Christopher Bell appropriately described the final laps of Sunday’s race on the Charlotte Roval and his relentless drive to the front as mind-blowing.
Bell needed to win the elimination race to advance into the next round of the playoffs. A straightforward mission that others have found themselves facing in the past but failed to pull off.
Walk-off wins are not common in NASCAR. And yet the NASCAR Cup Series has now gotten one out of Austin Dillon in the regular season finale and now from Bell to keep his championship chances alive.
It was an option Bell didn’t consider likely. Bell is no slouch on road courses, but this season, the Toyota program has been far from stellar on the lefts and rights.
“There’s a gentleman sitting right over here, goes by Tony Merritt,” Bell pointed out in his winner’s conference. “He’s kind of my DeWalt guy. We’ve built a heck of a relationship up. He had been texting me through the weeks. He’s like, ‘Man, we’re not out. We’re going to win. We’re going to win.’
“I didn’t see it coming. The road courses all year long, we had not been strong. Normally they’re good for me. Last year with the Gen6 car, I got my first road course win, competed for several more wins. But this year just wasn’t happening.
“But with that being said, you see races all the time where the fastest car doesn’t win. I did keep reminding myself of that.”
The victory gets the No.20 team back on track. Bell had a 4.0 average finish in the first round of the playoffs, seemingly establishing himself as someone not to be overlooked.
But there was a reason he was in a must-win situation at Charlotte after two disaster finishes in Texas and Talladega. Bell blew two tires at Texas and didn’t finish the race. Talladega didn’t net him very many points.
“Whenever we left [Texas] with a whopping three points, I was just really down,” Bell said. “Down in the dumps. Then we went to Talladega, and we needed a home run. We needed a lot of points, and we didn’t score a lot of points. This whole last two weeks, I had been extremely deflated, just kind of down in the dumps.
“Now I can promise you I’m as excited as ever heading into these next three races.”
Bell’s crew chief Adam Stevens knows all about tough playoff moments. Stevens went through championship fights with Kyle Busch, winning the title in 2015 and 2019, and he knew the Round of 12 would be a hard round for his team.
After the high of how well the team performed in the first round, the low point was right out of the gate at Texas when Stevens felt they could contend for the win and didn’t because of the tire issues.
“When that ended our day, we got out of there with two or three points, we knew we were in bad shape,” said Stevens. “Speedways haven’t been too kind to us. Talladega wasn’t too kind to us.
“We felt like being behind going into Talladega, we had to go down there and race for points, try to close that gap. It just didn’t work out for us. We’ve struggled to finish as well. Even though we started on the pole, had the No.1 [pit] stall, we couldn’t turn that into any points either.
“This round was going to be the hard round for us. We knew it. We probably made it a little bit harder than it could have been. If we had a Texas like we expected, were capable of, we would have just had to come here and have a solid day. We did have that solid day going.
“We dropped the ball as a team at Texas. We were able to pick it back up and hit a three-point at the buzzer today.”
Bell’s charge came over the final two restarts. Inside the top 10 with fresh tires, which was an easy decision to do the opposite of the leaders knowing they needed a win, he picked his way to second place behind leader Kevin Harvick. Bell didn’t want to see the final caution that lined him up on the front row, confident that he could have caught and overtaken Harvick.
But the final caution with two laps to go closed the field again. Bell wasted no time passing Harvick for the lead and the win when the race went back green.
Stevens was a spectator at that point. All he could do was watch his driver go to work.
“You’re not chitchatting on the radio on the radio,” he said. “You’re anxious to see how the first couple of corners go. We saw a bunch of them in the wall down there, in chaos corner, Turn 1, whatever they call it. It was pretty crazy.
“You know he has to get there. You know there’s nothing you can do to help him get through there. You’re just watching and hoping for the best. With Christopher on a restart like that, with his experience and his skill level that’s the situations that he thrives in. He’s looking for those types of opportunities.”
If the second round was going to be the toughest for Bell and company, this next round might be their best. Intermediate racetracks have been a playground for Toyota drivers this season, and the first two races in the Round of 8 are Las Vegas and Homestead-Miami.
With an unlikely and dramatic win in their pocket, the confidence has been reignited in the Bell camp. Or call it swagger. Or maybe even a message to the garage.
“I think what it does, it lets people know that we don’t have any quit in us,” Stevens said. “We came here to do a job and perform to the level and capability of our stuff. We were able to do that. Bell was able to get up on the wheel when it mattered.
“But I think the garage is seeing that out of Bell for a long period of time, so that doesn’t surprise anyone. I think the way that our cars have run and how we performed as a team at the intermediates really bodes well for us. There were probably a lot of people hoping we were out of the next round.”