By: Ashley McCubbin
With four top-15 finishes in the last six events, it appears Christopher Bell is beginning to find his footing in his rookie campaign in the NASCAR Cup Series.
The season did not start off that strongly, though, as the No. 95 scored no finishes inside the top-20 in the four events before the COVID-19 break. Since then, they have five top-10’s in 13 races. Bell’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff attributes the success to having time to sit down and ponder over the data, and figure where they needed to get better.
“This is the first year I’ve worked with this aero package, so it gave me some time to look at it and breakdown the data I had,” he explained. “And then look at Christopher, look back at the races and the SAT data which is something new for us. We had two months to sit down and digest that and see where our priorities were, where we needed to spend the majority of our time, and it’s worked out.
“We’ve all worked hard – we all worked hard obviously, but we kept digging. We worked eight hours a day and prepared for whatever races were on the schedule at the time. So I think it allowed for us to take a breather.”
Ratcliff also feels Bell’s demeanor behind the wheel in how he handles the events each week with no practice has shown dividends.
“He’s done a great job of managing the race; we saw that at Kentucky,” he explained. “He takes that first stage – or at least until the comp caution, and really doesn’t try to compete a lot but just get a feel for the car so we can make the right adjustments under the comp caution. He’s done a really nice job of managing that and he’s a quicker learner.”
Bell continuing to learn behind the wheel certainly is a benefit, though becomes easier in having the comfort with Ratcliff as a crew chief as they worked together the past two years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“It’s a huge benefit,” Ratcliff told POPULAR SPEED. “I think that was one of the main focuses on what can we do for Christopher to make his rookie season a success, and obviously the more people you can surround him with that not only have experience with Sunday cup racing and this aero package, but also people who have worked with him for a few years in my case, that learning curve was going to be a lot shorter as far as how that communication goes.
“That’s a huge deal, as that’s the biggest part whether it’s the racecar team communication to the driver, or just communication in general. If you can get that right, your results are going to be better a lot sooner. So I think that’s been a big deal – me working with him for two years to get better.”
As they work their way closer to the front every week, the big question becomes when will we see Bell in victory lane for the first time in the Cup Series. It’s something that could happen very soon, with a couple tracks that suit his driving style coming up on the schedule.
“I think Texas and Kansas have been good tracks for Christopher,” Ratcliff commented. “He got his first Xfinity win at Kansas, so that’s been one that’s been on the calendar for us. It’d be great if we could start in the top-24 there, and that’s our goal. But I think Texas will be another. We’ve got some good ones coming up so we need to take advantage of it. We knew Pocono and Indy would possibly be good race tracks for him, and they were, but Kansas is one we’re looking forward to.”
The only drawback right now for the Leavine Racing outfit has been their starting position. With their placing in the owner’s standing, the current draw system has Bell unable to draw better than 24th for the grid. He enters this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway just 11 points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG-Daughtry for 24th.
“Right now, it’s a huge focus because I feel if it we start closer to the front, things are going to improve all the way around,” he said. “Although we’ve had some good finishes, passed a lot of cars every week, as nice as it’d be to get some stage points in the first stage, starting outside the top 25, it’s almost virtually impossible. So we spend that first stage where if we need a lot of work on the car, let’s do it now; let’s get it out of the way.
“Then there’s been times in the second stage where we’ve been able to grab a few points there, and then obviously we want to get the best finish we can. So it’s kind of been our strategy right now – accumulate the most points we can. But as soon as we get in the top 24, our strategy will change. It’ll look a lot different.”
Rather than utilizing the current system, Ratcliff feels it’d be better if NASCAR could split the draw into two groups of the field rather than three, or just invert the top-20 from the previous event each week.
“For us, the first four races were disastrous so now we’re starting 35th because of that,” he said. “But we’re performing well enough that if we had an invert, we could start in the top 15 every week. I know they’ve done the best they could with the current situation. Everyone is not going to be happy with the decision they’ve come up with, but for the most part, it’s fair. But if we do this long-term, we can definitely do a better job with that.”