By Sarah Handy, Staff Writer
Christopher Bell makes his much-anticipated return to Joe Gibbs Racing this season, having spent last season behind the wheel of the No. 95 for Leavine Family Racing. Bell is no stranger to the organization having made 74 starts with the JGR in the NASCAR Xfinity Series from 2017-2019. In that time span, Bell earned 16 wins, 41 top-five and 46 top-10 finishes.
“It’s been a lot of fun to transition back to the Cup side of JGR. I’ve spent a little bit of time in the Cup building throughout my Xfinity days. But for the most part it’s all new to me,” said Bell. “A lot of the styles are similar to LFR (Leavine Family Racing) to JGR, but it’s just a completely new group of people.
It’s fun to be able to work with my car chief Chris Sherwood again. He was my car chief on the Xfinity side, and he’s on this 20 group too. So, between him, Adam Stevens, and everyone on this 20 car, just trying to get to know everyone and build those relationships. It’s been quite the offseason, and I’m excited to get going to the racetrack, week-in and week-out.”
Bell’s first season at NASCAR’s elite level proved to be a focal learning curve for the Norman, Oklahoma native. With the biggest being distance racing and the difference between the Xfinity and Cup Series race lengths.
“I would say the biggest thing that I’ve learned is the experience from distance racing,” said Bell. “It’s a big deal to go from Xfinity races which are 300-miles at the longest, and short tracks are shorter. Then you go to Cup racing which you have 500-miles, 400-miles all of the time.
You have a couple of 500-milee races and then you have the Coke 600. The distance part is a big difference and learning how to run all of those miles without making one mistake and getting into the wall and knocking the fender into the tire, cutting a tire, and getting into somebody – gaining that knowledge and experience. If we are on lap 200 of 325, you don’t need to push extra to get 10th spot or whatever. The on-track knowledge and experience of doing it is the biggest thing I’m going to take away from LFR to JGR.”
Last season, he captured two top-five, seven top-10’s and a NCS career best of third at Texas in the fall. Now in 2021, Bell stated there is no reason he can’t go out there and compete for wins. Whereas last season he recalled he got “buried in points” by not having a good opening stretch of races.
“There is not a reason out there that I can’t compete for wins at Daytona, Daytona Road Course, Homestead,” said Bell. “I think that we have [all of the] ingredients that we need to compete for wins right out of the gate. But on the flip side, I’m definitely not going to be driving it 100% to win those races.
Last year, I got buried in points by not having a good opening stretch of races, and that is our number one goal – to see the checkered flags, get to the end. Whether that is 10th, 15th, fifth – anywhere. Just to see the checkered flags and not make mistakes that cost us finishes.”
Bell has all the necessary resources to go out there and capture multiple wins this season being with Joe Gibbs Racing. Is the pressure there after moving ‘in house’ to JGR? Bell admits he’s in a difficult position.
“It’s tough. I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” said Bell. “Coach Joe Gibbs provides [all of the] resources needed to have four championship caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough. This is my first year here. I don’t think that people are [realistically] expecting me to compete for a championship this first year. But eventually that needs to be the end goal – to have a championship caliber team, and I hope that I’m a championship caliber driver to lead that group.”
Bell will look to make the playoffs this season, something that he believes is a necessity for him and the No. 20 team.
“It’s a necessity. If I don’t make the Playoffs this year, that is not going to be ideal. That’s for sure. I don’t know what the results of that would be, but I don’t want to find that out,” expressed Bell. “I think [we have] all of the tools necessary to make the Playoffs, and that’s for sure a big goal. If you make the Playoffs, typically you’ve been running well, you’ve won a race or you’re running exceptional in points to get there, so yeah, making the Playoffs is a big deal for us.”
The 26-year old will look to improve upon his 21st place finish in the DAYTONA 500 one year ago. Bell’s first NASCAR Cup Series season competing on the likes of Talladega and Daytona did not see a result better than a 21st place result. Talladega, he finished 29th and 39th. Then on the Daytona Road Course, another 21st place result.
To win the Daytona 500 would be ‘really special’ to the Bell.
“It would be really, really special to win the Daytona 500, regardless of car number. It’s a big one and its probably p.1 in motorsports, arguably. It’s hard for me to sit here and think about it because it’s such a big event. But I will have a shot. I’m competing in the Daytona 500, so I’m really thankful for that, and hopefully I can do a good job and have a shot at it coming closing time.”
Feature Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade Photography / NKP Photo