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March 24, 2024

Christopher Bell charges to runner-up day at COTA, draws Busch’s ire

AUSTIN, Texas — Christopher Bell had a late-race charge for the ages in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas. If the race was one lap longer, there’s a high probability the No. 20 team would have been celebrating in Victory Lane.

With stage break cautions returning at COTA for the first time since 2022, Bell and his crew chief Adam Stevens pondered the idea of staying out to collect stage points if the opportunity arose. Instead of making three pit stops over 68 laps, the strategy would be to stretch the fuel tank as far as possible, making one less trip to pit road. It would also mean that pitting late in the final stage would mean Bell had the freshest tires for the sprint to the finish.

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The latter strategy panned out. Coming to Lap 13, when the pits closed until the conclusion of the opening stage, the front two runners of William Byron and Ty Gibbs came to pit road, handing the lead to Bell. The No. 20 team won its second stage of the season and gained 10 points, minimizing the loss if the two-stop strategy went awry.

“We took the points in Stage 1 and then we didn’t see another caution,” Bell said. “We talked about it all week. If we were going to jump the stages or not and we decided that if we had the opportunity to win the stages, we would take the points.”

The No. 20 team was expecting more cautions to help trim the distance he trailed to the frontrunners. As he battled through the field, he sent Kyle Larson around on Lap 21. On Lap 40, it was Kyle Busch who went around off his front bumper in Turn 1. That led to a heated discussion from Busch, his former boss in the Craftsman Truck Series and teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, who stormed up to Bell after the race.

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“The Larson deal, that was totally on me and I had no intentions of spinning Kyle out,” Bell said. “Kyle Busch, he opened his entry way up into Turn 1 because they were side-by-side, and I ran my normal line on the bottom and wasn’t planning on passing him. He tried to do the crossover and I was underneath him. Obviously, I didn’t mean to spin him out at all. I will reach out to him and talk to him whenever we’re a little bit cooled off.”

After Bell made his final pit stop on Lap 49, he was north of 10 seconds behind Byron, who cycled back to the front of teams that pitted. Bell erased the gap quickly, first passing Ross Chastain before tracking down his Toyota teammate Tyler Reddick. Next up was Alex Bowman, and then he hustled to Ty Gibbs’ back bumper. With two laps remaining, Bell was still 2.4 seconds behind Byron for the race lead.

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Byron could see Bell getting larger in his rearview mirror.

“I mean, it was just trying to not make mistakes,” Byron said of seeing Bell close the gap. “I felt like I made a lot of micro-errors in the last 10 laps. I have to calm down a little bit, look back at those 10 laps and think about what could I do better in the car to stay mentally locked in and not get flustered by the mirror, seeing him closing in a braking zone.

“He definitely had fresher tires. I’m sure that helped a little bit.”

When the white flag flew, Bell was 1.7 seconds back. He chopped another second off, but his Herculean effort came up seven-tenths of a second short of winning his second race of the young 2024 season.

“This thing was amazing,” Bell said. “Super, super fast and proud to have a nice, solid race.”

By scoring 45 points — the second-highest total at COTA — Bell jumped a spot in the regular season championship standings to seventh, 38 points behind Martin Truex Jr.’s lead.

The strategy call, though, Bell believes may have cost him the race, noting: “Ultimately, I think that’s why we didn’t win.”