Thursday July 18th, 2024 6:49AM

Joe Gibbs driver Christopher Bell emerges as a NASCAR championship contender

By The Associated Press

LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Joe Gibbs has fielded Cup cars for Denny Hamlin since 2005, got a decade out of Tony Stewart and is about to replace Martin Truex Jr., who has driven for the team for the last six years of a 21-year career. The Hall of Fame football coach and NASCAR team owner knows how to coax all the miles and years he can out of his elite drivers. Gibbs just might have a long — real long — contender in place to stick inside the No. 20 Toyota.

Christopher Bell isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

“We can ride him for 20 years,” Gibbs said.

Why not? The 29-year-old driver from Oklahoma stamped himself a legitimate contender to win the Cup Series championship this season after he navigated the wet weather at New Hampshire on Sunday to win for the third time for Joe Gibbs Racing. That total matched Kyle Larson, William Byron and Hamlin for most in the series this season. Bell has won multiple races each of the last three seasons and has 11 top-10 finishes in 18 races in 2024.

Should he maintain that kind of consistency as NASCAR enters the second half of its season, Bell could find himself among the four drivers racing for a championship in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

“I just think Christopher, he’s gifted, and the further he goes, we all just really appreciate it,” Gibbs said. “I think he’s a real talented, young guy. I’ll tell you, he’s the all-American guy. Sponsors love him. He’s just a kid that everybody loves.”

Even after Bell hoisted the traditional lobster in victory lane, he still couldn’t completely let go of some of the wins that slipped away from him this season. He rattled off a missed opportunity at Circuit of the Americas when he couldn’t quite catch Byron over the final two laps and another close call at Richmond. As stout as 2024 has been for Bell and the Gibbs team, it’s hard for him not to think that it could have been better.

“It’s pretty easy to start stacking the wins up, right?” Bell said. “It’s been a fun ride, and I feel like we’re close to hitting our stride. I’m excited about what’s to come, that’s for sure.”

Bell did have a little help in New Hampshire — where his moonlight bid in the Xfinity Series ended in victory as part of a weekend sweep — thanks to severe weather and NASCAR’s call to finish the race on rain tires.

It was a race Bell wouldn’t have won before this season — New Hampshire was stopped by rain with 82 scheduled laps left and would not have resumed without the wet-weather tires. That would have meant a checkered flag for leader Tyler Reddick.

Once the sky cleared after a 2 hour, 15-minute delay, NASCAR instead rolled out the tires on an oval for the first time to end a Cup Series race and allow it to come to a scheduled finish. Because of late wrecks and caution flags, New Hampshire even got four extra laps, giving Bell the win over 86 laps of driving on a damp track.

“They’re just a lot of fun,” Bell said. “What we’ve lost in the Next Gen car of being able to slide the car around and run the car really loose, yeah, I can’t describe it better than that, but we get that back on the rain tires. Whenever the track is damp, you’re able to slide the car around more and drive it hanging out more, drive it on the right rear more. It’s a lot of fun doing that for sure.”

Bell, Gibbs and crew chief Adam Stevens all raved about the rain tires.

“I don’t know what to say other than it’s just a knife’s edge,” Bell said. “You’re going to keep trying, pushing your entries, pushing your midcorner speeds, pushing your exits until you find out the limit and what’s too much.”

Bell also won this season at Phoenix (perhaps a championship sign?) and last month’s rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 with 151 laps left in the race.

He won NASCAR’s Truck Series championship in 2017 for JGR and made his Cup debut driving for Leavine Family Racing in 2020 as part of a Gibbs alliance. When Leavine closed at the end of 2020, Bell was officially back in the JGR fold and replaced Erik Jones. He won on the winding Daytona road course in 2021 and finished third in the standings in 2022 and fourth last season.

“Christopher has really sacrificed on his way up,” Gibbs said. “He’s raced a lot in dirt and everything. When I first met him, he said, ‘Coach, this is all I can do, I have to be successful in racing.’”

Through 162 career Cup races, Bell has certainly found the success he told Gibbs he had to find in NASCAR.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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