Christopher Bell is used to pressure. This season, that’s magnified as the 26-year-old is slotted into the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
The 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion is also accustomed to winning. He’s captured 23 trophies between the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series from 2015 to 2019. But the adjustment to the Nascar Cup Series hasn’t been easy.
“Frustrating is a good way to describe it,” Bell said of adjusting to the sport’s premier division. “There’s no reason why we can’t be competing upfront week-in and week-out. I’m at Joe Gibbs Racing, I’m driving for one of the premier organizations in the sport, Adams Stevens is a championship-winning crew chief and all of our [No. 20] team is a championship-caliber team. There’s no reason you won’t see us running upfront more often.”
Bell took over Gibbs’ famed No. 20 car, previously driven by Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones, at the start of this year. He picked up his first career Cup Series win in the second race of the season at the Daytona International Speedway road course.
The relief of winning and clinching a spot into the Nascar postseason is allowing Bell to learn the ins and outs of JGR after working for Leavine Family Racing in 2020.
“It’s definitely been a big change of pace from last year at LFR,” Bell said. “But I’d say it’s very similar to the Xfinity side that I was accustomed to at Gibbs. Going from the Xfinity side at Gibbs to LFR was night and day different. Then, going from LFR to JGR on the Cup side was different. I love being at JGR and I hope to be here for many years to come.”
Fortunately for Bell, he doesn’t have to worry about sponsorship or bringing funding to the table. His No. 20 car is backed by Rheem, SiriusXM and Stanley Black & Decker. That in of itself is a relief for the Oklahoma native.
But Bell needs to continue winning in order to secure his ride at Gibbs for years to come. Though the length of his contract is unknown, Jones, who was TRD’s first developmental talent, was bounced after just three years in Cup with JGR
Kyle Busch is signed with JGR through at least next year, as is Martin Truex Jr., while Denny Hamlin’s contract is good until at least 2023. But with team owner Joe Gibbs’ grandson Ty Gibbs working his way through the rankings, each of the four drivers must race with pressure on their shoulders.
The one potential opening at Gibbs, though, is Truex’s seat. The 2017 Cup Series champion said he will determine when he will retire once he evaluates the Next Gen car, which means Bell should be safe either way.
“Definitely a lot, but no more than I would be at any other team,” Bell said of the pressure he puts on himself. “That’s me growing up as a 6-year-old going to the racetrack and now a 26-year-old professional at the highest level of American motor sports. The pressure is the same to go out there and perform. I want to go out there, win and do well. I want to make everybody who supports me proud.”
Now, as Bell looks to seal his legacy early on just like Stewart in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he is determined to turn his campaign around and compete for a title this year.
The No. 20 team struggled throughout the first half of the season, only earning six top 10s in 18 races. But his last race out at Road America is a turning point, he explained, finishing second, earning his first top five since Richmond Raceway in April.
“The last several weeks have been a step in the right direction,” Bell said. “We have a couple of more steps to make for sure. It would be nice to get another win and get some more bonus points heading into the playoffs.
“Once the playoffs start, I’m cautiously optimistic because a lot of the playoff tracks are ones we’ve run well at in the beginning of the year. I’m really looking forward to getting back to Darlington, Richmond and Martinsville. There’s some tracks we’re really good at, and the Charlotte ROVAL will be another great racetrack for us. I think we’ll have opportunities to win and advance further into the playoffs.”
Stanley Black & Decker’s Craftsman brand, which has been on Bell’s No. 20 Toyota twice this year, is dedicating its Atlanta Motor Speedway to the Ace Hardware Foundation. The bright red and orange car will have an outer space theme to it once it hits the track this weekend, boasting a design created by four special kids.
Bell said, “We have four drawings on the car from Elijah, Parker, John and Ella. I got to meet all four of them, and they’re going to be honorary pit crew members this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway. I’m excited to see them and their families at the track this week. The car looks amazing, and this is an amazing program that’s donated a lot of money.
“I’m fortunate to be able to drive it. I remember competing against it last year and seeing it in the past. It would make me really happy to go to Victory Lane with it on Sunday.”
This is the 15th straight year that Stanley Black & Decker is running a paint scheme for the Ace Hardware Foundation. On Thursday, Bell paid a visit to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Center for Advanced Pediatrics, where Craftsman and the Ace Foundation announced another $100,000 donation to support the vital work of Children’s Miracle Network hospitals. And he virtually met the four amazing kids before greeting them in person at the track this weekend.
“I’m just really fortunate to be where I’m at, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing with Stanley Black & Decker with Craftsman on the car this week,” he said. “It’s cool they take the time to put this on, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
In two Cup starts at Atlanta, Bell has a best finish of 18th.