wins [in a season]. I want to win a lot.”

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