The pressure for Christopher Bell starts now. With a year of NASCAR Cup Series racing to his name and a move to his manufacturer's flagship team, Bell is finally where Toyota executives imagined he would be when they first began funding him as a developmental driver in racing's lower ranks. Now, the expectations need to be met.
Bell needs to look no further than the guy he displaced in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 to understand what he'll be asked to achieve. Erik Jones, also a heralded Toyota developmental prospect, spent the last three years driving the JGR Toyota without ever producing the same results as his teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. Two wins, 28 top 5s, and 48 top 10s weren't enough for Jones to get another extension. In fact, Toyota made up its mind on Jones before he missed the playoffs last season. Jones will drive Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 in 2021.
So now it's on Bell to match or exceed the results Jones mustered at JGR. Bell's background says he's got the talent to do it. His resume includes 16 Xfinity Series wins, a Truck Series championship, three wins in the prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals, and a 2013 USAC National Midget Series title. And he'll go to work behind the wheel of the No. 20 car with guidance from Adam Stevens — the crew chief who led Busch to two championships before an offseason reassignment in the JGR camp.
Bell spent last year as a Cup rookie in Leavine Family Racing's No. 95. It was a largely forgettable effort that generated just two top-5 finishes. The lack of highlights wasn't a surprise considering LFR's mid-to-lower pack history. The campaign was made even tougher for Bell in August when team owner Bob Leavine opted to sell the team's assets and exit NASCAR at the close of the 2020 season.
But Bell's effort wasn't bereft of encouraging signs. The top-5 finishes he did earn — one during the first Pocono doubleheader race in June and one at Texas Motor Speedway in October — came on pure speed and weren't earned on fuel mileage or good luck. Bell also avoided in-race contact and accidents as he failed to finish only four races in 2020. Two of his DNFs were crashes in restrictor-plate races, and another was due to engine failure. Bell also earned the second-highest improvement (+3.7 positions) from average start to average finish among all Cup Series drivers last year.
"I would say overall that [2020 was] extremely disappointing from my standpoint and I'm sure everyone involved was expecting a lot more out of it, and unfortunately it didn't work out that way," Bell said after the season. "But we've had great showings over the course of the year, or a couple of them anyway. We just haven't got good finishes."
In a video posted at the end of November by Joe Gibbs Racing, Bell can be seen touring the No. 20 shop at Joe Gibbs Racing alongside Stevens. He meets several crew members who will work on his car. As they introduce themselves, it's clear that many of them previously worked with Stevens on the No. 18 team. And it's clear that they have expectations for Bell.
"I want to do my best for you guys," Bell says. "I want to win."
"That's the only option," one replies.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 50/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)