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Christopher Bell emerging as road course force with a runner-up at Road America

Christopher Bell says it's been a "trying last two months" but he's "getting back on track" and states there's "no reason why we can't be running up front every week" after the team's third top-5 finish of the season.

ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Of the many labels amassed by Christopher Bell in his short, prodigious career, “road course ace” didn’t figure to be on the list.

“Yeah, who would have thunk it,” Adam Stevens, Bell’s crew chief, told NBC Sports with a smile after a runner-up finish Sunday at Road America. “I think the mark of true talent is you take a guy who didn’t grow up road racing at all, didn’t grow up stock car racing or racing on asphalt at all and then to have success at a road course in the Cup Series very early in his career shows you that kind of talent that he has.”

The sprint car star, regarded as one of the country’s best oval dirt drivers before successfully making the transition to the asphalt of NASCAR, is proving he has just a high degree of aptitude for mastering right turns on the fly.

Charging from the back because of a pit penalty that dropped the No. 20 Toyota deep in the field on Lap 15, Bell posted consistently fast lap times on the technically demanding 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course. After running the Trans-Am TA-2 series this weekend, Bell felt the extra reps helped put him close to being in a league Sunday with winner Chase Elliott (who won by 5.705 seconds).

“I think it was close, probably closer than anyone else was to (Elliott), so that was good,” Bell said. “At the end of the race, everyone was telling me that I was matching if not a little better lap times (than Elliott), so I never had track position to start up there with him and see what we had against him the whole run The SiriusXM Camry was really good, and I knew that we would have a really good weekend.

“I wouldn’t have expected my first Cup win to come at a road course, that’s for sure. Last year in the Cup Series, the road course races were probably my best races speed-wise. I don’t know. I feel like we’ve just been bringing really great Camrys to the road courses and it’s definitely a good package for JGR right now.”

Outside of Elliott and Kyle Larson, few in NASCAR’s premier series have been better on road courses than the second-year driver from Norman, Oklahoma.

In his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Bell’s two best finishes have been at road courses – he qualified for the playoffs with his first career victory at the Daytona International Speedway road course and also ran well at Circuit of the Americas and Sonoma Raceway before being caught up in multi-car crashes.

“He ran pretty well last year in the 95 at the road course races, so we had high hopes,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think we were going to win Daytona before we got there, but I thought we could be competitive, and we were planning on being competitive and, lo and behold, there he goes. I think we could have had some better runs here at the races in between now and then, but I think the results like these are going to be more typical than atypical.”

Road America marked Bell’s first top five since April 18 at Richmond Raceway – a 10-race stretch in which he had finished in the top 10 only twice.

“At the beginning of the year, we took off really hot, really strong,” Bell said. “Had a great race car at the Daytona road course and several race cars capable of running inside the top 10, top five after that, but definitely over the last two months, we’ve been really struggling.”

Said Stevens: “We’ve been in a bit of a results slump. And I would say a mild performance slump as well. Just been struggling to finish races. Even if we have a top 10 car. We haven’t been able to bring it home top 10 recently. To have a full day was pretty rewarding.”

It wasn’t easy as Bell was dropped to 34th for driving through too many pit stalls on his first stop on Lap 15. He patiently worked his way up to 20th by a Lap 26 stop under green, and then restarted the final stage in eighth on Lap 33.

After making his way back to fourth, he fell to eighth on his final stop under yellow. But he made six spots over the final 17 laps under green – including an impressive pass of two-time series champion teammate Kyle Busch for second with eight laps remaining.

NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip

ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN - JULY 04: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Sirius XM Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip at Road America on July 04, 2021 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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“He had a game plan and was just able to stick to it all day even after the pit penalty there,” Stevens said. “Going to back in the middle of the race is never any fun. But he just picked them off when he could. We jumped that second stage, got the track position back, and the longer the runs were, the better we were. To finish under green really helped our cause.”

It also helps heading into the July 11 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Bell finished 21st four months ago in “one of my worst races” while running well off the pace.

“We’ve had three really bad (races), and that was one of them,” Stevens said. “So we’re going to see if we’ve made any progress or not. Anytime you have a good weekend, you take some momentum for sure.

“A couple of them we’ve just really, really missed it and not left there with a real clear picture of what we needed to do better. Whatever we gave him wasn’t what he needed, that’s for sure. We’ll put our heads together and come up with a plan.”