LAS VEGAS – With his current career progression, it seems likely that Christopher Bell will advance to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and link up with Joe Gibbs Racing at some point in the near future.
However, if Gibbs’ past deals with his Cup Series stars are any indication, that graduation may come at the expense of some of the dirt-track races Bell passionately returns to drive in any time he can.
Bell has frequently moonlighted in sprint cars and midgets over the past few seasons, even as he’s become one of the top NASCAR prospects in the garage area. Much of that has come with the support of Toyota Racing development, which launched Bell’s career into superstardom back in 2013.
That year, Bell won the USAC National Midget Series title while driving for Toyota-backed powerhouse Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports. Since then, he’s gone on to win more than 50 races and three Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals crowns for KKM and Toyota.
Bell has also captured a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship under the Toyota banner, and was a seven-time winner in his rookie Xfinity Series season last year with JGR.
Needless to say, Toyota doesn’t want Bell to get away in the same fashion that Kyle Larson did.
But a Cup Series drive under Coach Gibbs’ watch has come with limits in the past. Gibbs reigned in Tony Stewart’s dirt escapades in the early and mid-2000s, while he has also been reluctant to consider allowing current superstar Kyle Busch to pursue a drive in the Indianapolis 500, something Busch wants to chase.
That means that Bell will eventually have to open those discussions himself, something he jokingly tried to hide from when the question was brought up by reporters on Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Shhhhhhh,” Bell said with a smile.
Regardless, that conversation will eventually come, and it’s one that means a lot to Toyota’s young star.
“It’s definitely really important to me,” Bell said. “I think Larson has opened eyes and been vocal that it makes him a better stock car racer. It’s one thing that I’m really high on, too. I go out there and race more, and I feel like it makes me a better race car driver. That was one of those things that I really struggled with in 2016 in my first Truck year.
“There was a 23-race Truck Series schedule. I think I only got to do 10-15 dirt races. I didn’t race enough,” Bell recalled. “I feel like I get rusty and not as sharp if I don’t race enough. For me, coming into this weekend, I just got done running two World of Outlaws sprint car events with 900-horsepower sprint cars. Then, when I go (back) into a stock car, everything just slows down.
“That makes me better in the Xfinity Series.”
Bell’s extra starts have certainly proven to help him so far. He currently leads the Xfinity Series standings after winning last week at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway, and Bell sits eighth in World of Outlaws points, having attempted all four events that the series has run so far this season.
In fact, Bell was as high as second in Outlaw points before missing Thursday night’s feature in Las Vegas.
The Norman, Okla., native started Florida Speedweeks by racing the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park with Swindell SpeedLab in the No. 39, then picked up a ride with Baughman Reutzel Motorsports early this week to run at The Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Fitting a sixth at Daytona Int’l Speedway and last week’s Atlanta win in between those two outings was expected by Bell. He believes the uptick in performance is directly related.
“Racing more makes me better,” Bell said. “If you talk to basketball players or football players, I’m sure they are out there tossing a football around or shooting hoops somewhere. We’re in a unique sport where we can’t just practice during the week. Any time I get to go race other race cars, it makes me better.”
Written into Bell’s friend and rival Kyle Larson’s contract with Chip Ganassi Racing is a provision that allows Larson to run roughly 25 dirt-track races throughout the season.
That’s something Bell would like to have in his deal if and when he does make it to the Cup level himself.
Only time will tell how everything shakes out, but one thing is sure right now: Bell is enjoying life.
“With me being able to race other races, it helps me for sure. I am living my dream right now,” he noted. “I am able to race at a professional level and drive for Coach Gibbs, which is outstanding. I also get to run my dirt races every now and then, so I am living my dream and loving life.
“I’m having a blast and wouldn’t have it any other way.”