On Sunday afternoon, 25-year-old Christopher Bell climbed into the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota Camry to compete in NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.
It marked the start of what is expected to be a long and successful career for Bell in this country’s most popular form of auto racing.
It is also the latest step in a journey that has already exceeded Bell’s wildest dreams, as the Norman, Okla., racer has progressed from micro sprint star to rising NASCAR sensation.
“Honestly, for me, my goal as a kid was to be able to make a living driving race cars. And growing up in Oklahoma, I never really thought NASCAR was a possibility,” Bell told SPEED SPORT. “I didn’t ever think going to NASCAR was an option. The World of Outlaws was the pinnacle, yeah, that’s what my dream was. I was under the impression that getting to the World of Outlaws would be difficult. I figured USAC or ASCS was more of a realistic option and the World of Outlaws was the ultimate goal. Then once I got hired to compete in USAC, I obviously learned that NASCAR was a possibility and here we are today.”
Bell’s passion for racing was ignited when a family friend took him to a local dirt track.
“They took me to the races, actually the micro sprint races there in Oklahoma, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Bell explained. “I raced micro sprints from the age of 6 until I was 16. When I was 15 and 16, we started traveling quite a bit. We ran a lot of the POWRi races in Illinois and we went to Pennsylvania a couple years. I was driving for Darren Ruston at the time.”
Bell was racing a micro sprint and a midget for Ruston when he got his big break. His on-track performance caught the attention of car owners Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby, and they hired the youngster to drive one of their potent USAC midgets.
“I got hired by a USAC team, Keith Kunz Motorsports, and they are sponsored by Toyota,” Bell said about the beginning of his NASCAR journey. “I actually raced against Kyle Larson, who was KKM’s driver at the time, and we were parked beside them a couple of nights. I caught their attention and once Larson moved on; I was the guy. It was a lot of pressure that’s for sure. I don’t think anyone expected me to be able to live up to Larson’s accomplishments, not saying that I did, but I don’t think anybody expected me to and I’m just fortunate to have had the success I’ve had.”
Bell captured the 2013 USAC National Midget Series championship with KKM and soon began to broaden his horizons, also racing sprint cars and, eventually, asphalt late models.
With guidance and support from Toyota, Bell made his NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series debut in 2015. He won seven races during two full seasons and claimed the 2017 championship with Kyle Busch Motorsports before advancing to the next step on Toyota’s developmental ladder.
Bell became a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, and he won 16 times in 74 series starts.
“If it wasn’t for Toyota I wouldn’t be here today. Toyota has given me this opportunity and they are the reason I’m where I’m at,” Bell said. “I remember back whenever we first got together and I actually met with Jack Irving (senior manager, commercial director for TRD) and Tyler Gibbs (vice president and general manager for TRD) and we talked about the plan.
“I remember they sent me a bubble chart and that was back at the very beginning of best-case scenario, after this we go late model racing, best-case scenario we go Truck (Series) racing, worst-case scenario, we stay truck racing,” Bell continued. “It would be really cool to see that bubble chart, I’m sure it’s floating around in an email somewhere, to see how true it all came six years later. I thought it was realistic that I could get to Cup whenever I started in the USAC ranks with them, as long as I performed, but then as you make every step, it gets harder and harder and harder.”
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