The dark horse championship contender of 2022

Christopher Bell is set to return for a second year with Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season after an impressive year one.

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is scheduled to get underway next month with the 64th annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, which is slated to mark the official debut of the long-awaited Gen 7 car.

While the terms of his contract haven’t been disclosed and he is still only classified as “expected to return”, all signs point to Christopher Bell being back for a second season behind the wheel of the #20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Bell was largely overshadowed by his three teammates in his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing. But that is to be expected considering who they are, plus the fact that Bell was in his first season with the team.

All three of the others, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, won at least two races, and two of them, Truex and Hamlin, qualified for the Championship 4.

But as the year progressed, the Norman, Oklahoma native was able to show a lot more speed and consistency.

Bell, who competed for the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Leavine Family Racing team as a rookie in 2020, won his second start as a Joe Gibbs Racing driver at the Daytona International Speedway road course last February.

While he has not been back to victory lane since then, the improvement has been clear. He not only qualified for the playoffs, but he advanced to the round of 12, something that Erik Jones, the driver he replaced after the 2020 season, never did in three seasons as the driver of the #20 Toyota. A stronger start to the round of 12, and he very well could have advanced even further.

After just one year with the team, the highly touted Toyota prospect should only get better, and he proved that with four top three finishes in the second half of the 2021 season; he had just two career top three finishes, including just one (his win) in the first half of the year, before the halfway point.

He finished the year just two races removed from a four-race streak of top eight finishes, his second such streak of the second half of the year alone.

But is he capable of taking that next step and becoming a true championship contender in his second year at Joe Gibbs Racing?

Bell was promoted to the Cup Series after two strong Truck Series seasons, including a 2017 championship-winning season, and two strong Xfinity Series seasons, which saw him win 15 races; no other driver won more than eight events across those two seasons.

Success in the lower series doesn’t always translate, but the improvements that Bell has made in the Cup Series thus far indicates that there is still some untapped potential.

Interestingly, the last two Championship 4s have both seen one driver who had never previously made the Championship 4, and on both occasions, that driver won the title.

Among the top 12 finishers in the 2021 championship standings, there are just three who have never recorded a top four finish in the standings.

One of those drivers is Bell, and the other two are Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron. Both of them are viewed as drivers who have a legitimate chance to win this year’s title given their recent improvement.

Can Bell join them and solidify himself as a force to be reckoned with at another one of the sport’s top teams over the course of the upcoming 36-race season?

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