Opinion: Christopher Bell has 'turned a corner since the break' in NASCAR Cup rookie season
When NASCAR restarted its season, Christopher Bell had a word to describe how his rookie season had gone.
A month into the restart, the Oklahoma native has a different word.
“Better,” he said.
Hard to argue with that.
In his first four races as a full-time NASCAR Cup driver — pre-coronavirus shutdown — Bell didn't finish better than 21st. Every race, he finished worse than he started, his pole position being the best thing about his day.
Bell has had three top-10 finishes in the last six races, including a career-best finish last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. As stout as his finishes have been, the truly impressive part is how he’s getting near the top.
His poor results early in the season have left him starting many races toward the back of the pack. NASCAR isn’t doing qualifying yet to reduce coronavirus risks and is instead basing the starting position on points standings. So last week, for instance, Bell started way in the back in 36th position.
He finished eighth.
No driver in that race made a bigger jump than Bell.
Frankly, the same could be said of his performances post-shutdown.
“Everything’s been going a lot smoother,” the Norman native said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Our team has been able to produce faster race cars. I’ve been able to get a little bit of seat time under my belt, so I think I’ve been a better race-car driver. Our pit crew’s been performing better.
“We’ve turned a corner since the break, and hopefully, we can continue to head in the right direction.”
Bell knows he’s not the only one responsible for his team’s success, but he admits that he’s still learning how to be a NASCAR driver. Even though he spent the last two years in the Xfinity Series, one step down from NASCAR, the step up to the top level has been big.
The length of races.
“Cup races, they’re extremely long lengths,” Bell said, “so it’s been an adjustment for me. I think I’ve been doing a better job of managing the races here especially since the COVID break.”
His Homestead run is a prime example.
After starting 36th, he moved to 22nd at the end of Stage 1, 80 laps into the race. By the end of Stage 2, 160 laps in, he was 12th. Then over the final hundred-plus laps of the race, he moved into the top 10 and stayed there.
The climb was steady and sure.
“It’s taken a little bit to learn,” Bell said, “but I think I’m doing a better job of it now.”
And Bell believes the race calendar for the restart has been a help to him. NASCAR has run eight races in 29 days, moving events to the middle of the week and attempting to get back on schedule.
The week-long break from last Sunday at Homestead to this Sunday at Talladega is only the second such pause since the restart.
It’s made for a grueling month, especially with most of the races in the South as the summer heat rises. But for Bell, the compressed schedule has been more positive than negative.
“It’s been really good for me being a rookie because I’m able to run a bunch of races and learn a lot in a short time period,” he said. “So, I think it’s accelerated my learning curve a lot.”
The results would indicate as much.
Even though Bell isn’t sure Sunday’s race will be a good measure of his improvement — Talladega requires restrictor plates, which make passing difficult, cause cars to bunch together and leave everyone susceptible to being caught up in a big wreck — he is encouraged by the trajectory of this season. His car speeds and his lap times are not far off the winners’.
Which brings him back to that descriptor he used for his performance since the restart.
“Better is kind of the word that we’ve been living by,” Bell said. “We’ve made our cars better. We’ve done better. We’ve got better results. But we’re still looking for more improvement.
“Hopefully, we can get there.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama
TV: Fox (Cox 12)
BELL ON FLAG BAN
Last week, NASCAR banned the confederate flag from all NASCAR events and properties, saying it “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”
The move drew praise and condemnation.
Rookie driver Christopher Bell, the Norman native who is the first-ever, full-time NASCAR Cup driver from Oklahoma, agreed with the ban.
“NASCAR is in a tough spot, but I applaud them for trying to make everybody feel welcome at the racetrack and making sure that it’s known that everybody is welcome to attend a NASCAR race no matter who you are,” Bell said. “I think that’s great of them to do that.”