Bell fires first shot in Playoffs, winning pole at Darlington

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 02: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Yahoo! Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 02, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

After edging Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin by .026 seconds in Saturday’s time trials, Christopher Bell will lead the field to green in the first NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race of 2023—Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Bell navigated the venerable 1.366-mile speedway in 29.065 seconds (169.193 mph) to claim his third Busch Light Pole Award in the last eight races and first at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Hamlin clocked in at 169.169.042 mph to earn the outside starting spot on the front row.

After earning four poles in 2022, the debut year of NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup car, Bell turned in performances in time trials he considered sub-par in the first half of 2023.

“After we got through the first probably five to eight races this year, we were wondering what happened,” Bell said, “because last year we made the final round a lot, the majority of the time, and at the beginning of this year, we were really struggling.

“My team, (crew chief) Adam Stevens, my engineers have put a lot of emphasis on qualifying the last couple of months, and it’s really showed. We’ve been able to be in the hunt a lot more, make that final round, and it really helps out on Sundays when you get a good pit stall selection.

“At certain racetracks, qualifying’s a really big deal, and this is one of them.”

It was a unique qualifying session that featured seven Fords, three Toyotas and no Chevrolets in the final 10. For the first time since the 1982 Southern 500, no Chevrolet drivers will take the green flag in the top 10 (though in fairness, five General Motors products—Buicks and Pontiacs—started in the top 10 for that race).

With Tyler Reddick qualifying third at 168.972 mph, the three Toyotas will start at the front of the field, followed by the seven Fords, led by Ryan Blaney (168.273 mph) and Brad Keselowski (168.227 mph).

Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola claimed positions six through 10 on the grid, respectively. Almirola is the only non-Playoff driver in the top 10.

Reddick posted the fastest lap of the day (170.750 mph) in the Group B session of Round 1, when cloud cover moved in and cooled the track. All five Group B drivers were faster than the top five Group A drivers in the opening round.

Bell, however, thought he had an advantage as a member of Group A because it gave him more time to cool his tires between rounds.

Starting Lineup