Long: Victory celebration at Phoenix was a long time coming

AVONDALE, Ariz. — There are 245 days between Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway and when the Cup championship will be determined here in November.

So, yes, much can and will happen between now and then, but that doesn’t diminish the satisfaction felt by the man who leads Toyota’s racing efforts in the United States after Christopher Bell’s victory.

Less than two months ago, David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, lamented the program’s limited success at Phoenix. The manufacturer had not won the Cup championship since the title race moved to this 1-mile track in 2020.

“It’s completely unacceptable that we have yet to win a (Cup) championship at Phoenix,” Wilson told reporters in January.

It had been worse for Toyota since the Next Gen car debuted in 2022. Toyotas had combined to lead 15 of 1,253 laps — 1.2 percent! — in the four races at this track since then.

Sunday, Toyota combined to lead 298 of 312 laps — 95.5 percent! — and took five of the top 11 spots despite pit strategy in the final stage mixing up the results.

NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500
NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500

What drivers said after Christopher Bell’s Phoenix win

Four drivers failed to finish Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway.

While photographers snapped photos of Bell next to the trophy in Victory Lane, Wilson stood near the back relishing the moment.

“Today was about redemption,” Wilson told NBC Sports “It was about validation.”

With the chance to have a new car body for this season — along with Ford — Toyota sought to maximize what it could within NASCAR’s parameters. After watching Chevrolet win the Cup title at Phoenix in 2020 and ’21 and then Ford win the past two, an effort was made to make the Phoenix car better.

“When you look at getting a … potential upgrade that we feel like we’ve gotten and a bunch of smart people focused on the track that they’re struggling at and those two things collide, you end up with a day like today,” said Chris Gabehart, crew chief for pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

That it was Bell leading the way for Toyota wasn’t surprising. He’s made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. His title hopes ended early last year with a brake failure due to not having enough cooling on the right front rotor. While he ran well that day, he struggled to pass.

Sunday, he admitted it was still challenging with the new short track package and tire that Goodyear brought, but Bell’s car improved in the second stage. As Bell started to move through the field, crew chief Adam Stevens radioed him not to worry about the first two cars because they likely were too far ahead to catch before the stage would end.

Bell’s car was stronger the longer the run went. He passed fellow Toyota driver Tyler Reddick for the lead with five laps left in the stage to win the stage.

“Once we got some separation and I was able to move around and get clean air on my car, or cleaner air, it drove better and I was able to make passes,” Bell said.

“I didn't know that I was capable of winning the race until late in stage two, really whenever I got to third. I could see myself closing. It wasn't until late in the second stage that I knew I had a car capable of winning.”

NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500
NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500

NASCAR Cup results at Phoenix: Christopher Bell wins

Christopher Bell now has seven career Cup Series wins.

It had been evident since Friday Bell would be among the favorites. He had the fastest average speed over 15, 20 and 25 consecutive laps.

Doing so on Sunday was more challenging. Even with a strong car at the end of the second stage, the race would change dramatically.

A slow stop dropped Bell from first to 10th to begin the final stage.

Cautions at Laps 197, 206 and 216 in the 312-lap race jumbled the order as teams pitted at different times. Bell restarted 21st at Lap 222.

Reddick, who tied Hamlin by leading a race-high 68 laps, restarted 15th.

Bell passed Reddick six laps later to move into 11th — a key moment as those two had been among the top cars.

“I don't even know how I passed him,” Bell said. “The restarts are just so crazy here, you're three-wide, four-wide. I have no idea. You don't even really see cars or car numbers at that point. You're just trying to go find clean air and run a lane that they're not in.”

Reddick said: “We were good. We just let it get away.”

Instead of him celebrating, it was Bell. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Ty Gibbs, who started second, finished third. Martin Truex Jr. (seventh), Reddick (10th) and Hamlin (11th) were next for Toyota.

There was much for Wilson to be pleased about Sunday.

“I say to my team all the time, don’t ever get too high and don’t ever get too low because this is a cruel sport,” Wilson said.

But then he went on to say, “I love the fact that we proved that we’ve learned and certainly are heading in the right direction.”