It wouldn’t come as any surprise that a Joe Gibbs Racing driver was leading the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs after two races in the opening Round of 16, especially with two-time series champion Kyle Busch, 2017 champ Martin Truex Jr. and 48-time race winner Denny Hamlin in the four-car organization.

But it is JGR’s Christopher Bell who, as quietly as his demeanor, is atop the current 16-driver playoff field and already has secured the first berth in the Round of 12 that opens with next Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. CT, TV: USA Network, Radio: SiriusXM Radio Ch. 90, PRN, 95.9 The Ranch locally).

The opening Round of 16 concludes with Saturday night’s showdown at Bristol Motor Speedway that will determine the 12 drivers who will move on and the four who will be eliminated from playoff contention. While Bell is assured of advancing, he will look to accumulate as many playoff points as possible at Bristol to maintain a high seeding heading into the Round of 12 when the points are reset.

With non-playoff drivers winning the opener at Darlington (Erik Jones) and then at Kansas (Bubba Wallace), no playoff driver has yet to automatically advance to the next round by virtue of a victory. Bell cashed in as a result of his consistency – finishing fifth at Darlington and third at Kansas – and scoring a bevy of additional playoff points in the latter with a win and runner-up effort in the race stages.

“Consistency is important for the first round and maybe the second round, but in round three, and definitely the Final 4, I believe it will take a win,” said Bell, driver of the No 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

The third-year Cup driver has been running strong since collecting his first win of the season and second of his career at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in mid-July. Including that win, he has reeled off five-top five finishes in the last nine races, including both playoff starts. He now is tied for second in the series for top-five finishes with nine. He also ranks second in the series in top-10 finishes with 16, trailing Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports by one.

“I believe so,” Bell said when asked if the No. 20 team is peaking at the right time. “I really feel like the 20 group has had great capability all year long. It’s been really fun to be competitive week in and week out.”

The three-race Round of 12 format will consist of Texas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2) and the Charlotte ROVAL (Oct. 9) with four more drivers being eliminated from championship contention.

Texas Motor Speedway is an ideal track for Bell to open this second playoff round, given his previous success as well as the Norman, Okla., native considering the 1.5-mile oval his “home NASCAR track.” In three career Cup starts, Bell owns two third-place finishes with both coming in the fall playoff race the last two seasons.

“Texas is one of my best tracks statistically and a place I enjoy racing at,” Bell said. “It’s a very important race and we need to capitalize on Texas before heading into Talladega.” 

Bell is hopeful the past success continues in the Next Gen car that debuted this season. The car made its inaugural visit to TMS for May’s NASCAR All-Star Race, where Bell finished 10th but that non-points race was just a small sample size.

“It’s always good to have notes on a track,” Bell said. “Going back for a second time there’s stuff to improve on, but that’s the same for everyone.” 

A victory in the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 would give Bell wins in all three NASCAR National Series at Texas Motor Speedway. He previously won a Craftsman Truck Series race in 2017 and an Xfinity Series race in ’19.  Bell would like nothing more than to finally pull in to Victory Lane as a Cup winner in front of a huge contingent of family and friends expected to be on hand.

“It would be unbelievable,” Bell said. “Texas is one of the most important races on the schedule because of the layout of the Round of 12. Winning would be huge. My family is super excited to go to the playoff race in Texas. It’s a big event and I’ll have a lot of people there.” 

It will be a busy weekend for Bell, who also will be serving as a co-host and competitor in the inaugural C. Bell’s MICRO MANIA event on the renovated Lil’ Texas Motor Speedway 1/5-mile dirt track. The four-day event, which features Micro Sprint race cars, will open with practice Wednesday and culminate with mains and finals on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 24.

“It seems like people are really excited for the MICRO MANIA,” Bell said. “We have a huge, expected competitor count and I hope the fans turn out to watch what is sure to be a great show.” 

Texas Motor Speedway will play host to the 2022 NASCAR Playoffs next week. The NASCAR Playoffs doubleheader will be highlighted by the NASCAR Xfinity Series Andy’s Frozen Custard 300 on Saturday, Sept. 24 (2:30 p.m. CT on USA Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Ch. 90, and PRN), and the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 on Sunday, Sept. 25 (2:30 p.m. CT on USA Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Ch. 90, PRN, and 95.9 The Ranch).

The newly renovated Lil’ Texas Motor Speedway 1/5-mile dirt track will kick off the weekend of racing with the inaugural C. Bell’s MICRO MANIA. The four-day event (Sept. 21-24) features practice on Wednesday (Sept. 21), qualifying races Thursday and Friday (Sept. 22-23) and mains and finals Saturday (Sept. 24). Micro Sprints are smaller versions of full-sized sprint cars with side-mounted 600cc motorcycle engines that can generate 140 horsepower with similar chassis and body styles to the larger versions. NASCAR stars currently confirmed to participate include Christopher Bell, two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and his son Brexton Busch, Sheldon Creed, Daniel Hemric, Brett Moffitt, and John Hunter Nemechek.