Christopher Bell ends Chevy win streak at Phoenix as Bowties struggle

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 10: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 10, 2024 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

So far early in the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season all the talk has been around Chevrolets and Hendrick Motorsports.

Christopher Bell and Joe Gibbs Racing have now entered the conversation.

Bell emerged as the class of the field at Phoenix Raceway Sunday winning Stage 2 after charging through the field then retaking the lead with 40 laps to go and cruising to a 5.4 second win over Roush-Fenway Keselowski Racing driver Chris Buescher.

“Man, this one feels really good,” Bell said. “Just a credit to Adam (crew chief Adam Stevens), man. Adam, my engineers, my crew chief, all the mechanics on this thing. You don’t get cars like that very often, as you know. Just super, super proud. Proud to be on this 20 car.”

Bell led the Joe Gibbs Racing contingent as three of their four cars finished in the top 10 with Ty Gibbs finishing third.

“It was a good day for our Monster Energy Toyota Camry,” Gibbs said. “We just need a little bit more. We got in a hole there a little bit on pit road and got back through it. It was a good day and a really good recovery.”

In the final laps JGR driver Martin Truex Jr. on an alternate pit strategy held the lead for 55 laps but was forced to pit on lap 271 ceding the top spot back to Bell who had once more charged through the field with the fastest car in the field.

Truex would rally to finish seventh.

Bell had taken the lead for the first time on lap 181 and held on to win Stage 2. But during the round of stops, the right rear tire on his Toyota wasn’t fully secured. The tire changer held the car to ensure the tire was on tight before sending Bell back out to rejoin the field in 10th.

“We’re just not meant to lead laps,” Bell told the team on his radio.

For much of the race it was JGR driver Denny Hamlin who led the way. Starting from pole Hamlin led a race high 68 laps. But while battling Tyler Reddick, who tied Hamlin for the most laps led, for the lead on lap 216 Hamlin got loose and spun bringing out the race’s 6th and final caution. Hamlin was able to continue but had to settle for an 11th place finish.

Brad Keselowski capped off a good day for the RFK team, finishing fifth.

“It was a good solid day for us,” Keselowski said. “We want to win these races but we didn’t have anywhere near the speed the 20 car did, I don’t know if anybody did to be quite honest. We put ourselves in good position with a good pit call and a great restart at the end and we just tried to execute.

“The potential is there. We are just one step away and we are going to keep working on it until we get there.”

Ross Chastain overcame a meeting with the wall earlier in the race to be the only Chevrolet inside the top 10 as he came home sixth.

Michael McDowell and Chase Briscoe were behind Truex and Reddick who won Stage 1 rounded out the top 10.

After winning two of the first three races to start the season Hendrick Motorsports struggled Sunday.  Kyle Larson who won last week at Las Vegas was the highest finishing Hendrick car in 14th, William Byron who won the season opening Daytona 500 was 18th.  Chase Elliott, who was the only Hendrick car to score points in each of the Stages was 19th, while Alex Bowman was 20th.

The win was the seventh of Bell’s career and his first at Phoenix. All his wins coming on different types of tracks including dirt, 1.5 mile and road courses.

For Toyota Sunday’s race was made even more surprising given that Toyota had led only 15 laps at Phoenix with the Next Gen car.

“It’s no secret that Phoenix has been a little bit of a struggle for us,” Bell said. “After that first year of Next Gen – myself and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) we really sat down and said that Phoenix needs to be a focus point because I didn’t feel very good there the first two races in 2022 and then in 2023 we were a little better each time and today was lights out so today is a great day for the company.”

NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway next week and will be back racing on the pavement there after the spring race was on dirt for the last three seasons. Bell is the defending winner.

“I feel like we have capability of running races like this a lot,” Bell said. “Hopefully this is the first of many this year.”

And the next time the series returns to Phoenix in November it will be the championship race.

“This is an important one,” Bell said. “If you’re not good here, you’re never going to be a champion.”


Greg Engle