For Christopher Bell, Friday’s NASCAR Cup Series qualifying session brought an unprecedented accomplishment.
For Martin Truex Jr., Bell’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, it brought a sense of relief—if that’s possible for a driver trying to climb above the cut line in the series Playoffs.
In the final round of time trials at the 0.533-mile short track, Bell turned a lap in 15.109 seconds (126.997 mph), edging another teammate, Denny Hamlin, by 0.008 seconds (126.930 mph) for the top starting spot in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night race, whose starting time was moved up to 6:35 p.m. because of the potential for rain later in the evening.
That performance in the money round gave Bell an unprecedented sweep of the pole positions in the first three Playoff races of 2023. The Busch Light Pole Award was Bell’s fifth of the season, his first at Bristol and the ninth of his career.
“It doesn’t get much closer than that—that’s crazy tight,” Bell said of his margin over Hamlin. (But) 500 laps (on Saturday) is an awfully long time. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that qualifying means nothing for the race.”
Bell knows whereof he speaks. After winning poles at Darlington and Kansas in the first two Playoff races, Bell finished 23rd and eighth, respectively. As a result, he has a 13-point margin over Truex, the first driver below the current cutoff for the Round of 12.
Truex (126.154 mph) qualified fifth behind fellow Playoff drivers Bell, Hamlin, William Byron (126.345 mph) and Michael McDowell (126.220 mph). That’s a boon for the regular-season champion, who trails 12th-place Kevin Harvick by seven points and 11th-place Joey Logano by 12.
On Saturday night, Harvick will start 21st and Logano 28th as they battle to advance to the Round of 12.
Bell was happy to see Truex set up a potential good run with his fifth-place qualifying effort.
“I think Bristol probably owes him one,” Bell said. “Hopefully, we can get all three of these JGR Camrys into the next round. I certainly know that we have the speed to do it… Martin put himself in a good spot, so hopefully he can make it happen.”
Brad Keselowski qualified sixth, followed by Chase Elliott, whose No. 9 Chevrolet is part of the owners’ championship contest, even though Elliott failed to make the drivers’ Playoff. Ty Gibbs qualified eighth, followed by Playoff driver Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie.