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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2021 NASCAR Preseason Power Rankings, No. 14: Christopher Bell

Christopher Bell takes another step forward in his young NASCAR Cup Series career in 2021.

This season, he takes over the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing after spending 2020 with Leavine Family Racing, driving the No. 95.

With his upward movement, Bell looks to have the potential for a breakout season in his sophomore season in Cup.

A LOOK BACK

By rookie standards, Bell had a successful 2020 season, even without scoring a win. A 20th-place finish in the points after two top fives and seven top 10s would be considered fairly good for Bell after a sluggish start to last year. But at the same time, expectations were set high for the young driver from Oklahoma after a stellar run in the Xfinity Series for JGR in 2018 and 2019.

In the final race in its home state, LFR had its best run of the season with Bell, finishing third in the fall Texas Motor Speedway race after having a legitimate chance to win near the end. Bell’s other top-five finish came in the first half of the doubleheader at Pocono Raceway in June, after he finished fourth.

After LFR announced it would be closing its doors following the 2020 season, Bell was in search for a ride for 2021. Erik Jones was announced to be leaving JGR’s No. 20 car near the end of the season, meaning Bell was bound to take the wheel. Gibbs hired him almost immediately after the announcement of Jones leaving, and now, he looks to improve on his statistics from one year ago, except this time with a full JGR team rather than one with a mere technical alliance.

PROMISING VENUES

Bell had many times in 2020 where his finish did not reflect the way he ran over the course of a race. While he did collect a few top fives and top 10s, there were many more he left on the table due to a variety of reasons.

We can continue to brag about his 16 wins in only two full-time Xfinity seasons, but now’s the time to talk about Cup and how good he really is. LFR was a team that had a lot of JGR support, but in the end, it was not a true JGR team. Still, Bell often proved that the equipment, which may have not been up to par with the other JGR cars, would not stop him from running well.

LFR had an excellent short track program, dating back to 2019 where Matt DiBenedetto finished second in the night race at Bristol. Bell scored a ninth-place finish in the spring, which at the time was his second top 10 of the season. Even though the finishes were not reflective of his runs, he was strong at Martinsville Speedway as well.

His first career top 10 came in the longest race of the season, the Coca Cola 600, where he finished ninth. For a rookie, to finish that race is a big deal, but to come away with a solid top 10, that is another story. Everyone knows how good Bell is based on his dirt racing background and his Xfinity statistics, but this night, he opened eyes for his great performance in such a race of endurance.

The fall Texas race was the best race in his young Cup career. Bell finished third, and near the end was catching eventual winner Kyle Busch. Some believed near the end that he could potentially have won that race. While he was not racing for a playoff position or Rookie of the Year any longer, anything but a win meant little. This was truly a sign that he will be a strong competitor at this level for years to come.

2021 SCENARIOS

Now that Bell steps into such a prestigious and competitive ride, what can we expect from him? Simple answer: big results. Even though this is only his second year in the Cup Series, he is going to have a breakout season.

He has adapted to everything he has ever raced very quickly, and Cup cars are no different. You can tell near the end of the season in 2020 that he was becoming more and more comfortable in these cars week in and week out, no matter what track he was at. He has the confidence in his ability and now his new team to produce some spectacular results for 2021.

Bell should solidly make the playoffs and could potentially win a race or two. While he will not be at the level of his teammate Denny Hamlin, he will still be very much in the mix all year. He is a one-of-a-kind talent, as we have seen in all forms of racing he has been in, and JGR has a star in its seat for this upcoming season.

It will take another year or two to truly label him as a title competitor, but for this year, a playoff berth and a win or two would be considered successful. If there is one track he will for sure be a favorite, though, it is the Bristol dirt track. With his background and his familiarity with dirt tracks, he will easily be a top-three favorite heading into that weekend.

Despite the No. 20 car being the weakest link of the JGR cars the last two seasons, there is no doubt that label will go away. Jones was not even a weak link; a lot of bad luck struck for him. However, as long as Bell avoids that, he will for sure break out and show his ability to the series.

OUTLOOK

Bell is going to be a great driver for the series, starting this year. It always is great to see drivers from various backgrounds come to NASCAR and get to the top level, whether it is dirt, road racing or any other form of motorsports.

Bell will have Adam Stevens on top of the pit box this season, after having Jason Ratcliff for the previous three, including his two full time seasons in Xfinity. This will be huge for a young driver like himself to have a veteran presence on the box like Stevens. We saw the success Busch had with Stevens, winning two championships over six seasons together.

Many believe in the sophomore slump, but I do not see it happening for Bell at all. He has all the right pieces around him to have success this year, and with the right amount of luck to go along with the great equipment, he will have it.

The last driver to score a win in his sophomore season was, coincidentally, Jones. Do not be surprised if Bell is next. Big things are coming for this driver and team for 2021.

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Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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