AVONDALE, Ariz. – With a touch of his right foot to the brake pedal, Christopher Bell’s chances of winning the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship came to a crashing halt.
The right-front brake rotor on Bell’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota exploded at Lap 109 on entry to Turn 3 at Phoenix Raceway Sunday, sending his yellow and black Camry into a skid and right-side-first into the sky-blue SAFER barrier.
The contact, coupled with the mechanical failure, was all too severe to overcome and relegated Bell out of the race to a last-place, 36th-place finish in his second straight appearance in the Championship 4.
“I just ran out of brakes,” Bell told reporters after being evaluated and released from the infield care center.
Bell said his brake pedal kept getting longer and longer, meaning he continuously needed to apply more and more pressure to slow the car lap after lap.
“We’ve had really strong brakes all year long and haven’t had any issues,” Bell said, “so it’s quite surprising to have a brake issue at a track where they are important but not as important as others.”
Crew chief Adam Stevens echoed his surprise in the garage area as he and his No. 20 team were left picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
“Pretty shocked,” Stevens told NASCAR.com. “Everything was fine in practice, you know? We were conservative on the cooling, I thought. We didn’t have any tape on the right front. But it got too hot.
“He mentioned that he started to feel it and tried to have him move the (brake) bias to the rear and just back his entries up. Two laps later, it blew apart.”
So ends a 2023 campaign for Bell that results in two wins, 10 top fives and 19 top-10 finishes. Bell led a career-high 599 laps in 2023 and ends the year with other career-bests in poles (six) and average finish 12.9.
Bell’s disappointment was understandably palpable, both in how his championship chase and overall season concluded.
“It’s been good and I’m proud of the efforts, especially in the playoffs to make the final four,” Bell said. “But we left a lot on the table there in the regular season and I still don’t think that we performed up to our potential in 2023 so I’m excited about the future and trying to build on this and become better.”
Stevens admitted a longing for better results through the season but ultimately shifted his perspective to 2024.
“It was honestly kind of disappointing,” Stevens said of 2023. “We had probably a lot more speed and a lot more potential than we were able to realize, and today was like a continuation of that. So we’re looking forward to getting a little rest and regrouping and get back after it.”
After Bell’s fourth season at the highest level of stock-car racing in the country, Stevens saw significant growth in his driver’s communication from behind the steering wheel that helped Stevens and the team provide the necessary changes to make the No. 20 Toyota faster.
“I think just natural progression,” Stevens said. “Just more laps with the cars and getting a lot better about his feedback so we can make changes and give him what he needs.”
Bell tried to keep his head held high in the immediate aftermath. The 28-year-old advanced to the title round of the NASCAR postseason for the second consecutive season but has in-race finishes of 10th and 36th to show for it.
“I’m not upset,” Bell said. “You know, everyone’s trying their hardest and obviously it’s just a part of it. I’m disappointed but it just wasn’t meant to be.
“I think right now, I’m still probably a little shocked and it probably hasn’t sunk in yet. But can only change what’s ahead of you.”