The longest race of the NASCAR Cup Series season turned out to be a career-best effort for Christopher Bell.
In overtime of the Coca-Cola 600, Bell charged forward while some others faded and crossed the finish line in 10th place, and then picked up an additional spot after second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson was disqualified in post-race inspection. Seven races into the year, Charlotte ties Bell’s best qualifying effort, 15th, and is now his best finish.
Bell didn’t earn points in any of the three stages but had a consistent running position inside the top 15. The highest he ran was sixth, and he also got to demonstrate some additional skills by saving the No. 95 Toyota from harm in Turns 3 and 4 when he tagged by Ryan Blaney late in the first stage and sent sideways.
“The 12 car [Blaney] was probably a little faster than me at that point,” said Bell. “I guess he just ran in the back of me, and thankfully, I was able to get it back under control, and we didn’t go a lap down. That could have really been a day-ruiner, but luckily it worked out to where we were able to stay on the lead lap.”
This year’s event was Bell’s first run in the Coca-Cola 600. The race ran five laps past its scheduled distance for 405 laps and was four hours, 29 minutes long, and was also halted at lap 48 for just over an hour because of rain.
“That was a long one,” said Bell of the experience. “Whenever we had that rain break, we did not want to see that because we were just getting into a rhythm. The first 50 (miles) went by pretty quick, but the last 50 seemed to drag on a bit. I’m glad I got to experience the full Coke 600, because now all of the rest of them are going to be shorter than that.”
Charlotte continued an upward swing for Leavine Family Racing since the sport returned to racing. The team, led by crew chief Jason Ratcliff, finished 24th in the first Darlington race and then just outside the top 10 in the second. Bell, for his part, has kept the car clean in the last two races and shown the ability to run among the top contenders.
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” said Bell. “We have to obviously keep making gains – getting a little bit faster, me doing a better job. We’re gaining on it. We are creeping up on it. I think we snuck a little bit of a better finish out than what we probably deserved, but we will take it after the first couple weeks.”
Before the pause in action from COVID-19, Bell and his team had struggled out of the gate, with two DNFs in the first four races that left him 32nd in points. After these past three races, Bell is 28th in points and has finished every lap to improve his average finish to 23rd.