Christopher Bell grabs the pole at New Hampshire in a return to form

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 15: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/WATTS Toyota, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 15, 2023 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

It’s a familiar face up front in New Hampshire, but it didn’t come easy. Christopher Bell earned the pole position for the Crayon 301 (2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) by just .007 seconds ahead of teammate Martin Truex Jr.

Finding speed at the track was a challenge, Bell said, thanks to a new short track package and softer tires, which contributed to the closeness of the session.

“I was very surprised with how hard the cars are to drive in practice and qualifying,” he said. “Everyone was slipping and sliding around. I think it is going to be a different race than we saw last year with the downforce change and the tire change.”

As a result, he expects a high quality of racing – even at the detriment of his own pole advantage.

“I honestly believe that track position is going to be the least important it has ever been at this racetrack or at least compared to what it was last year,” he explained.

“The amount of sliding around that we did today, the lack of grip – I think the cream is going to rise to the top – the good drivers, the good cars are going to be able to pass and get their way to the front.”

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – APRIL 09: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Power Stack Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 09, 2023 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It’s a return to form for the driver. Earlier this season, it was Christopher Bell to beat, especially on the short tracks.

The former dirt racer clearly understood that style of racing in the Next Gen car and was able to put it to great effect: two of his three wins last year came on short tracks. Two top-tens at Phoenix and Richmond, and a win at Bristol dirt, just continued that.

But after leading the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization, Bell has struggled as the season progressed. Not just on short tracks, though he couldn’t break the top ten at Martinsville or Gateway, but throughout the circuit.

His second pole position start of the season marks a newly invigorated driver who’s remotivated to compete as the Playoffs approach. He currently sits fourth in the points standings, when a regular-season win means big Playoff points.

“My finishes have been atrocious lately,” Bell admitted, “and we are still right in the hunt, so that is a good thing for me. So hopefully, if we can start cleaning up our finishes, I will be able to capitalize on that.”

“We just need to start finishing races,” he explained. “We’ve been running really well and finishing really poorly. I think the capability of the team is strong and high. We haven’t been able to maximize that.”

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE – JULY 15: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, hares a laugh with crew in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 15, 2023 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Aric Almirola, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney put Fords in the rest of the top five positions, continuing a strong run for the Blue Oval starting at Atlanta.

Blaney echoed Bell’s thoughts about the challenging session.

“I think the biggest thing was the lack of spoiler and lower downforce that made it pretty tough and pretty slick,” he said. “A lot of guys are having trouble over the bumps.”

“I think we got a little better. It was nice to have a decent qualifying effort. Hopefully, we can get a little bit better for the race tomorrow. But yeah, it’s challenging – less grip tires, smaller spoiler, and the bigger bumps always makes it tougher.”

Tyler Reddick, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch all rounded out the top ten.

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Owen Johnson