HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Last summer, when Christopher Bell was mired in one of the worst slumps of his racing career, he admitted that he wondered if he’d find his way back to the top of the mountain.
Bell did just that last weekend on the 3.61-mile Daytona Int’l Speedway road course, where the Norman, Okla., native used fresher tires to chase down and pass Joey Logano for the win coming to the white flag. It marked his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in 38 series starts.
Other than preliminary night wins at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals in 2020 and ’21, it was Bell’s first win of any kind since the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 2, 2019.
It also made Bell the 35th driver in NASCAR history to win in all three of the sanctioning body’s national touring series – the Cup Series, the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series.
In short, Sunday’s triumph was “a big deal” and something Bell told reporters on Thursday he didn’t take lightly.
“This whole week has been a ton of fun,” Bell said. “It’s been really fun to be relevant again. I felt like I’ve fallen off the face of the earth the last 12 months or so, but it’s really nice to be able to get back (on top) and win and talk to all the media like I remember doing. It’s been really enjoyable.
“Last year was very different. Obviously the COVID pandemic changed everything. It made it different for everybody,” Bell noted. “For me, I never got to talk to (the media), really, aside from maybe during preseason, but aside from that … I hadn’t talked to a lot of people in a while. It’s nice to be able to talk to the media again and just be relevant. I said I wanted to be a factor from the beginning of this year, and it’s nice to be able to click off a win this early in the season.”
Though Bell was all smiles Wednesday, he admitted that his mood wasn’t always upbeat last season.
“It was pretty hard to mitigate it,” said Bell of the frustration of his winless skid. “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 only being as good as your last race. Fortunately, right now I’m a winner, so I’m on top of the world. But last year, it wasn’t looking good for me and a lot of people had probably written me off.
“I’m glad to prove those guys wrong and I’m so excited to be where I’m at,” Bell added. “I think we have the opportunity to run well at all of these (upcoming) tracks and I don’t think we are done winning yet.”
Unlike when he was running dirt cars on a full-time basis, Bell won’t have had any races in between his win last Sunday and this coming weekend, when he straps back in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That will mean he’s had a whole week to relish sitting on top of the competition, and it’s a feeling Bell enjoys, even though it’s a bit unfamiliar.
“It’s something that I’ve really struggled with throughout my NASCAR career, only getting one race a week. Growing up dirt track racing, I was accustomed to running 80 to 100 races a year … so if you had a bad night, typically you are racing the next night or a couple nights later and could shake that off,” Bell explained. “On the NASCAR side, you get one opportunity and then you have to wait seven days at best, and then if you have an off week, you’ve got to wait even longer than that. That’s been a huge change from dirt racing to NASCAR … which makes it amazing when you win because you get more time and you are a winner longer, but on the flip side if you have bad days you just can’t wait for the next opportunity to come and race.
“As far as learning from the bad days and dropping them behind you, I’m not very good at that, but definitely by the time you get into the race car the following week, that has to be behind you and you have to be moving forward,” Bell continued. “On the flip side, when you win, you hope to carry this momentum for a while, because winning always helps your confidence and confidence makes you a better race car driver. Whenever I strap into the race car on Sunday at Homestead, I’m going to know I was the winner the last time I got in the car, and that’s a big deal.”
As for the Dixie Vodka 400, Homestead-Miami is a track where speed can be made by running right next to the outside wall, a tactic that often paid dividends for Bell in his dirt-track days.
With his Daytona win locking him into the playoffs, Bell can afford to race harder if it means potentially returning to victory lane for a second straight week.
“I think I’ve found the edge a little bit. I have crossed over the edge a few times as you know, and I’m sure I will sometime in the future again too. Hopefully, it’s not this weekend in Homestead,” said Bell. “Homestead is definitely a place where that is apparent. There’s a lot of speed to be found right up against the wall, but it’s very risky as well. Fortunately, I’m one of the guys who can kind of throw caution to the wind. It’s going to be fun to see how the strategy plays out for us, if we are very aggressive or how we play it, but we will just have to see.
“I know that the stage points are important to us and we want to get a good finish, but at the same time, we really want to win too.”