Photo by Brenden Martin | Elevated Media
AVONDALE, Ariz. — The Championship 4 format in NASCAR has brought some amazing finishes across all three national series, the Camping World Truck series, Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. With a format as relatively new as the current one, milestones are just being reached with it in place.
The Cup Series sees two first-time participants in the final four this season heading into the finale at Phoenix Raceway Sunday afternoon, Trackhouse Racing No. 1 driver Ross Chastain and Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 driver Christopher Bell. While this foray in the Championship 4 is Chastain’s first in his career, Bell earned the distinct mark of being the first driver to reach the final playoff round in each of NASCAR’s three national series.
“That was mind-blowing, ” Bell said at Championship 4 Media Day. “I had no idea that was even up for grabs five years ago or six years ago, whenever I went to my first truck final four. That caught me off guard and that’s obviously a really cool stat.”
Bell reached the Championship 4 for the first time in 2016 in his first full season with Kyle Busch Motorsports where he was the model of consistency, earning eight top-10 finishes, including his first career win at World Wide Technology Raceway to get him into the playoffs. Bell finished third in the championship standings that season, but got another shot in 2017 with KBM, winning the Truck Series championship with a second-place finish, beating out fellow title competitors Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and Austin Cindric.
Bell saw instant success when he moved to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2018, winning a rookie-record seven races in the No. 20 for JGR, the same team and number he represents in the Cup Series today. However, all the wins in the world don’t automatically award a title in the final race, as Bell finished last among the Championship 4 drivers at Homestead Miami Speedway.
“[I’m] disappointed I didn’t win the Xfinity Championship because I think that one’s still up for grabs too, the first to win all three,” Bell said.
Coincidentally, Bell needed to win the Round of 8 cut race at Phoenix Raceway, (then called ISM Raceway) to make the Championship 4 that year. He has the experience of having his back against the wall in a must-win situation at Phoenix, the site of the Cup Series finale on Sunday.
Bell’s clutch gene was in full swing this postseason. After being the first driver to lock himself in the Round of 12 on points thanks to two top-five finishes at Darlington Raceway and Kansas Speedway, Bell was safe from any shenanigans that could occur at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he still finished fourth.
That all changed in the middle two rounds of the playoffs when Bell needed two clutch wins to advance after being in a hole points-wise. Bell earned wins at the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville Speedway to reach the site of his previous must-win victory in Avondale.
“I guess it’s taught me to not give up,” Bell said after his qualifying run. “It’s a long race tomorrow, 300-plus laps. I feel a lot better about it than I did at Martinsville, that’s for sure.”
Bell started 20th last week at Martinsville. He is set to start 17th in Phoenix.
Bell was brought into NASCAR thanks to Toyota Racing Development, with his introduction being in trucks running for Kyle Busch, who would end up as his teammate starting in 2021. The connection between Bell and Busch goes further. Bell’s current crew chief, Adam Stevens, was on top of Busch’s No. 18 team pit box from 2015 to 2020, winning five races and the Cup Series title in their first year together. The dynamic duo also won the title in 2019.
Busch and Stevens were separated after the 2020 season as Stevens got shifted to the No. 20 team, now driven by Bell who came from a season at Levine Family Racing, a Toyota team with a JGR alliance that ran its final season that year.
Stevens has seen Victory Lane at least one time in every season he’s been in the Cup Series.
“Adam, he’s a genius,” Bell said at Media Day. “He’s the reason why we’re here for sure. I believe we have the best team and that stems from Adam.”
Stevens has worked with numerous drivers in the past. In his time at JGR, Stevens had led teams with drivers such as Joey Logano in the Xfinity Series in 2012, who ironically is one of the No. 20 team’s Championship 4 Cup competitors a decade later.
The crew chief also touted Bell’s experience as something that flies under the radar for a driver who has only been behind the wheel of competitive Cup Series equipment since last year.
“He’s been through this process, the final four-style playoff system in the Xfinity cars and the Truck Series,” Stevens said. “It’s very much the same. The lights are a little brighter and there’s a lot more people and a few more obligations the further up the food chain you get, but it’s the same type of deal.”
Bell is no stranger to playoff and Championship 4 situations, especially those that require a win to continue a season. His experience puts him closer among the returning Championship 4 drivers of Logano and Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 driver Chase Elliott, who are both former champions with multiple entries in the final playoff round.
Despite not being seen as someone that is in the spotlight very much, the 27-year-old is not fazed by the pressure.
“That experience is invaluable and I hope that I can lean on that and use that to my advantage on Sunday,” Bell said at Championship 4 Media Day.
He finished 26th in the spring Phoenix race earlier this season, which was only the fourth race of the season on the new Next Gen car. His three Championship 4 rivals finished in the top 11 with Chastain earning the highest finish among them in second.
The NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway will start at 3 p.m. ET and be 312 laps on Sunday, Nov. 6 with Logano starting on pole. In both the truck and Xfinity finales, the pole sitter ended up sweeping the stages and taking the win. Bell will look to give JGR a double Driver’s Championship, as Ty Gibbs took the Xfinity title on Saturday.
Coverage of the race will be on NBC, Motor Racing Network (MRN), SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and Peacock.