Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – MIAMI BEACH, FL – The Christopher Bell who showed up for Championship 4 Media Day at The Edition on Thursday bore little resemblance to the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender who has dominated the NASCAR Xfinity Series with seven victories this season.
From outward appearances, it was the same driver who rallied from adversity to win last Saturday’s event at ISM Raceway—where victory was the only avenue to the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
What was markedly different was his approach to the season finale.
Throughout the season—indeed, throughout a career that started on the dirt tracks of his native Oklahoma—Bell has proudly declared his win-or-crash mentality. But that won’t be his mind-set on Saturday, as he races Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick and Daniel Hemric for the Xfinity championship.
“The only thing different is we’re only racing three cars,” Bell said. “Instead of going out there and trying to win the race, all I have to do is beat three competitors. So whether that means running 20th or winning the race, that’s going to be our goal, just to beat three guys.”
But isn’t that a radical departure for a driver committed to winning, whether it’s an Xfinity race or the Chili Bowl, the marquee event for open-wheeled Midget race cars?
“Yeah, it’s definitely a change of pace,” Bell said. “And it’s a lot more relaxing to look at it that way. Unfortunately, those three cars are more than likely going to be racing for the win, so we understand that we might be in a must-win situation.
“But that’s great, because I was last week, too… Last week I had to beat 39 competitors if I wanted to advance.”
In last year’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finale, Bell won the title by finishing second to Chase Briscoe, who wasn’t eligible for the championship. Bell would be equally delighted to secure the Xfinity title in the same manner.
“This week I could care less about winning the race,” said Bell, who plans to stay in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs racing next year. “I just want to win the championship.”
Bell and Reddick also are currently in a dead heat for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title. As Championship 4 qualifiers, they enter the season finale tied with 4,000 points. The higher finisher of the two will claim the honor.
Neither the race for the championship nor the race for rookie honors will be easy for Bell, despite the smaller number of adversaries. In his only start in the Xfinity Series, Bell finished 36th last year when his engine expired after 78 laps.
But Kyle Busch, who fielded the trucks Bell ran in his championship season, has confidence in his protégé.
“I think Bell has a lot of potential,” Busch said. “I think he’s also worked with a lot of really good people, too. Being with KBM, being with (crew chief Jerry) Baxter, and being with Rudy (Fugle) and being with Joe Gibbs Racing with Jason Ratcliff… Jason, we’re lucky to have kept Jason. He’s a Cup level guy, no question about that.
“For him to stick it out with Joe Gibbs Racing to go back to the Xfinity racing and work with Christopher Bell, I hope that reaps the benefits it should, that he gets to move back up to Cup with Christopher.
“He has the whole situation, and he’s obviously done a great job with it. There’s no question about that. He’s definitely talented. I’ve seen him race late models and have gone to those when I was hurt in 2015. He’s a lot of fun to watch behind the wheel as well too. He’s getting it right now, and I wish him the best this weekend. I hope he brings it home.”
As Bell would add, even if it means bringing home a championship without a first-place finish.