HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – For Christopher Bell, Monday’s announcement that he will join Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series next year was about much more than just job security.
Bell’s new deal marks a culmination of his journey with Toyota, the pinnacle of the manufacturer’s reach in American motorsports and the planned summit of the mountain from the time the pair’s relationship began.
From winning a USAC national midget title with Keith Kunz Motorsports in 2013 to now preparing to step into a factory-backed Cup car with JGR, Bell has had the support of Toyota from the very start of his professional racing career.
“I remember sitting in Pete Willoughby’s (KKM partner) office in 2013 when this all came together, or all was just starting,” Bell recalled Tuesday, speaking to SPEED SPORT during a national teleconference. “I had meetings with Jack Irving (TRD) and Tyler Gibbs (TRD) and all the people at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). The whole goal was to see if I was capable of being a Cup driver, and if I was going to be a future Toyota driver.
“When you looked at the Toyota stable, I’m pretty sure Michael Waltrip was (still) around back then, so it was either MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) or JGR. Obviously, shortly after that, it turned into JGR or that was it, for the Toyota teams anyway,” Bell continued. “We were fortunate to get Leavine Family Racing to give me a place to be for the time being, which I’m very grateful for that, but we all knew that JGR was where we wanted to be (eventually). It’s crazy man. Absolutely crazy.
“To look at the path from USAC midgets to my stepping stones at Kyle Busch Motorsports … with late models and Trucks and then to get into the JGR Xfinity cars and then into a JGR house Cup car, it’s crazy how it all played out.”
Bell has won all 23 of his NASCAR national series races – 16 in the Xfinity Series and seven in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series – in Toyota vehicles, and he’s never made a NASCAR start for another manufacturer either.
But despite all that success, there was still a point before Bell’s deal came together where he was unsure what the future held – particularly after the sale of Leavine Family Racing was announced.
“Uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell noted of the proceedings, including the fact that Erik Jones was jettisoned in order to make room for him at JGR. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR (Leavine Family Racing) deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. There was a time period a couple weeks ago that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to continue my Toyota relationship and I was pretty scared by that.
“They (Toyota) have been my centerpiece of my career, whether that’s been NASCAR racing or dirt racing. I didn’t want that to end,” Bell added. “I am very grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for – hopefully – a long time to come.”
Noting the fact that Jones has been a significant part of the Toyota family as well, Bell also took a moment to nod to his quasi-teammate as well.
“It was very bittersweet when I found out the news,” said Bell of replacing Jones. “I was really happy for myself, but at the same time, just as Toyota has been a huge part of my career; Toyota has been a huge part of Erik’s too. It was a tough spot. I didn’t envy Coach Joe Gibbs at all. He had to make an extremely tough decision on what he wanted to do.
“Fortunately, it worked out for me, but I understand that it’s a very hard situation and I did have a lot of remorse for Erik because he has kind of been a guy that I have followed up through the same path and he has been along with Toyota just like me.”
Looking toward the future, Bell expressed relief that his future is now secure and that he can turn his focus back to the task at hand: trying to finish the year strong with Leavine Family Racing, and then chasing victories with Joe Gibbs Racing when the new season rolls around.
“It’s really rewarding to be able to know that I have a job for next year,” Bell noted. “Obviously, things were kind of up in the air there for a minute with the whole Leavine situation, but I’m very grateful that I get to continue my partnership with Toyota.
“I think everybody on this call knows that Toyota has been a huge part of my entire career, and I’m very, very grateful that I get to continue that relationship.”