Christopher Bell is taking the next step in his well-crafted career.
On Tuesday, Leavine Family Racing announced that the Toyota Racing Development driver will pilot the No. 95 Camry next year in the NASCAR Cup Series, with sponsorship support from both Rheem and Procore.
Bell, who currently leads the standings in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, also received his wish to have crew chief Jason Ratcliff accompany him on the journey.
“I’m really, really excited about making the next step here at LFR, and I’m hoping that we can get it kicked off on the right foot,” Bell said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “I think having Jason along beside me is going to be huge; it’s going to be a really big advantage having Jason with me.
“He’s a great crew chief. He’s got a lot of experience with veteran drivers, and we got to start our communication process in the Xfinity Series together, so there’s nobody else I’d rather go with than him.”
Bell’s potential was identified early by Toyota. The 24-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma, cut his teeth on dirt tracks throughout the Midwest before he was recruited by TRD in 2013. Bell went on to win the United States Auto Club (USAC) National Midget title that same year.
By 2015, TRD incorporated pavement racing into Bell’s training, including late models, K&N Pro Series and eventually trucks. In just his third start in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Bell returned to his dirt roots and won at Eldora Speedway.
As a rookie, Bell finished third in the 2016 truck standings. He kicked off the following season by winning his first of three Golden Drillers in the Chili Bowl Nationals with Keith Kunz Motorsports. In his second year on the truck tour, Bell won five races, five poles and posted a remarkable 5.7 average finish en route to the 2017 truck title. He also made his Xfinity debut and scored his first NXS win in his fifth start.
Bell was aligned with Ratcliff at Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2018 NXS season. With six races remaining on the schedule, Bell has already matched his record of seven wins and 18 top-five finishes. He’s one top 10 (19) and one pole (four) short of meeting last years totals. However, Bell has shaved four positions off of his average qualifying effort (4.1) and trimmed his average finish from 11.1 last year to his current 8.4.
Although Bell finished fourth in the 2018 NXS standings, he’s hoping to win the Xfinity title before graduating to Cup.
“Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing,” Bell said. “To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true.
“Having been under the JGR banner these past seasons in the Xfinity Series and with TRD for as long as I can remember, having their continued support as I transition to LFR is extremely comforting and will be a tremendous benefit to me. I can’t wait to close out this season in the Xfinity Series with a strong run, and I’m looking forward to the challenge that awaits in 2020.”
TRD is committed to providing Bell with the same caliber of resources—engines, technology, data and technical assistance—as his Toyota Cup teammates at JGR.
“TRD and Toyota have worked with Bell since his early dirt track career and we’ve been proud to see him work his way to NASCAR’s highest level,” said David Wilson, president of TRD. “Christopher is a special talent and we’re happy to have him winning races and championships in a Toyota.
“We look forward to seeing his continued growth and success at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. We’re also pleased with how the relationship between JGR and LFR has progressed during their first season working together. We’re confident this enhanced alliance for 2020 will continue to make them a threat for race wins week in and week out.”
Mike Wheeler, the current crew chief of the No. 95 Camry, will remain with LFR and ease into the role as Competition Director. Michael Leavine will transition to Vice President of Racing Operations.
“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” said Bob Leavine, LFR team founder and owner. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year.
“We’re certainly happy to continue to progress our relationship with both JGR and TRD as the technical partnership takes the next step forward.”
Bell is expected to make his Cup debut in the 2020 Daytona 500. Wilson said on Tuesday that the driver’s current primary concern is winning the Xfinity Series championship.
“Obviously, we can’t just go out and put Christopher in a Cup car as much as we’d love to, and go out testing,” Wilson said. “That’s not the way it works in our spot. We do have tools that will be made available to him once he finishes his business this year.”
With Bell racing on Sundays, it will also significantly cut into his open-wheel endeavors. But he’s prepared to make the sacrifice to achieve new goals on the Cup tour.
“I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit,” Bell said. “With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, it’s a little bit bigger than what the Xfinity cars are, and it’s going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series.
“It’s the pinnacle of motorsports in the United States of America. If you talk to anybody, any kid, their dream, if they dream of racing, is to run in the Cup Series in NASCAR. It’s a dream come true for me. I say it’s a dream come true for me, but whenever I was a kid in Oklahoma and I started dirt track racing, I didn’t see how it was possible to get there, just because I was a dirt track driver and that’s all I knew.
“I honestly didn’t think it was possible to get to the Cup Series, and now here I am today, and it’s just... it’s pretty surreal.”
Still, Leavine offered Bell the green light when it comes to open-wheel racing. He’s excited to see his young driver continue racing on dirt—and he has no plans to see Bell slow down.
“I’m excited for Christopher to continue sprint car racing,” Leavine said. “To take that away from someone who started like Christopher did and enjoys it so much, I can’t imagine.
“We’re excited that he still wants to and excited to see him win there. I think it’ll be contagious with his confidence level. It just absolutely does, when you win, you’re confident, and he will win in the sprint car series and we expect him to carry that forward in the Cup Series.”