By Jerry Jordan, Editor
A week ago, Christopher Bell left Las Vegas Motor Speedway heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway dejected and concerned about his chances to make the final round of the NASCAR Playoffs. He’d battled Kyle Larson as hard as he could and came within .08-seconds of winning in what he thought was his best shot at continuing his championship hunt.
“I really feel like that was our chance, that was our chance to make Phoenix this year and, I don’t know, it slipped away from us,” Bell said, after the Las Vegas race. “I don’t know, I don’t know. We’ve still got two more races to get ourselves into position, I feel good about that, but to be that close, really stinks … I don’t know what else I could have done to get by him, just go on to Miami.”
Oh, what a difference a week makes.
Bell began this week’s race with a relatively good car, he said, but then it wasn’t. Whatever adjustments the team made him slower, so much so, that he almost dropped off the lead lap. But crew chief Adam Stevens wasn’t giving up. He continued to throw everything he had at the car and it came alive.
“Wow, I mean, today was just a whirlwind, for sure. To be able to overcome and to be in that bad of a spot… I mean, I was what, a quarter straightaway from going a lap down. It was just incredible the difference a couple pit stop adjustments will do to your car.
“I’ve always been one that says that the car is everything. The driver’s job is to maximize the car. If the car is fast, you do good. If the car is slow, you do bad. I think today was the epitome of that. We were really struggling. I was the slowest car on the track at one point in the race. A couple good adjustments later, we became one of the fastest ones.”
Even Stevens didn’t think they had a winning car as Bell struggled to stay on the lead lap. Getting into Stage 2 of a NASCAR race and not knowing where to find speed is an uneasy feeling for a team that was in a near-must-win scenario to make the final round of the playoffs. It was something that evoked a rare moment of frustration between Bell and Stevens, as well, even though Stevens, who crew chiefed for the often-sharp-tongued Kyle Busch, is used to.
“No, I wasn’t thinking win at that point,” Stevens said. “We were decent in the first stage. What did we finish, eighth or ninth? We had gone forward. Lost a little speed in our car, a little balance late on tires. We tried to make a little bit bigger adjustment to help our balance. It was absolutely dead wrong. It hurt it. It doubly hurt it, both problems we were trying to fix. We really paid the price the entire second stage. Thankfully stayed on the lead lap somehow. It was bad.
“The pressure was on to get that adjustment out of there at the end of stage two. Sometimes he lets a little bit of emotion come out. Sometimes you need it. I scream my fool head off on the box sometimes but don’t key the mic. You got to let it out. He was in a bad spot. We put him in a bad spot. He was driving his pants off … Sometimes you got to tell them things they don’t want to hear, and sometimes they’re going to tell you things maybe you don’t want to hear. Part of it.”
Bell confessed he felt bad after losing his cool over the radio, although the comments were more of a sarcastic nature than of anger. And, he did drive harder. But the team made that possible with the changes to the car.
“That was me boiling over with frustration,” Bell said, and referring to Busch’s past radio rants. “I try not to do that. I try to keep my temper as controlled as I could. But in that moment, I did smart off to him. I apologized to Adam for that. His old driver probably gave him a lot worse, so I shouldn’t feel too bad.”
The Homestead-Miami win locks Bell into the Championship Four drivers, who will battle for the NASCAR title at Phoenix Raceway. It’s Bell’s second trip to the desert as a championship contender and he’s hopeful it’s not an emotional roller coaster as the team returns a year after the death of Coy Gibbs. Team owner, Coach Joe Gibbs, has lost two of his sons through the years, and they were both heavily involved in the racing operation. In fact, they were the future of Joe Gibbs Racing and returning to Phoenix won’t be easy for him, he said.
“I think also going to Phoenix will be emotional for us,” Gibbs said. “I think of Coy and everything last year. Also J.D. in there. Those two guys spent their entire lives building our race team.
“I would say there’s going to be part of that that will be remembering things that happened, and part of it was, hey, Heather said that’s the happiest she’s seen Coy that night, everything that happened on the racetrack.
“Yeah, I think there will be some memories there, for sure.”