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Christopher Bell and Joe Gibbs Racing reflect on tragedy as team tries to win NASCAR championship

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The sun was barely up on championship morning a year ago when word began to spread that something was terribly wrong at Joe Gibbs Racing.

The Cup Series title-deciding finale at Phoenix Raceway was hours away from starting and a flurry of activity around the Gibbs cars seemed to indicate the team was looking for a replacement driver for Ty Gibbs, who had won the Xfinity Series title the night before.

Christopher Bell was set to represent JGR in the championship four, but rumors were flying that the entire organization might pull out of the race. Coy Gibbs, the vice chairman of the organization, son of team owner Joe Gibbs and Ty's father, had been found dead in his hotel room that morning and the team was in chaos.

The four Cup crew chiefs climbed onto golf carts and headed to a meeting with their drivers to decide if they were even going to race.

“I don’t remember the time of day that we were starting to hear that something horrible had happened. It was pretty early in the day,” said Bell crew chief Adam Stevens. “It just took you completely away from prepping for the race, focusing on changes and doing all that stuff that we do every week, to worried about your teammates, worried about Coach, worried about the Gibbs family. It was awful.”

Stevens is well-prepped for championship pressure. He's one of only two active crew chiefs in the Cup Series with multiple titles (he won twice with Kyle Busch) and led Bell back to the championship four this season for Stevens' seventh appearance in the finale.

But nothing prepared him or the No. 20 Toyota team for the emotions of last year's finale. Joey Logano won the race and his second title, while Bell finished a distant 10th in the race and third in the championship standings.

“Last year was just a whirlwind of emotions — going in there in my first championship four, it was very exciting and happy,” Bell said. “It flipped very quickly on Sunday morning. I don’t ever want to relive the shocking news that got told upon us hours before you've got to go perform at your highest at the most important race of your career. That was not ideal. Last year was just insane, like unheard of."

Stevens felt once the race began the team was able to focus on trying to win the title.

“I know once he gets his helmet on that he’s super focused on the task at hand. I don’t know how it couldn’t weigh on you when somebody you’re so close to passes so suddenly like that,” Stevens said, adding that the team is glad to have a year removed from that tragic morning.

“It will be a big relief to kind of have a calendar year in between that and this weekend, have a little bit of healing for the Gibbs family. Hopefully we can bring the trophy home,” Stevens said.

Bell, back in the championship for the second consecutive year, will race Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Kyle Larson for the title Sunday. The highest-finishing driver among the four will be crowned champion and Larson is the only driver in the finale with a previous title.

Larson, the 2021 champion, is back in the finale for the second time in three years. Blaney and Byron are making their first appearances.

Gibbs, reflecting recently on the horrific turn of events from celebrating his grandson's championship to mourning the loss of his son, said Sunday will partly be a day of remembrance. Gibbs lost his other son, J.D., who died of a degenerative neurological disease in 2019.

Both J.D. and Coy died one month before their 50th birthdays. Coy died in his sleep after celebrating his son's championship; no cause of death has been revealed.

Coy's wife, Heather, told Gibbs her husband was the happiest she'd ever seen him celebrating Ty’s championship the night before his death.

That gives Gibbs solace.

But he doesn't want Sunday to be a memorial. He wants another championship; JGR has had a car in the final four every year since the format began in 2014, but has only won the shootout three times and not since Busch in 2019.

“I always talk to our team and everything about the fact that we’ve been here 31 years and we only have five championships on the back wall. That’s how hard it is,” Gibbs said. “This sport is really, really hard because there’s so much to it. If you have a weak part of your race team, the playoffs will find it.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing