When Christopher Bell signed a development deal with Toyota six years ago, a chart was created of the best possible scenarios that his career could follow. It served as a roadmap that, if followed, would propel Bell from heralded open-wheel dirt track racer to the Cup Series.
He followed it step by step, moving from USAC Midgets to late models to Trucks to Xfinity, and the 25-year-old Oklahoma native has won at every level. But in the last few years, even while Bell dominated at the Xfinity level, his upward progression stalled. Though he appeared more than ready to make his debut at the Cup level, there was no car for him to drive.
“Sometimes the hardest thing in this sport is to say, ‘No, we’re not ready, we don’t have all of the pieces in place to do the best possible job,’ ” says David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “I harp on this all the time. We use a tremendous amount of discipline to make good decisions because we’re dealing with people; we’re dealing with a young man who has done a tremendous job at every level that he’s raced.”
Finally, last summer, the pieces started to fall into place. Leavine Family Racing decided not to exercise the option on Matt DiBenedetto’s contract. That opened the seat for Bell, whose debut in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota in the 2020 Daytona 500 will mark the start of the most highly anticipated rookie season since Chase Elliott four years ago.
As with other highly touted drivers of the recent past, Bell’s reputation precedes him. Kurt Busch once said of his brother, Kyle, who was then only 16: “You think I’m a pretty good racecar driver? Wait until you see my brother. He’s the best driver in the family.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin said of 15-year-old Joey Logano: “I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt, that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR. I’m positive. There’s no doubt in my mind. I know it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started calling Elliott “Elvis” before Elliott turned even a single lap at the Cup level.
And now comes Bell earning similar raves. His dirt track rival Kyle Larson has long touted him as a great talent, saying two years ago that the future of NASCAR Cup racing would be a lot of “Kyle, Kyle and Chris shows.”
Kyle Busch, Logano and Elliott all lived up to those high proclamations. Will Bell?
As he enters his rookie season, his resume is arguably better than any of those other drivers. In four years competing full time in NASCAR’s national series (two in Trucks, two in Xfinity), he has never finished worse than fourth in points, including a Truck championship in 2017.
He won a preposterous 21.6 percent of his Xfinity Series races in his two-plus seasons at that level. Last year, of the 5,574 laps he completed, he led 2,005, an eye-popping 36 percent, more than twice what anybody else led. The only “blemish” on his record leading up to his Cup Series debut is that he did not win an Xfinity Series championship. But that speaks to the format of how the champion is chosen more than it speaks to his performance.
As strong as Bell has been at every level, he says the jump to the Cup level will be the hardest, even though Toyota has made every effort to try to smooth the transition. For one thing, he will have the same crew chief he had at the Xfinity level, Jason Ratcliff.
He steps into a car that has never won a Cup race. But Leavine Family Racing signed a deal with Joe Gibbs Racing similar to what Furniture Row Racing had when it won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. The deal includes simulator time plus “enhanced hardware, enhanced communication, sharing of information,” Wilson says. That will essentially make Bell a satellite driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, which dominated last season.
All of that should mean that the cars Bell drives will be competitive. What he does with them remains to be seen. He followed the chart to get here. It’s up to him to win now that he has arrived.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)