At this point, it should be painfully obvious to everyone that Joe Gibbs Racing's Christopher Bell is a master at The Magic Mile. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry, who won last season's NASCAR Cup Series event at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Speedway, will defend his race win in Sunday's Crayon 301 from the pole position.
On Saturday, Bell turned a lap time of 30.524 sec. (124.781 mph) in the final round of NASCAR Cup Series qualifying, which was just enough for him to edge out his JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. by 0.007 sec. for the pole position.
Bell, who participated in the Goodyear tire test at New Hampshire earlier in the season, says the lower downforce short-track package has definitely changed the handling at New Hampshire from a season ago.
"That was tough, man," Bell said of his pole-winning run. "We did the tire test here in April, and it was significantly cooler. The cars had a lot of grip. That was the first time here with the low downforce package, and I was surprised by how much grip we had. Back-to-back from July last year to July this year these things are sliding around like crazy and pretty evil to drive. Makes it really fun out there, and proud of this No. 20 Rheem group."
This pole marks the first of the 2023 season for Bell, and it is the fifth of his young NASCAR Cup Series career. Bell has finished first and second in his last two NASCAR Cup Series outings at Loudon, and he has only one finish outside the top-two in eight NASCAR National Series starts at the track.
Bell starting from the pole should strike fear in the hearts of the competition.
Behind the Joe Gibbs Racing front row duo of Bell and Truex will be Aric Almirola and Joey Logano in Row 2. Almirola, who sat on the pole a week ago in Atlanta, said that Atlanta and New Hampshire were two of his biggest shots at working his way into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Almirola scored a clutch win at New Hampshire in 2021 to lock his place in the Playoffs that season.
Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-10 qualifiers in the session.
Keselowski, who has been zeroing in on his first win since moving to RFK Racing as a driver and co-owner, has his brother Brian Keselowski spotting for him this weekend, due to his primary spotter TJ Majors being ill.
And for Busch, he'll have to drop to the rear of the field in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet as his car will undergo repairs, which will be considered unapproved adjustments, following a crash on Turn 1 of his Round 2 qualifying run.
The qualifying crash marked the end of a frustrating day for Busch, who also slapped the wall in practice earlier in the day, which forced the No. 8 team to make repairs to the car prior to qualifying.
Michael McDowell will start the race from the 17th position in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang, but there was hope that McDowell could score the pole on Saturday.
The 38-year-old racer, who is currently inside the Playoffs cutline, was the fastest driver overall in Saturday's practice session. In qualifying, he was trending to make it into Round 2, when he lost the handle in Turn 4 during his opening round qualifying lap.
As a result, McDowell did not advance to Round 2, but still held on for a respectable qualifying lap.
Photo Credit: Lesley Ann Miller, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing