Do dreams come true? Christopher Bell, with the opportunity in front of him this season, says yes. Bell, 25, makes his NASCAR Cup Series debut as the newest driver for Leavine Family Racing. He’ll drive the No. 95 Toyota occupied last year by Matt DiBenedetto.
“If you talk to anybody, any kid, their dream, if they dream of racing, is to run in the Cup Series in NASCAR,” Bell said when his new opportunity was announced last fall. “It’s a dream come true. I say it’s a dream come true for me because when I was a kid in Oklahoma and I started dirt track racing, I didn’t see how it was possible to get there just because I was a dirt track driver, and that’s all I knew.”
Bell is one-third of the trio of top-flight Xfinity Series drivers making their way up the ladder this season. It sets up an intriguing battle for the Rookie of the Year Award among Bell, Cole Custer and two-time defending Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick. For Bell, it’s an opportunity to build on his success with Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, respectively. Since 2015, Bell has tallied 23 wins and 67 top-5 finishes in 128 starts across both series.
“I’m nervous about it, but I’m very thankful that [crew chief] Jason Ratcliff is going with me because he’s kind of my rock in this deal,” Bell says. “He’s the guy that is gonna bring me comfort to the Cup Series.”
Ratcliff is a solid tool for Bell to have on his side. The crew chief is a 15-time Cup Series race winner, including eight wins with Matt Kenseth prior to the former champion’s retirement from full-time racing after the end of the 2017 season. Since then, Ratcliff has spent two years leading Bell’s Xfinity operations.
Bell’s arrival at the Cup level is a product of Toyota’s investment in a driver development program that extends to dirt track racing. Bell’s 2013 title in the USAC National Midget Series came in an effort funded by Toyota Racing Development, as did his three wins in Tulsa — Oklahoma’s Chili Bowl Midget event in 2017, 2018 and 2019. That investment is continuing in Bell as he reaches the top ranks of NASCAR, both in the financial support to get Bell in good racecars and in the problem-solving needed to find the seat opening.
In some ways, the groundwork was laid last season by TRD when it established a new technical alliance between LFR and JGR following the closure of Furniture Row Racing. That relationship has expanded this season, though all parties involved were hesitant to discuss specific details beyond expanded hardware, communication and simulator time offerings. Former JGR crew chief Mike Wheeler, who was the chief for DiBenedetto last season, will become LFR’s competition director this season.
“It is a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed, to be confident, and this is a complete package,” says David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “It is not being done piecemeal, and you can tell that by the names — having Jason [Ratcliff] follow Christopher over, etc. All of those things are designed to give him the best opportunity to succeed and continue to meet and exceed our expectations.”
For his part, Bell is looking to adapt in two ways: managing longer distance races and making a quick study of the Cup Series car. “The Xfinity cars, for whatever reason, fit me pretty well, so there wasn’t that much of a learning curve,” Bell says. “But the Cup Series cars right now are drastically different than the Xfinity Series cars, so I think a lot of [my success] will depend on how quickly I can pick that up.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 150/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)