Third-year Cup in Joe Gibbs Racing began the season with a crash at the Daytona 500 and retired a week later after 94 of 200 laps at Auto Club Speedway in California with engine failure.
After finishing 10th in Las Vegas – a weekend where he actually won the pole – he crashed out in Phoenix and finished a disappointing 26th. That left him 30th in the series standings and seemingly a long way from a win or the playoffs.
Now entering the final championship race of the season at Phoenix Raceway this weekend, Bell is one of four drivers eligible to win the series title. Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain.
Not only that, he is the only driver in Championship 4 to win more than one playoff race this season.
How times have changed
While Bell and his No.20 JGR Toyota team always believed there was potential to climb into the top ranks, that’s not to say there weren’t doubts along the way – and plenty of hurdles to overcome.
“I remember telling Bell when we were (30th) in points that he was confused and worried,” explained Bell’s crew chief Adam Stevens.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t know what you’re worried about. We have the performance and the opportunities are there, it’s just hard for you to see it.”
Bell said: “You were definitely a lot more positive than I was at that moment.”
Stevens said he’s confident Bell and No. 20 are “not that far off” from the teams that are ahead each week.
“We suffered for finishing, we didn’t suffer for execution. We certainly didn’t finish (30th), Stevens said. “Our setups were not what they should have been at the start with this new car, but we were learning.
“We were able to run ahead. We crossed the finish line in (first) Atlanta P2, got hit from behind for going under the yellow line. We were up front (first) in Vegas, unleashed on the bumps and raced for the lead.
“It was potential performance. Two fives have gone that were within our reach.”
Slowly, the team worked their way back up the standings as their results began to match their performance on the track.
Bell finished third at Circuit of the Americas, led 63 laps and was sixth at Richmond, Virginia, and finished seventh at Bristol.
As the season moved into spring and early summer, Bell found his groove. He has put together a streak of five straight finishes of ninth or higher to break into the top 10 of the standings by early June, giving him a chance to make the playoffs even if he doesn’t win.
But with NASCAR seeing an unprecedented number of different winners start the year with a Next Gen car, going into the playoffs without a win wasn’t a certainty.
Finally, they reached Peremohi Lane
Bell put those doubts to rest with a victory on July 17 at New Hampshire in which he passed 2020 series champion Elliott for the lead with 41 of 301 laps to go and held on for the win.
Finally, the crash in Victory Lane seemed to provide concrete evidence that Bell and the No. 20 team could be playoff contenders.
“We had a streak of good finishes and good runs,” Stevens said. “We were competitive. We had a few pit stops. Some strategic calls have gone away from us.
“But as a team we knew we had what it took.”
Bell, 27, entered the 2022 playoffs as the 10th seed (out of 16 drivers) with one win and two stage wins in the regular season.
His results exploded in the first round as he was the only driver to finish in the top five in all three races (Darlington, SC, Kansas and Bristol, TN).
However, without additional wins and the re-seeding that occurs after each round, Bell faced a difficult road to further progress in the playoffs.
Win … and you’re in
The second round got much tougher as he crashed out of the race in Texas and finished a disappointing 17th in Talladega, Alabama. This put him in danger of elimination at Charlotte Roval, needing a win to progress.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Thanks to a timely call for four new tires at the penultimate caution, Bell powered through the field to pass the leader Kevin Harvick at the start of overtime and earned the win and automatic advance to the semifinals.
“Round 12 was very disappointing because I felt like the (semi-final) round would be really good for us and it would lead to a possible championship,” Bell said. “But then when we got out of Texas with a DNF, Talladega was down, just was so down.”
Heading into the semi-finals with renewed confidence and on tracks where he usually performs well, Bell got a big wake-up call when he crashed out of the Las Vegas race, hitting a Grandma Wallaceretaliation against Kyle Larson.
An 11th-place finish a week later at Homestead, Fla., did little to improve his points position heading into last Sunday’s final elimination race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Once again, he needed a win to advance. And once again, he delivered.
The final caution pitted for new tires and took sixth on the restart with 24 of 500 laps remaining. Then methodically ran and passed Chase Briscoe with four laps to go to retake the lead and held off Larson by .869 seconds for the win.
Suddenly, the driver, who had fallen to 30th in points, had his third win of the season and was locked in as one of four to challenge for the series title.
“It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions,” Bell said. “The team behind me, everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, they continued to perform at the highest level.
“I feel like every time I get in the car, put on my helmet, I try to do my job as well as I can so that nothing bothers me.”
While Bell’s trip to Championship 4 was certainly filled with drama and a couple of do-or-die moments, it may have overshadowed the fact that his appearance shouldn’t have been such a huge surprise.
Even with two DNFs in nine playoff races, Bell has the fourth-most playoff points so far (299), just 38 shy of the leader Denny Hamlinwho did not have a DNF.
Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see that Bell and his No. 20 team have been one of – and perhaps the most effective – teams this season when it mattered most.
This fact was certainly not lost on Stevens.
“It was there. (The play) was there the whole time,” he said. “We just haven’t had as many opportunities to show it as maybe we felt we deserved or had coming to us.
“Hopefully we have another one.”
Most points scored in a 2022 NASCAR Cup Playoff race