Christopher Bell officially became the newest young NASCAR talent to sign a deal to race in the sport’s premier series, as Leavine Family Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Bell will drive the team’s No. 95 Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series ranks beginning in 2020.
Bell is currently a seven-race winner and 2019 championship contender in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing – a high-profile talent in the sport since transitioning full time three years ago from a celebrated career competing on the country’s dirt tracks in sprint cars and midgets.
His present Xfinity Series crew chief Jason Ratcliff will retain the same position with Bell at the Cup level with LFR. Bell also brings sponsorship from Rheem and Procure and his new team is already aligned with the Joe Gibbs Racing organization he currently competes with, easing the transition.
“It’s kind of like Christmas early,’’ team owner Bob Leavine told the racing media Tuesday. “It’s a pretty special time for LFR. Everyone here … is all excited about our possibilities.’’
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Bell, a 24-year-old Oklahoma native, has quickly become one of NASCAR’s next-generation stars. He won five races en route to the 2017 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship and then won seven races in his first full Xfinity Series season while finishing fourth in the 2018 championship standings. His move to the Cup ranks this season was seen as inevitable by most racing insiders.
“I’m really, really excited about making the next step here at LFR and hoping we can get kicked off on the right foot. I think having Jason along beside me … it’s going to be a really big advantage,’’ Bell said. “He’s a great crew chief. He’s got a lot of experience with veteran drivers and we got to start our communication process in the Xfinity Series together, so there’s nobody else I’d rather go with than him.’’
As for adjusting to the new Cup car, Bell was clearly enthusiastic and optimistic.
“I think a lot of it will have to do with how well I adopt to the rules package in the Cup Series,’’ he said. “The Xfinity cars, for whatever reason, fit me pretty well, so there wasn’t that much of a learning curve. But the Cup Series cars right now are drastically different than the Xfinity Series cars, so I think a lot of it will depend on how quickly I can pick that up.’’
Having the familiarity of Ratliff leading his team should help with the transition to NASCAR’s big leagues. Ratliff has not only guided Bell to the winningest record in the Xfinity Series the past two years, but his move to LFR is a return to Cup competition. Ratliff spent six full-time seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing serving as the Cup crew chief for Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
The LFR team’s current crew chief, veteran Mike Wheeler, will remain with the team and move to the position of competition director next season. The team’s current driver, Matt DiBenedetto announced two weeks ago that he will drive the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford next season as Paul Menard retires from full-time Cup Series competition.
“It elevates [the team] with the talent, character and experience Christopher has and has gotten as he moved up through a very solid foundation,’’ Leavine said. “With the people surrounding him, with Jason moving over and Wheels still here and our people on the car will remain the same.’’
Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson confirmed that the TRD relationship with the Leavine Family Racing team will include enhanced hardware, key communication and sharing of information as the organization more fully aligns with the championship Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Leavine added, “Then the, for lack of a better term, enhanced [affiliation] with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) is all going to come together very well. It’s our next step that we’ve been working on for about five years, so really pleased that Christopher is a part of it. Obviously Toyota being a part of it is huge, TRD and JGR being a part of it, it’s a great family and we all elevate together.”
All four of the current JGR Toyotas qualified for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and have accounted for 15 wins in the 28-race season to date. JGR driver Martin Truex Jr. has won the opening two Cup Playoff races.
“It’s a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed, to be confident, and this is a complete package,’’ Wilson assured. “It is not being done piecemeal. “
It’s a comfortable and familiar situation for Bell, who recalled a “bubble chart” that Toyota Racing Development had when he first signed with the organization and ultimately transitioned from the USAC midget ranks with the manufacturer to NASCAR’s marquee series.
“It’s the pinnacle of motorsports in the United States of America,’’ Bell said. “If you talk to anybody, any kid, their dream, if they dream of racing, is to run in the Cup Series of NASCAR.
“It’s a dream come true for me.’’