“Winning always helps your confidence. Confidence makes you to be a better race car driver,” Christopher Bell told me on Thursday morning. Well, his confidence is booming with pride right now as he heads to this weekend’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. But, prior to his win last Sunday in Daytona, confidence isn’t something Bell had a lot of built up.
It took a lot of soul searching for this second year NASCAR Cup Series driver to get to this point that he’s in right now. His triumph in last Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 was big in a number of ways for a number of people. For Bell personally, it was huge to just get his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory out of the way. He was 0-for-38 prior.
But, to do so at the time that he did it, well this win couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It was a low point in my career for sure,” Bell said of last year’s disappointing season. “You start doubting yourself. I’m a winner, so I’m on top of the world but last year, it wasn’t looking good for me.”
See, Bell has been a winner in literally everything that he’s ever driven. He’s had three Chili Bowl’s triumphs, multiple Turkey night victories and a Midget championship on his march up through the ranks. Then, the Oklahoma native won in just his third ever Truck Series start in a part time role in 2015. He was full time in 2016 and again in 2017 with Kyle Busch Motorsports to where he made the Championship 4 in each season. He won six times those two years including being the champion in ’17.
That allowed him to graduate up to JGR in NXS. But, in 2017, he ran limited races in the series and it only took him seven starts to win there too. 2018 and 2019 he was full time with JGR to where he also made the Championship 4 each year then too. He’d win 15 times in 66 races.
With a midget championship, three Chili Bowl’s, a Truck Series title, 4 Championship 4 appearances in as many years and 23 combined wins in Truck and Xfinity Series competition, it was time to move up to a Cup opportunity. It’s time for the pinnacle of his career and all his dreams to come around.
Without anywhere to go with JGR for Cup in 2020 though, Toyota had to house him at Leavine Family Racing. While the resources were similar to JGR, LFR was still a small team without much past Cup success. Combine that with longer races than he’s been accustomed to, a different aero package, a tough starting spot for most races and no practice or qualifying for a majority of the season, well it forced a steep learning curve for his rookie campaign.
That all led to a low point of his career. Despite expectations from the outside being lower seeing that he was a rookie, Bell was always so used to running at the front, that all these struggles forced him to lack confidence.
On top of that, Bell told me on Thursday that getting over losing races is a weakness personally for him. He had 36 of them a year ago and each one stung a little more as the season wore on. He felt like last year that wasn’t getting any closer to victory lane and he wasn’t used to that. At least on the dirt track ranks, they ran several times a week. It’s easier to get over not winning there, because you’d have another race within the next few days.
In NASCAR, you have just one race a week. If you’re not winning on a consistent basis, it’s hard to get over those loses especially as they start to stack up because you have longer time between races.
“It’s tough man,” Bell told me about the 24 hour rule in sports. “That’s one thing that I’ve always struggled throughout my NASCAR career is you get only 1 race a week and growing up dirt track racing, I was accustomed to running 80 to 90 races a year. Whenever you have that type of a schedule, if you have a bad night, typically you’re either racing the next night or a couple nights later.
“On the NASCAR side, you’ve only got one opportunity then you’ve got to wait 7 days at best and if you have an off week, you’ve got to wait even longer than that. So that’s been a huge change from dirt racing to NASCAR which makes it amazing whenever you win because you get more time and you’re a winner longer. On the flip side, whenever you have bad days, you can’t wait for the next opportunity to come and race.
“As far as learning from the bad days and dropping them and forgetting about it, I’m not very good at that.”
That’s why it was so big to come out of the gates with a victory in just the second race of the season.
Big For Joe Gibbs Racing
But, it was also big to do so in just his second ever start with Joe Gibbs Racing on NASCAR’s top level too though too.
“I knew going to Joe Gibbs Racing that this is my time,” Bell said following his first career Cup win on Sunday. “I’m either going to put up or shut up. I’m very grateful for how it’s played out so far between the first two weeks.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to drive for the Coach, have all of our great partners. Those guys are who made it happen. I just want so bad to be in this No. 20 car for the rest of my career. I need to perform well to do that. I just got to stay after it.”
This car has struggled a bit as of late. Erik Jones won twice in it in three seasons. He missed the playoffs last year and was a first round exit in each of the two seasons prior. JGR made the touch choice to push Jones aside, despite bringing him up through the ranks and replace him with Bell.
So, for Bell to reward that difficult decision by Toyota and JGR by taking the No. 20 Toyota to victory lane in just their second start together in NASCAR’s premiere series was big for both sides.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “To have Christopher, everything that he kind of fought through last year and then to come back this year. When you think about it, Christopher got in that car last year and never made a lap and was going to racetracks. It was a lot to overcome. And he did show speed at a number of racetracks.
“It was great for him to get that victory. … To have Christopher already in the playoffs, it’s a big deal for us, for sure. It’s hard to do, put it that way.”
Bell said that it’s been a ton of fun just to win again anyways. It’s fun to be relevant again he noted and that he feels like he fell off the face of the earth last year.
Big Win For Toyota Too
That win last Sunday in Daytona was also big for the manufacturer too. Bell’s win made Toyota execs, including TRD President David Wilson, emotional. That’s because Bell is the first driver to start in the Toyota Racing Development ranks and make it all the way up to the Cup Series as a winner for them.
“He’s first development driver that came all the way from dirt to winning at the highest level of North American motorsports, and a big part of the reason he’s there is Toyota and because of the belief we put in him,” said Wilson. “His family does not have the resources, and that’s why we invest and will continue to invest.”
TRD has produced a ton of talent you see. They’ve got a rich supply of drivers that have worked their ways up through the ranks. The problem is, they haven’t had a ton of places to house them when they’ve been ready move up. The Xfinity Series rides are really just down to Joe Gibbs Racing. Same for in Cup. It’s a breeding ground for future Cup stars but it’s almost been that they’re breeding the future of NASCAR for other manufacturers.
That’s how they lost out on drivers like Kyle Larson, William Byron and Noah Gragson. All departed to Chevy deals. Bell, stayed the course though. He went from Midgets to some K&N action to Trucks to Xfinity then to Cup — all with Toyota’s backing.
He’s won on every step of the way too.
“Christopher Bell’s win on Sunday, for me, justifies every dollar we’ve spent,” Wilson continued. “Every hour we’ve spent. All the blood, sweat, and tears. Jackpot. That’s all it takes. You find one hope diamond, and all the hours of mining make it worthwhile.
“We had a great idea that Christopher was that kind of a talent, and so again, it’s extremely rewarding. I was delighted when he called out publicly Tyler Gibbs and Jack Irving, these are the architects of our driver development program. These are the guys that spend their Friday nights and Saturday nights at dirt tracks all across this country, working with these kids and talking to their families and working with teams like Keith Kunz and many, many others. So, I’m very personally proud and just delighted for Christopher. He’s a good kid.”
Bell noticed that too. He said this win has been so big, not only for him personally, but to see how much it meant to so many different people around him. From Wilson, to Tyler Gibbs to Jack Irving, to everyone on that Toyota side, it’s been really fun for him to see how much his win meant to them and so many different people he said.
“It hit me hard knowing how much it meant to so many different people,” Bell said.
With LFR closing their doors at season end last year, Toyota didn’t want to risk losing Bell like they did the others, so out went Jones and in came Bell. They took a driver who’s confidence was low but ability was as high as anyones.
That risk paid off. Bell is a Cup Series winner.