Uncharacteristically, Christopher Bell Is Using the Offseason to Focus on New Cup Ride
- This year, for Christopher Bell, time away from the track means just that.
- Bell needs time to get acquainted with new crew chief Adam Stevens and his team.
- In Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, the 2020 rookie expects to be more competitive.
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After spending his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series with now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, Christopher Bell will move to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2021 season. To make room for Bell in the No. 20 Toyota, JGR gave Erik Jones his walking papers. Jones subsequently landed with Richard Petty Motorsports.
With one year’s experience and the promotion to the top Toyota team, Bell expects to improve on his 2020 performance, which included just two top fives and seven top 10s in 36 points races. Between seasons, Bell is taking the steps necessary to make that happen.
Uncharacteristically, Bell Hasn’t Been Racing on Dirt During the Offseason
In a typical December and January, you’d find Christopher Bell racing midgets on dirt tracks in New Zealand, as he prepares for the January Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But 2020, of course, has been anything but typical. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, New Zealand has been closed to outside visitors, and Bell has more important things to do as he transitions to Joe Gibbs Racing.
As a rookie, Bell got a pass at Leavine Family Racing, but his move to top-of-the-line equipment at JGR naturally will boost expectations for the talented 26-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma. As he focuses on the task ahead of him, Bell hasn’t driven a race car since the Nov. 8 Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
It’s definitely been good to have this downtime. I’m sure you’ve been paying attention. I haven’t been racing at all. I haven’t been in a car since Phoenix. I’ve been focusing on getting to (know) and just being around the new 20 group. I’ve spent a lot of time with (crew chief) Adam (Stevens), just building that relationship with him and get more comfortable around each other. It’s been good so far. I would say we have a little ways to go, but that always gets sped up once you start racing, because you’re right in the thick of things, and you’re dealing with each other more on a business level.
Before Bell gets into the thick of things on asphalt, he will race in the Chili Bowl, which he won three straight times before Kyle Larson broke his streak last January.
Getting Comfortable with His New Team Is of Paramount Importance to Bell
In many ways, working with a new team in NASCAR racing is just like starting over. When a driver provides feedback about the handling of his race car, the crew chief must understand precisely what he means in order to make the proper adjustments. That takes time.
Fortunately, Bell will work with Stevens, who called the shots from the pit box for Kyle Busch during championship seasons in 2015 and 2019. After a disappointing 2020 campaign that produces only one victory, Busch and Stevens split—to Bell’s benefit. But getting acquainted with an entirely new crew won’t happen overnight.
So, it’s Adam and all the mechanics from (Kyle Busch’s) 18 car, minus the car chief, that is the 20 group. The pit crew stayed with Kyle, so we have a new pit crew, but as far as all of the mechanics, engineers and Adam Stevens, they all came from the 18 car, with a car chief change. So the majority of the group is the 18 group from last year minus the car chief and pit crew.”
By the time the Daytona 500 rolls around in February, Bell should be able to remember most of their names.
Expectations Are Elevated with Promotion to Joe Gibbs Racing Stable
Bell was one of six drivers competing for rookie-of-the-year honors in 2020, but Cole Custer earned the award as the only rookie to score a victory during the season. Bell’s best finish of the year was a third at Texas Motor Speedway in October, one of only two top-five results he achieved.
In 2020, Bell attended competition meetings with the other Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, given that Leavine was a JGR affiliate. That aspect, at least, won’t be unfamiliar. But in his transition to Cup, Bell got a rude awakening.
I knew that the field was tougher. I knew there was a lot more capable drivers and cars, but just getting a feel for the depth of the series—that’s something that nobody can really prepare you for. My eye-opener was Vegas 1 of last year, what I call the first race of the year outside of Daytona. I expected to have a top-15 day, maybe compete for a top-10.
Instead, Bell finished 33rd, 10 laps down.
“That was eye-opening, like, wow, it’s pretty easy to be outside of the top-15 and for me, it was easy to be outside of the top-20. I didn’t expect the depth that the Cup Series actually has.”
Bell finished 20th in the final series standings this year. In 2021, that won’t be good enough—by a long shot.
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]