Q. What is so special about your over-the-wall guys that gives you the confidence they can pull through and make it happen?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, my pit crew has done really good. The crew, the team, the people that I have on this 20 car right now, they’re on the 54 car through the regular season. I don’t know if they still have the record, but at one point they set the record for the fastest pit stop. Yeah, we’ve got a good group right now.
Q. How has this week been for you?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Much more relaxed than last year, for sure. Just having that extra time to prepare has been really good. Last week, I don’t know, I feel like last week we did a lot of our homework, then this week was just kind of relaxing and preparing, relaxing and taking it easy.
Q. What were you able to do this time that you weren’t able to do last year?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I don’t think we didn’t get to accomplish anything last year in our short preparation time, but everything just felt crammed and rushed, where now winning at Homestead allowed us to just be a little bit more methodical.
I’m sure it helps Adam and my engineers make more educated decisions on what we’re going to put inside this Phoenix car as far as the setup.
Yeah, just had a lot more time and not the hectic, like, Man, we just won at Martinsville, now we need to hurry up and think about what we’re going to do in Phoenix. That type of deal.
Q. You’ve been in the Championship 4 in all of the three series. How have you noticed or have you noticed a difference in the way the Championship 4 are raced in those series?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: That’s a great question.
I don’t really know that I’ve noticed a difference. I don’t know. You have me a little bit stumped. I guess that means nothing stands out between the three series.
Q. The Championship 4 drivers, is there anything courtesy…
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Certainly I think you get breaks. I’m trying to think if it was different through the Truck and Xfinity Series than what I experienced last year. I really don’t think it was.
The biggest thing was last year in the Cup Series, having three teammates that are really, really competitive, and they probably cut me more breaks than the rest of the field.
I remember in the Truck Series, whenever I made the Final 4, Gragson was my teammate and he raced me really respectful, too.
I don’t think anything stands out or anything is much different between the three series.
Q. The interesting thing is in Cup, since the Championship 4 was instituted in 2016, from there through 2022 you’ve had two situations in Cup where the top four finishes 1-2-3-4, but you’ve never had that in Xfinity and Truck.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: That is strange. Well, certainly whenever I won my championship in ’17, I didn’t win the race. Then, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why that is.
Q. (Question about experience in the Championship 4.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: No, I don’t think so. I think last year I was in the same mindset as I was this year. Certainly having more experience probably helps keep the nerves down a little bit more. I think they’re going to be just fine.
Q. Adam Stevens, you guys have worked together, has it changed at all since you first started?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, I think it has, just from getting together in 2021. I was so unproven in the Cup Series that I think it probably took a couple good runs and myself proving to him what I’m capable of.
I think our relationship now is as strong as it ever has been. It’s just a matter of having trust in each other. I think that we’ve just gotten more and more trust in each other as we’ve gotten better and proven to each other that if he gives me a good car, I can drive it good. Yeah, same back to him.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Jason Ratcliff. Coming up on his last crew chief start in the Xfinity Series. He was part of your career coming along. What was your relationship like with him? What did he mean to your career?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, Jason was amazing. Even to this day, I feel so bad for Jason and the hand he was dealt going into 2020 with everything that happened. Fortunately I got a mulligan year. I was able to get a second opportunity at Joe Gibbs Racing and he didn’t.
He was an amazing crew chief and helped build me to where I am. He did not get a fair hand whenever we went Cup racing in 2020.
Q. What about having him staying with the company? Sounds like he’s going to be a mentor to the other series.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, he’s one of the best to ever do it. Having him around is going to be very critical. Anyone who is young and in the crew chief role would be wise to speak to him.
Q. There are four drivers in this championship, but one of them is Larson. You and he have raced against each other for a number of important races and championships. Is this sort of the culmination of an expectation that either we or you might have had?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Well, I hope we’re able to do this for many years into the future.
Yeah, I guess I hope that we’re able to do this many more times. It certainly is not the first.
Q. How would you evaluate the group of the four of you overall? Seems like the four of you race pretty well together. Not too much bad blood.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, we definitely have a good, respectful group that I guess doesn’t have any history of having wrecks or anything like that. So that’s good.
But I honestly think it’s a great Final 4. It’s definitely Next Gen. Probably the Final 4 that you wouldn’t have seen five years ago.
Q. In terms of Next Gen, I don’t think Toyota has led a lap at Phoenix since the new car.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: That’s not a good stat (smiling).
It’s funny because my statistics have sucked at Phoenix since I’ve gotten into the Cup Series. Before I got into the Cup Series, I would have said it’s one of if not my best racetrack through Trucks and Xfinity.
The Cup stuff, it took a little bit to get going. 2020, I mentioned Ratcliff, it wasn’t fair because we didn’t have — I guess we did have practice. I don’t know if we did in the fall of 2020. But anyway, the Next Gen car was certainly a reset for everybody.
The spring race of 2022, we were absolutely terrible. Then the fall race in 2022, we were better, not great, but better. In the spring of 2023, we were pretty competitive. We didn’t lead a lap, I guess, but I remember myself and Denny were inside the top five the majority of the day.
We’ve made gains on it every single time. I have no reason to think that we wouldn’t be better yet this time.
Q. How significant do you think it’s going to be without the treatment they’ve had here in the past few years?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I think it’s going to be similar to what we had in the spring, except they did treat turns three and four, which made it get a little bit wider there. Maybe the top doesn’t come into play as much in three and four, but I think it still will in one and two. But it’s not going to be dominant.
I think they’ve had a really good track preparation plan going into place here by not touching it. I think it will race really good.
Q. Will the weather help? Predicted to be 89 on race day.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I don’t know that it will change much. Normally it’s at least in the 80s or upper 70s. I don’t think the weather’s going to come into play.
Q. In terms of preparing, how important is having that breather to prep and get ready for this one at Martinsville?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Martinsville really turned into practice for myself and my pit crew to make sure that we can execute. They’re going to have a big, big role in the race outcome on Sunday.
Q. Not a lot of Championship 4 history in this group. You got to the Final 4 last year. You have the most experience overall between all the different series among these guys. Does all that experience in the Championship 4 bode well for you?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I think it helps. I don’t think it’s a big advantage, but I do think it helps. I think it helps manage emotions and nerves going into Sunday.
I have been really fortunate. I think six of my eight years I made the Final 4 in my NASCAR full-time career. So that’s really cool. But everyone’s going to be competitive.
Maybe I have a slight advantage of managing nerves, but maybe I don’t.
Q. (Question about the Monday meeting.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It was unique.
Q. What type of vibe did you get coming out of the meeting? We’re ready for the championship or we need a couple more days to get through what we went through at Martinsville?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, it was strange. Obviously the 20 group, this goes back to Homestead, too, because it stemmed at Homestead. The 20 group is all smiles and cheers, hoorahs. The other teams are not obviously (smiling).
So, yeah, the last two Mondays have been just very mixed emotion in the room. I just need to win. Need to win and bring a championship back.
Q. Do you think having somebody like Adam Stevens, who has the respect of everybody in that room, helps feel like we got to get behind…
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, I mean, I think that he has the respect from everyone in the company, and probably everyone in the industry. I don’t know. He doesn’t speak much in our competition meetings. He lays low, and I respect that of him. He certainly goes about it his own way. I don’t know. I think we’re ready, though.
Q. Is it hard to be happy for you?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It’s not hard for me to be happy. But Joe, I’m sure Joe is probably I’m sure disappointed. He had three opportunities to win the championship. I’m sure that he thought, especially starting the Round of 8, he had two of ’em above the cut line, and I was the one below the cut line.
I think that he probably expected to have more in the Final 4 than just one. Whenever Homestead happened and we had two mechanical problems, I think that was a really big downer for him.
I think on Sunday he’s going to be all in on the 20 car trying to win the race and a championship.
Q. Versus how you sit here today having won two weeks ago to get in, how is the confidence going into this one than last year?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Just much more relaxed. I feel more prepared just because of the time that we’ve had to get ready for this moment compared to last year being so far beneath the cut line, being in a must-win going into Martinsville. We didn’t even talk about Phoenix until we left Martinsville. Now we’ve had two solid weeks to game plan what we’re going to do in practice, how we’re going to execute qualifying.
Just feel much more prepared.
Q. In any other professional sport, championship game, they’re not having to deal with sponsors or people on pit road right before they get in the car. You’re used to it. Just of the idea of being so close to the start of an event, then having other people around, not being able to be in a locker room like a football team.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It’s just about routine. Thankfully you have a lot of stuff going on throughout the week. My race routine will stay pretty similar.
While we do have sponsor obligations in the morning, pictures by the car right before the race, I do have a period of time before I go out to driver intros where it is just me getting myself in the right mindset to compete in the race.
It’s just part of the job, having to be engaging with people right before the big moment. It’s something that has become normal and part of the routine. It will be the same on Sunday.
Q. How do you do it? When you put yourself in the right frame of mind, about 45 minutes before the engines crank, but you have to do the photos. You have to turn it on and on and off.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, it definitely was tough at first, but now it’s just part of the game. Once you get in the car, I’ll be nervous as can be whenever we get out there pre-race, even taking pictures, I’m always nervous, whether it’s the Daytona 500 or the Bristol dirt race or Loudon or the Phoenix championship race. Once you get in the car and you flip the switch, you crank the engine, I don’t know, it’s always all gone away for me.
For me it’s about routine.
Q. When you say ‘nervous’, what do you mean?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Just, I mean, nerves. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. Just butterflies in your stomach, nervous. You want to do good. My number one fear is doing bad in the race car. I just want it really bad. I want to do good really bad.
Q. (No microphone.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It just always has been ever since I was a kid. Whenever I started in this sport, I just never wanted to let my dad down whenever we first started or let my mom down, let my uncle Will down. You start moving up, it’s car owners and sponsors. Now I got a company of 600-plus employees, multi-million dollar sponsors that are all counting on me to do my job, and I don’t want to let them down.
My number one fear is doing bad. Got to do good in this sport (smiling).
Q. Does it heighten your expectations?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Does it heighten my expectations? No, because I expected to win last year and we didn’t win, we came up short. My expectations are the same coming into this year, as well.
Q. Do you feel like people race you differently in this race?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Outside of the Final 4, you do get raced a little bit differently. I think the four of us all race really hard every single week. I wouldn’t expect the four of us to race any differently.
Q. Do you approach this race any differently than last year? What did you learn last year that you can bring into battle this year?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I learned a lot last year. One thing was we weren’t super competitive last year. We didn’t qualify well. We didn’t practice well. But whenever it came down to the end of the race, we still had an opportunity at it.
I feel like most people, they didn’t see that. At the end of the race the last green-flag pit stop, me and Joey are within a second, I think. I followed him down pit road for the money stop in the championship event with 30 laps to go, however long it was.
With that being said, we weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be, and we were still in the thick of it. This year we will be more competitive. You’re not out of it until the checkered flag falls.
Q. How much of it is mental, a mental game, where you can’t panic? Last year you’re wiser because of it.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, I mean, your mental outlook is a very big part of racing success. That’s a big piece of the puzzle, for sure. So you got to have the right mindset. You got to have the right confidence. You have to know that you can do it.
Q. Without counting points, it will be easier this week or will the pressure of the championship increase more?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It’s nice that the stages don’t matter. It literally is just all about positioning yourself for the end of the race. I enjoy that aspect of it.
Q. Are we witnessing a changing of the guard?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, I think so. A couple minutes ago I said this is Next Gen. We got Next Gen cars and apparently we got Next Gen drivers, too, so…
It’s a new group.
Q. Byron said that he looks at this group as the guys that are going to go out and dominate for the next decade.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I hope he’s right.
Q. Any special satisfaction in being the guy representing JGR this week?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, it means a lot to me that I am representing Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s a spot that I’ve wanted to be in for a long time.
I hope that this is year number two of very many in the future. It is special to have a shot to win a championship for Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Q. Talked a lot about last year’s Championship 4 weekend. As far as earlier this year, you raced here, is that applicable?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It certainly is, yeah. That’s the most real data that we have. Since they introduced the Next Gen car, you can’t throw out 2022, but at the beginning, the spring race, we were bad. I think I was in the teens. Then the fall race, I was about 10th on average ranking. In the spring, I think I was fifth or maybe a little bit better. So we’ve gotten better and better and better.
We’re going to take another step this week. I don’t think any one of us four are going to go out there and just dominate the race. We’re going to be all four very competitive. I think the Final 4 should be more competitive than what it was last year.
Q. Jason announced that he’s retiring after this weekend. You had a lot of success with him. How would you sum up your time with him?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Jason was amazing. I feel so bad for Jason because he’s a great crew chief. He did not get a fair shake whenever we went Cup racing in 2020. Fortunately I got another opportunity, but he didn’t.
Jason is one of the best crew chiefs that I’ve ever gotten to drive for. I wish him nothing but the best.
Q. Had a ton of success at the Xfinity level.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: We did. We would have had a ton of success at the Cup level if we continued our run together.
Q. You’ve been to Arizona quite a few times now. Anything you like to do here?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Eat In-N-Out.
Q. (No microphone.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I actually have not yet this weekend. I’ve been trying to eat really clean coming into this week. I don’t know, probably helps this much. I’m saving my In-N-Out trip for Sunday or Monday, depending on how Sunday goes.
Q. (No microphone.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: That’s a great question. Whataburger doesn’t have the wrap that In-N-Out does, though, so… I like ’em both, though. They’re both good.
Q. Second year here now. What do you do to decompress coming into a weekend like this?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I think it’s impossible to be loose coming into such a big event. It’s the nerves that make it that much more special. It’s a big deal. I’m thankful to be a part of it. I would much rather be sitting here being nervous than I would be not being a part of it.
Q. Back up 365 days, how is Christopher Bell different as a driver and person?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Certainly I’m more experienced. That’s a big part of the equation. But the big difference is our cars. I think our cars are tremendously better sitting here November 2023 than they were in November 2022.
Q. Does Joe sit down with each of you or with the team to calm your nerves, give you that coaching?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Joe has his own way of doing it. We were in the competition meeting on Monday. It was very weird because two teams had just failed to qualify for the Final 4, then the 20 team made it.
I don’t know. I’m sure that there will be a speech on Saturday or Sunday. I look forward to it.
Q. You mentioned your car feels a lot better this year. What specifically is better in it? What has made the difference?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I think it’s just more research and development with the Next Gen car. I’m sure if you ask all of the three guys sitting to my right, they’re going to say the same thing.
Whenever we came to the championship race a year ago, we had one race at Phoenix for notes. Now we have three races for Phoenix notes of just trying to get the setup better, obviously the aerodynamics are better.
Yeah, it’s an improvement that I feel inside the car. I’m sure everyone’s going to say the same thing, but I feel really good about what we have.
Q. You’ve raced against Kyle a majority of your life. What does he bring as a contender for this championship, what you’ve learned racing him?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, so Kyle, his strength is his raw talent, his ability to drive the car. His 100% — or the better way to say it is his 90% is everyone else’s 100%. He’s able to run the car at the ragged edge a lot easier than what the other people can. That’s his strength.
Q. (Question about winning the championship.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Perseverance. If we win the championship on Sunday, it’s because of perseverance.
Q. What do you mean by that?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: There were many times when we were down and out. Going back to 2022, even the beginning of 2023, at one point we were leading the points. It completely was starting to crumble in the middle part of the regular season. We lost that chance at a regular-season title. We persevered and put together a great run in the Playoffs to get here.
I’m sure that the Sunday race, nobody is going to go out here and lead 300 laps, 312 laps. It’s going to be a race, a dogfight. Pit road is going to be really important.
The team that executes the best. All four of us are going to make mistakes, and it’s just going to be about who doesn’t do the big mistake or who makes the least amount of mistakes is who is going to win the championship.
Q. You stalk about perseverance, that’s easier said than done. How have you been able to accomplish that?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I certainly think Adam Stevens, the leader, is kind of the head of the group. But it’s the experience around him, too. Myself being put in those positions. Adam has been put in those positions. Our pit crew, we have a very experienced pit crew that’s going over the wall for us.
Having experience in these moments is what’s going to be key.
Q. Do you feel this is as wide open as it’s been in the Championship 4?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: It certainly feels like we have a very competitive Final 4. Last year was very unique because it was the first championship race with the Next Gen car. We’ve seen before last year the majority of the time the Final 4 are running 1-2-3-4, just kind of leaps and bounds ahead of the field. It didn’t really happen last year.
I would expect it to be more like that, where these four cars are running in the top four positions, certainly in the top five. I think it’s going to be a really good race.
Q. You finished a career-best sixth year in the spring. What have you hit on for Phoenix?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Phoenix has always been one of my best tracks before I got into the Cup series. My Cup stats have not been good. I admit that.
Since the Next Gen car, we’ve improved on it. That first race at Phoenix was not good at all. The fall Phoenix race last year was a little bit better. The spring race was actually pretty good. I know we finished sixth, but the yellow flag came out late. We were certainly going to do better than that.
I have all the confidence that we’re going to make another step.
Q. You said last year’s Phoenix championship was unique. This year is also unique, the youngest Championship 4 in Playoff history. What do you make of that? Is Sunday going to be a pedestal for the youngest talent in NASCAR to shine?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Yeah, I mean, I think the young guys are now getting enough experience to showcase their talents. I love the sport because you have guys like Ty Gibbs, I think he just turned 21, and he’s young, and you have guys like Kevin Harvick, who is in his 40s, that are competing against each other. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. That’s fascinating to me. What other sport is that possible in?
What the veterans have is the experience, the ability to know how to put together a Cup race. What the young guy has is typically they’re really fast, they try really hard, they push hard. Their downfall is they crash.
Now that you have young guys with a couple years of experience underneath our belts, you’re seeing that kind of mix, and that’s why we’re here today.
Q. What sort of X factor do you bring to the table that these other three don’t have?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Hopefully mental capability in the race. I’ve always felt like that was my strength, is being able to be smart, know when to push, know when to be smart with the race.
Larson has really good car control and ability to produce lap time. That’s his strength. But I think that my strength is my noggin.
Q. (No microphone.)
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I don’t know. I’m pretty close right now. Well, actually, no, Blaney is older than me.
Q. Larson, too.
CHRISTOPHER BELL: Larson.
Q. Two consecutive Championship 4s, at what point are you going to start feeling like…
CHRISTOPHER BELL: I’m getting there. I’m getting there. Certainly Ty coming in. When I came into the sport, I was older than Chase and older than Byron, I’m sure a handful of other ones. I’m getting there. Now we got Ty in there. You had Carson Hocevar is coming up, Zane Smith. The tide is turning.
Q. Anything about Sunday’s race that you’re concerned about, if you don’t win the championship it’s probably because of…
CHRISTOPHER BELL: No. I don’t have anything on the top of my head right now.
Q. What is the mindset for Sunday?
CHRISTOPHER BELL: The mindset is just excited. Excited about the opportunity. Try to persevere. Go out there. All four of us are going to be really competitive. I don’t think there’s going to be a runaway champion. I think it’s going to be a war and you’re going to have to execute on all fronts to win this thing.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports