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First 15 Cup races have been ‘eye-opening’ for Christopher Bell

NASCAR America reviews the playoff standings after an action-packed weekend at Pocono, assesses the performances of the Cup Series rookies, and previews the upcoming race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Believe it or not, Christopher Bell has not come to dread Thursdays.

That’s when NASCAR announces the starting lineup, based on a random draw, for Cup races.

Due to his position in the owner points (which the draw is based on), the rookie driver has started 32nd or worse in five of the last seven races. That rough patch continues Sunday in the Brickyard 400 (4 p.m. ET on NBC), when Bell and his No. 95 Toyota start 35th.

“Honestly, I haven’t even been paying attention to it,” Bell said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “I go to the racetrack and then just listen to see what the damage is when my team tells me. But it’s the name of the game and we buried ourselves there that first four weeks and really, really killed our points.”

For Bell, the first four races of his Cup career were a “disaster,” as he had two DNFs and failed to finish better than 21st.

After NASCAR’s COVID-19 shutdown, that bad start continued at Darlington, where he placed 24th. But his slow rebound began in the second Darlington race with an 11th-place finish. He followed that with his first top 10 in the Coca-Cola 600.

Since the sport’s return, Bell has five finishes of 11th or better, including his first career top five in the first race of the Pocono doubleheader last weekend. His only DNF since May 17 was for a crash in the second Pocono race.

But it hasn’t been enough to dig himself out of the cellar of the owner point standings and achieve his “No. 1 goal” of getting to the 24th spot. The way the random draws are done, being 24th in owner points would allow Bell to start anywhere between 13th and 24th.

“It’s crazy ... I ran fourth for Pocono 1 and then I looked at the points and I didn’t make any headway at all because I’m pretty sure (Michael) McDowell ran eighth and the guys that I’m racing in points, it seems like whenever I have a good day, they have a good day too,” Bell said.

Through 15 races, Bell is 26th in owner points. He trails McDowell by three points and fellow rookie John Hunter Nemechek, who is 24th, by 17 points.

“So it’s been very frustrating, we’re just gonna keep plugging on and thankfully, these races are 400-500 mile races and not sprint races,” Bell said.

For Bell, the strategy involved in Cup races compared to shorter Xfinity races is what’s surprised him the most about his rookie season with Leavine Family Racing. The biggest difference: pit stops.

“It just seems like the races are way more dynamic in the Cup Series, you know that the strategy is all over the board,” Bell said. “Even if you go to a place like Atlanta or Homestead where you put four tires on every time you pit, there might be 10 pit stops in one race. Compared to the Xfinity Series, there’s guaranteed only going to be three, maybe four. So that’s been very eye-opening just how many times you come down pit road, how many times you pit. But as far as competition standpoint, I knew what I was getting into in the Cup Series. The Xfinity side you have that eight-ish number of competitive cars and that number gets turned into 25 on the Cup side.”

Going into his 16th Cup start and his first Brickyard 400, you can count Bell among the drivers who have actually preferred not having practice and qualifying, even if it means he’s starting deep in the field.

“For me, I feel like it fits what I’ve grown up doing,” Bell said. “And if you look at our performance, we’ve ran exceptionally better since we stopped practicing for whatever reason that is. But I really enjoy it and as a rookie, going to the racetrack ... I’m not starting on the pole or the front row so I’m not having to go wide open into Turn 1 and expect the car to stick or anything you know. I have enough time starting in the back that we’re able to just creep up on it and I feel like I’ve done a good job of not overstepping my limits and making sure that I get to that first pit stop where we can tune the car to my liking and stuff like that.”