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Bell off to near-historic NASCAR start

Christopher Bell Christopher Bell - The Canadian Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Christopher Bell, fresh off his first victory of the season on the Bristol dirt, learned he was on a near-historic pace in NASCAR.

His five career wins in 116 starts is second most among active drivers, with only NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski winning more this early in his Cup Series career.

“That's pretty cool,” said the 28-year-old Bell, who is in his third full season driving for powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing.

“But I try to not look at the stats and focus on the task at hand,” Bell said Sunday night after leading the final 100 laps to win at Bristol Motor Speedway. “That is very rewarding to hear, and hopefully I’m not done here.”

Oh, Bell's not done, and he's rising as the cornerstone driver at JGR, whose racers include NASCAR champ Martin Truex Jr. and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.

Bell's four victories the past two seasons are the most at Gibbs. Hamlin's won twice in that span while Truex Jr., the 2017 series champ, has gone winless.

Kyle Busch, the longtime JGR centerpiece who left to join Richard Childress Racing this past offseason, won once in 2022. His replacement, Joe Gibbs' grandson Ty Gibbs, is winless this season.

It's obvious the Gibbs organization knows Bell's upside. They agreed on a long-term contract last year to keep Bell driving the No. 20, with Joe Gibbs citing Bell's easy-going, professional manner with sponsors.

“We think he's a young guy that is going to be a star,” said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls coaching Washington and five NASCAR championships in a two-sport career.

The Gibbs crew almost had another last season as Bell won a pair of playoff races (Charlotte's Roval and Martinsville) and was among the final four to compete for a title. He took third in the points standings.

Bell is back in the playoffs after successfully navigating the Bristol dirt. He held off fellow dirt-ace Tyler Reddick at the end as a caution on the final lap with Bell in front gave him the victory.

“Well, he's been so close so many times,” said Heather Gibbs, who was married to the late Coy Gibbs, is Ty's mother and part of the JGR ownership group. “We're thrilled to have the win. It mean so much to our family just being able to come here.”

And Bell could be in for more this season, much more.

He's becoming a short track master, finishing fourth at Richmond before his Bristol win. Now, the Cup Series heads to Martinsville this week where Bell won last time out.

“We knew this was going to be a good stretch of races,” he said. “Obviously, wanted to capitalize on it.”

Bell's rise is helping all JGR racers. There were three in the top 10 at Bristol (Truex was seventh and Gibbs 10th) and three in the playoff grid with about a third of the season complete.

Bell took over the points lead with his win Sunday and gained his third straight playoff trip since joining JGR. Truex sits in seventh in points and Hamlin 12th with plenty of races left to make an impact.

Toyota machines this year have lagged behind Chevrolet drivers, who've won five times. Bell believes the gap is closing and the chase is on.

“There was no doubt that we were behind them,” Bell said. “But we're in a really good stretch of races for our cars.”

The test will come starting at Talladega in two weeks when driver for Gibbs will try to muscle up on the longer tracks.

“With that being said, we know there is room to improve," Bell continued, "and hopefully that comes sooner rather than later.”

Count on sooner, the way Bell has performed.

“If we're capable as a team to give him the balance (he) needs,” Bell's crew chief Adam Stevens said, “with the equipment that we’re producing at Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll take us through (to) the front, and he’s proven that.”


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