Christopher Bell’s future in the NASCAR Cup Series garage, at least for the 2021 season, is now secure. Though recent moves in the annual ‘Silly Season’ swirl may have telegraphed Bell’s jump to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota, the 25-year-old driver says the uncertainty while waiting for the scenarios to play out was real.
Bell was announced Monday as the newest driver of the No. 20, transitioning from JGR affiliate Leavine Family Racing, which announced Aug. 4 that it would close at season’s end. Add to the uncertainty a dose of awkwardness: He replaces Erik Jones, another young talent who traveled to the Cup Series through the Toyota Racing Development pipeline, in a business move that Bell described as “uncomfortable.”
“Honestly, it was very bittersweet whenever I found the news,” Bell said Tuesday morning in a video conference. “I was really happy for myself, but at the same time just as Toyota’s been a huge part of my career, Toyota’s been a huge part of Erik’s, too. So it was a tough spot, man, and I didn’t envy Coach Joe Gibbs at all because he had to make an extremely tough decision on what he wanted to do, and unfortunately there’s just … fortunately it worked out for me, but I understand it is a very hard situation and I did have a lot of remorse for Erik. He’s kind of been a guy I followed up through the same path and he’s been along with Toyota just like me.”
JGR informed Jones on Aug. 6 that he would not return. That news came two days after word that Leavine’s No. 95 team — citing an economic slowdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic — would cease operations.
For Bell, those developments left him with seemingly few options for 2021 with Joe Gibbs Racing’s lineup, which is otherwise stacked with defending series champ Kyle Busch and veterans Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. It wasn’t until recent days that Bell’s stress was relieved.
“It was just scary, man,” Bell said. “I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota … they’re the ones who got me here. They’re the ones who took me from dirt-track racing to pavement racing to truck racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR, too. And at the time, it’s either 20 car or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other option, so it was very scary. I didn’t want that to end. For me a little bit, it was like, if I can’t do that with Toyota, is my NASCAR career going to be over, because they’re the ones who have gotten me basically everything.
“I knew that once LFR shut down there was only one place for me to go, and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in it right now, so how’s that going to work? How am I going to be able to go to JGR when they’re full? So unfortunately, my homecoming was at the expense of another driver, so it’s very unfortunate, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and hopefully I can prove to everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing that I’m capable of being in the 20 car for the rest of my career.”
Left undetermined in Monday’s announcement was who will be paired with Bell as the No. 20 crew chief next year. Chris Gayle has been partnered with Jones for the last four seasons, a tenure that includes Jones’ transitional rookie year with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. Veteran Jason Ratcliff has been paired with Bell for the last three seasons — two with Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Xfinity Series team, a combo that yielded 15 wins, and the current Cup Series campaign with LFR.
For now, Bell said he’s uncertain who will be atop his pit box next year.
“We haven’t talked about it at all, so it’s really all up in the air right now, but obviously, Jason’s been a huge part of my NASCAR career,” Bell said. “Ever since I got out of trucks, he’s been I guess my team leader, so I would love to continue the relationship with him, but we haven’t talked about it at all, so I don’t really think anybody knows exactly what’s going to happen yet.”
While Bell has some of the pressure relieved for next season, he says he’s still motivated to finish out the year strong in Leavine Family Racing’s swan song. Bell said he was struck by some initial concern about the team’s drive to do the same, knowing that its time in the sport was drawing to a close. An element of resolution came less than an hour after Bell’s teleconference, with Spire Motorsports’ announcement that it had completed a deal to purchase LFR’s assets and its NASCAR charter for 2021.
Bell’s season with LFR endured a sluggish start, with two DNFs and four finishes outside the top 20 before the COVID-19 outbreak halted the sport’s schedule from mid-March until mid-May. The team’s performance has methodically improved since, with Bell netting five top-10 finishes. Showing some encouraging speed during last weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway helped to temper any possible apprehension for Bell.
“I was really worried about it, honestly, because the team notified me a little bit before they did their announcement, and I was scared,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know how this is going to affect the team morale,’ because it’s all-in. It’s all-in effort to compete at this level, and I was really happy at Michigan, which was the first race that the guys prepared the car after they got notified, that we went to Michigan and had one of our best cars that we’ve had all year. So that gives me a lot of hope moving forward for the remainder of this year to be able to compete for wins.
“We have a lot of details that we need to clean up before we win a race, but Michigan was definitely a strong sign that we still have all the pieces of the puzzle if we can just put them together and everyone does their job, maybe we’ll have a shot.”