Kevin Harvick may be known as “The Closer” – a driver who has the uncanny ability to show up at the end of races and snatch victories from others – but Bell is quickly becoming the driver who produces clutch wins exactly when they’re needed.
In NASCAR’s current playoff system where victories earn automatic advancement toward an invitation to compete for the championship, timely wins are the most valuable of commodities.
With this season not even over, Bell has now produced three wins in less than two playoff seasons that have combined to send him into the Championship 4 for a second consecutive year.
Two of the wins came last season in “must win” scenarios. Sunday’s victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway was technically not “must win” but it was about as close as it gets.
Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, Rheem / Watts Toyota Camry celebrates his victory
Even more impressive than Bell coming out on top of a late-race duel with Ryan Blaney on Sunday was the fact it came one week after losing a nail-bitter himself to Kyle Larson at Las Vegas.
At the time, Bell thought that opportunity could well have been his last, best chance at the win he needed in the semifinal round for another title chance.
But the driver who seems to come up with one of the most incredibly difficult things to achieve in racing almost at command – wins – did it again.
“I certainly thrive on pressure, and I love it. I live for those type of moments,” Bell, 28, said. “That’s why last week hurt so bad because I live for those moments. Whenever you have an opportunity to be great … It didn’t work last week, and that really, really hurt me.
“To come into the Charlotte road course (last year), I’ve said this a million times, in a must-win situation, when we sucked on road courses all year, to have the car capability we had, same thing at Martinsville, and now the Round of 8 basically every race is a must win with our points situation.
“Vegas was amazing. Certainly had a car capable of winning.”
Never giving up
Bell’s come-from-behind Homestead win – he nearly fell a lap down at one point in Stage 2 – did receive unintended assists from some fellow playoff contenders.
Larson, who led the most laps in the race, wrecked entering pit road on a green flag stop in the final stage; Denny Hamlin had a steering issue and hit the wall in the final stage; and Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., developed engine problems and was knocked out of the race as well.
Still, Bell had an incredibly unimpressive race until the final 60 laps, but with the chance to win and advance in the playoffs suddenly thrust before him, he did not back down.
Bell doesn’t relish these situations, but neither does he shy away from them.
“I don’t want to be put in those positions. It’s not like I sit here and try to be put in a pinch,” he said. “It was very nice in the Round of 12 this year to have a good Texas race and just be able to survive, right?
“Once I got that good finish at Texas, Talladega was, ‘Okay, collect our points.’ Charlotte, same thing: collect our points. Certainly that is a lot easier, but they’re not always like that.
“We’ve been really blessed and fortunate to be able to execute in these positions. I’m just proud of the effort from everybody around me because I’m just a small piece of what the success is.”
Bell is certainly correct. In Cup racing, especially, the best of drivers can do very little without good equipment and a talented team behind them.
But you also need a driver who can find something more – something special – when all other options have been exhausted.
“I would rather be the regular-season champion and be able to cruise in on points. In Phoenix, I would rather have a five-second lead and just cruise,” Bell said. “I don’t want to have to be put in those positions.
“But I do live for those moments. I love being great or trying to be great, I should say.
“Yeah, I love it.”
It’s easy to see why.
Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, DeWalt Toyota Camry wins