Christopher Bell, a rookie who drives the No. 95 Toyota Camry for Leavine Family Racing, put together a NASCAR Cup Series career-best performance in Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325 at Pocono Raceway, the first leg in a double-header weekend for the Cup Series.
Bell, an Oklahoma-native, started nearly at the rear of the field in 36th, after the random draw for starting position and when the green flag was displayed after a rain delay, Bell ‘s car was extremely tight on the exit of the three turns around the triangular 2.5-mile speedway.
When the field came to the competition caution on lap 13, Bell had knifed his way up to the 26th position despite the ill handling condition.
Bell and crew chief Jason Ratcliff opted to bail on worrying about their Stage 1 finishing position and instead made a strategic call in order to put themselves in a better position in Stage 2. With three laps left in the Stage 1, Bell came to pit road under green.
While it seems odd to just hand off your track position in the short term, Bell trusted his crew chief to be right on the long term gain the move would provide.
“Whenever I started working with Jason [Ratcliff] two years ago in the Xfinity Series, well even before that, I started following him and I knew he was really aggressive on strategy to get his driver up front,” Bell explained after the race. “Seems like the majority of the race tracks that we’ve been to the last couple weeks have just been, put four tires on and go, but Pocono is definitely a place where you can mix up strategy, pit early, pit before the stages and so forth.”
In doing so, he would be able to stay on track under the Stage break caution, while the remainder of the field, who didn’t come to pit road, pitted.
The 25-year old would finish Stage 2 in the 11th spot, despite still suffering from a tight-handling car.
Ratcliff kept tuning, and Bell kept rising through the leaderboard and in the end he had worked his way methodically to a stunning fourth-place finish.
For Bell, it was a team effort that resulted in an impressive day.
“Yeah, it was a great day,” Bell said. “I was really happy with our Rheem Camry. It took me a little bit to get up to speed with obviously not having practice in my first race in a Cup car here, but by the end I was really happy with the car. Everyone did a great job here on this 95 group; we executed and ended up upfront.”
This finish not only marks a career-best for Bell (previous best finish was a ninth-place effort at Homestead a couple of races ago), but it also marks just the sixth-ever top-five finish in Leavine Family Racing.
After getting off to a shaky start to the season, where he had no top-10 finishes through the first six races of the season, Bell has fired back with four top-10 finishes, including Saturday’s fourth-place effort, in his last eight starts.
Now, you’d expect Bell to be licking his chops as he fires off from the 17th starting position in Sunday’s Pocono 350. He’ll have the same car on the same track and he’ll start 19 spots closer to the front. Bell just wants to keep zeroing in on a victory.
“I’m looking forward to see if we can build on it,” said Bell. “I think all of our cars are really good. We are close to winning, so hopefully we can continue to get better and see if we can move up a little further tomorrow.”
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.