Christopher Bell is the real deal.
From sprint cars and midgets to asphalt late models, trucks and stock cars, there’s nothing the 26-year-old wheelman can’t drive.
Bell debuted in the NASCAR Cup Series last season with Leavine Family Racing, piloting the team’s No. 95 Toyota Camry to a 20th-place finish in points on the strength of seven top-10 finishes. It marked the 10-year-old team’s best result in the standings, but the results didn’t match Bell’s aspirations.
“For the most part, we weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be,” Bell said. “We had some days, like at Texas (in October, where Bell finished third), where we were really competitive and we had a shot at winning the race, but those days were few and far between.”
He won’t have to worry about infrequent successes anymore.
Bell excels when he’s given competitive equipment—and this year, he’s driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 car, a machine previously piloted by Cup Series champions Tony Stewart and Joey Logano.
Bell earned the job on merit and quickly proved to be worthy of the appointment by going to Victory Lane in the season’s second race, held on the Daytona International Speedway road course. Driving his Rheem-sponsored Toyota, Bell sped past Logano for the lead with two laps remaining and pulled away to a 2.12-second win on the challenging 3.61-mile course.
A longtime member of Toyota Racing’s driver development program, Bell’s sterling résumé includes a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in 2017 and 16 NASCAR Xfinity Series wins in only 74 starts.
There are plenty of reasons to believe Bell will add to the No. 20 car’s legacy in short order. For one, the Norman, Oklahoma, native will spend his second season at NASCAR’s highest level with a two-time Cup Series champion calling the shots from pit road.
Adam Stevens claimed Cup Series titles with Kyle Busch in 2015 and ’19 before Gibbs shuffled Stevens and most of the No. 18 car’s engineers to Bell’s No. 20 operation.
“Ever since (Joe Gibbs Racing) said I was essentially getting the No. 18 guys for 2021, I’ve been very thankful to get such a proven group,” Bell said. “It’s in my hands now. The whole team has proven themselves to be a championship-caliber team.
“I’ve been focusing hard in just being around the new No. 20 group and I’ve spent a lot of time with Adam, just trying to build that relationship with him. It’s been good so far. I feel like we have a ways to go, but once you’re in the thick of racing, it becomes much easier. The offseason has just been us hanging out and being around each other. Hopefully, we can start off on the same page when we get to racing. I was sad to leave Jason (Ratcliff, Bell’s former crew chief), but I’m thrilled for the opportunity to get put in a winning situation and get to prove myself.”
A jump from a mid-pack team to one of NASCAR’s elite operations won’t be much of an adjustment for Bell. He raced for JGR on a full-time basis in the Xfinity Series from 2018-’19, so he’s not going to get lost on the way to work.
Stevens, however, might be in for a culture change.
“Adam’s entire Cup Series career has been with Kyle (Busch) and just from the outside looking in, Adam seems like a fiery person – which you have to be to work with Kyle Busch,” Bell said. “I told Adam, ‘I can promise you; I’m going to be a change of pace from Kyle. You’re not going to hear me voicing my opinion in the car the way Kyle does.’
“Kyle’s more of a leader at this point than I am. I’m not going to be as outspoken as he is in the car. I’m more of a soft-spoken guy in general.”
Bell lets his driving do the talking. This year, it will speak volumes about his skill.
“It’s a high-pressure environment,” Bell said of his new workplace. “If you look at 2020 as a whole, it was definitely a down year for JGR compared to 2019, which was a really good year. I don’t expect 2021 to be like 2020. I think Joe Gibbs Racing is a powerhouse team and they’re focused on getting back to where they were in 2019.
“Ultimately, if we just keep putting ourselves in position, we’re fast enough, we have a good enough pit crew and we don’t make mistakes, that’s all you can ask for, whether we win one time or we win eight times.”
Given Bell’s present situation, it’s only a matter of time before he’s regularly atop the scoring pylon.
“Expectations are high,” Bell said. “We need to win.”
Look for it to happen early and often.