Christopher Bell won the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs opener at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) with a 169.193 mph hot lap. It’s his third pole of 2023 and seventh in his Cup career.
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After earning four poles in 2022, the debut year of NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup car, Bell turned in performances in time trials he considered subpar in the first half of 2023.
“After we got through the first probably five to eight races this year, we were wondering what happened,” Bell said, “because last year we made the final round [of qualifying] a lot, the majority of the time, and at the beginning of this year, we were really struggling.
“My team, (crew chief) Adam Stevens, my engineers have put a lot of emphasis on qualifying the last couple of months, and it’s really showed. We’ve been able to be in the hunt a lot more, make that final round, and it really helps out on Sundays when you get a good pit stall selection.
“At certain racetracks, qualifying’s a really big deal, and this is one of them.”
It was a unique qualifying session that featured seven Fords, three Toyotas and no Chevrolets in the final 10. For the first time since the 1982 Southern 500, no Chevrolet drivers will take the green flag in the top 10 (though in fairness, five General Motors products – Buicks and Pontiacs – started in the top 10 for that race).
Nine drivers from the Round of 16, the opening stanza of the postseason, will take the green flag from inside the top 10 on Sunday night.
Bell’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (169.042 mph) will join him on the front row. Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski completed the top five. Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10 in Cup qualifying.
Playoff drivers will be spread throughout the field when the Southern 500 begins. Kyle Busch just missed out on the pole round and will roll off 11th. Kyle Larson, the 2021 Cup champion, will start 18th while playoff debutant Bubba Wallace will start 19th. William Byron (23rd), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (25th), Ross Chastain (27th) and Regular Season Champion Martin Truex Jr. (31st) will all have significant work to do to get to the front. Truex’s start toward the rear of the field occurred after his car got loose in Turns 1 and 2 during his qualifying lap.
Bell put down the quickest lap in Saturday’s practice session with a 168.428 mph circuit around Darlington. McDowell, Stenhouse, Byron and Wallace made up the top five. Logano was slowest of the 16-driver playoff field in 26th with a 164.661 mph lap.
Blaney topped the chart in 10-consecutive-lap average among playoff drivers with a JGR trio of Hamlin, Truex Jr. and Bell just behind Blaney in the top five.
MORE: Practice results
Contributing: Reid Spencer | NASCAR Wire Service