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Christopher Bell and the drive at Phoenix that defied physics, expectations

The package did not apply to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20

NASCAR: Shriners Childrens 500
Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

While a majority of competitors lamented the current state of short track racing, a lack of significant tire fall off and an inability to pass, Christopher Bell could do whatever he asked of his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota Camry XSE.

Bell repeatedly drove through the field after losing his track position and ultimately won the Shriners Children 500 by nearly five and a half seconds across the final 90 lap stint.

He could do whatever he wanted and curiosity over how was the question of the night to crew chief Adam Stevens after the race.

“That’s a great question,” Stevens. “I think we focused on some very specific things with our setup, with this package, and he was able to really tell us how he wanted to run this race, the line he wanted to run. We optimized to it.”

There was the slow pit stop on Lap 189 in which they restarted 10th and made forward progress. Then came the final caution with 96 laps to go and they took four tires and came out behind several who stayed out and several more who took two tires.

They drove through the field.

“I mean, we restarted 20th,” Stevens said. “I was not too worried that we would get stuck. I was worried that we would go a short period and then catch the next caution. If we only went 15 or 20 or 25, have to follow 15 cars down pit road, you don’t have that tire advantage to anybody in front of you anymore, it’s going to be a lot harder to come through the field at that point.”

Bell had more reservations about his car in traffic than his crew chief did, especially the first time after the slow stop.

“I was nervous about getting up through there because passing,” Bell said. “It was extremely difficult. My car was not very good whenever I was back in traffic. On the restarts I struggled to move forward. It took me a couple laps for the field to get strung out before I could start making passes. That was disheartening.”

When the next caution came out and buried Bell in 20th, he was resigned to it being no better than a top-10 day at best.

“I don’t know, I was probably less mad at that point than I was whenever we lost the lead from the pit stop,” Bell said. “At that point it was just like, ‘Okay, if you get to 15th, 10th, whatever it’s going to be.’

“I think I got to the first car on four tires, then it started looking a little bit more positive. I wasn’t thinking ‘win’ at all until I got to third, behind (Ty Gibbs). I knew (Martin Truex) didn’t have enough gas to finish, and (Gibbs) was on right-side tires.

“I knew I was in pretty good shape at that point.”

Truex pitted, and in clean air, Bell drove well into the sunset, not that he ever expected to once, much less twice.

“I just drove through the field once,” Bell said of the slow stop. “When I got put back, I didn’t think there was any way I could do it again. As the race progresses, it gets harder and harder to pass. Everyone is working on their cars, their balance is getting closer, so it becomes harder to pass later in the race. I didn’t think there was going to be any way I was going to make it up there twice.”

Stevens gave his driver credit.

“I think that we just hit it better than everybody and that made that gap to the field today,” Stevens said. “But he’s really, really good everywhere we go. He’s an exceptional short track racer. He showed that today.”

Bell reciprocated the love.

“I drove a rocket ship today, that’s for sure,” Bell said. “It’s a credit to my car, not me.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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