CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (August 11, 2020) – Christopher Bell was made available to media via videoconference after yesterday’s announcement confirming his move to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season:
What are your feelings knowing your plans for next year?
"Yeah, just a lot less stress. It’s really rewarding to be able to know that I have a job for next year. Obviously, things were kind of up in the air there for a minute with the whole Leavine situation, but I’m very grateful that I get to continue my partnership with Toyota. I think everybody on this call knows that Toyota has been a huge part of my entire career, and I’m very, very grateful that I get to continue that relationship."
Is there any sort of uncomfortable feelings with how this came together?
"It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it. I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR (Leavine Family Racing) deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. There was a time period a couple weeks ago that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to continue my Toyota relationship and I was pretty scared by that. Just because, they have been my centerpiece of my career, whether that be NASCAR racing or dirt racing. I didn’t want that to end. I am very grateful that – I know I already said that once – but I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come."
You are going into proven equipment. How excited are you to know you are getting into winning cars?
"It’s going to be pretty awesome. I have a great relationship with all the people at Joe Gibbs Racing from the Xfinity side. It’s been really cool, because whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there. I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home, so to speak, and compete with Joe Gibbs Racing."
Are you lobbying to get Jason Ratcliff to come with you to Joe Gibbs Racing?
"We haven’t talked about it at all so it’s really all up in the air right now. Obviously, Jason (Ratcliff) has been a huge part of my NASCAR career, ever since I got out of trucks, he’s been my team leader. I would love to continue the relationship with him, but we haven’t talked about it at all. I don’t really think anybody knows exactly what’s going to happen yet."
How do you deal with the messy aspect of this situation with Erik Jones now looking for a ride? How do you handle that?
"I feel like I perform better under pressure and under stressful situations. Whenever money is on the line, I feel like I perform my best and I’ve been racing for my job the last couple weeks, ever since it’s been known that LFR was going out of business. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to land, but it worked out really good for me. I’m really glad that it did. I understand that I’ve got a lot more to do to prove myself in this sport. That’s what I’m focused on. I want to prove to you Bob (Pockrass, Fox Sports) that I can win on Sundays."
You have the Daytona Road Course this weekend. What are your expectations?
"So, it’s my first ever road course race in a Cup car. Typically, it would have been Sonoma, which is the first road course race on the schedule. I would be at a huge disadvantage there, because I have no laps, no experience, but in this case, nobody has laps on this race track except a couple guys who may have run sportscar on it. I don’t know exactly what to think. I guess, I’m looking at it optimistically. I’m not at as big of a disadvantage if we were going to Sonoma, so that’s pretty cool. As far as the chicane, nobody really knows what to think. My number one goal is going to be to keep it on the race track. That’s obviously a huge goal for any road course, but especially going to a brand-new road course with no practice laps. It’s going to be tough to do. My goal is to try to manage this weekend, get to the checkered flag, make sure I have all of the fenders on it and then go after Dover really hard, because I know that’s a place I’m really comfortable at and should be a good race for me."
How do you manage the relationship with Erik Jones due to the unique nature of how this deal came together?
"That’s a great point. Honestly, it was very bittersweet when I found out the news. I was really happy for myself, but at the same time, just as Toyota has been a huge part of my career; Toyota has been a huge part of Erik’s too. It was a tough spot. I didn’t envy Coach Joe Gibbs at all. He had to make an extremely tough decision on what he wanted to do. Fortunately, it worked out for me, but I understand that it’s a very hard situation and I did have a lot of remorse for Erik because he has kind of been a guy that I have followed up through the same path and he has been along with Toyota just like me."
I’m assuming you have had some simulator time at this point for the Daytona Road Course. With the chicane, how do you enter pit road? It looks like it will be very tight, especially under green flag conditions.
"I’ll be honest, I haven’t even thought about that until you mentioned it, but you are right. It’s right there before you get on pit road. So, you will take the left off of the race track, I guess, and now that you say this, I need to practice this in the simulator for my upcoming session this week. So, you go left off the track, and then you have to back right on the track, and then I guess it will be a hard left right back to pit road. There’s definitely going to be the opportunity to get rear-ended there when you’re peeling back off of the race track. I honestly haven’t even thought about that until you said that. I definitely need to work on that and make sure I get practice runs in the simulator."
Does this feel like a culmination of everything from you with your relationship from Toyota – starting at the grassroots level and now working your way to the Cup Series with Joe Gibbs Racing?
"Absolutely. I remember sitting in Pete Willoughby’s (partner, Keith Kunz Motorsports) office in 2013 when this all came together, or all was just starting. I had meetings with Jack Irving (TRD) and Tyler Gibbs (TRD) and all the people at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). The whole goal was to see if I was capable of being a Cup driver, and if I was going to be a future Toyota driver. You looked at the Toyota stable, and I’m pretty sure Michael Waltrip was around back then, so it was either MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) or JGR. Obviously, shortly after that, it turned into JGR or that was it, for the Toyota teams. We were fortunate to get Leavine Family Racing to give me a place to be for the time being, which I’m very grateful for that, but we all knew that JGR was where we wanted to be. It’s crazy man. Absolutely crazy, to look at the path from USAC Midgets to my stepping stones at Kyle Busch Motorsports with late models and Trucks and then to get into the JGR Xfinity cars and then into a JGR house Cup car, it’s crazy how it all played out."
Does joining JGR make it easier or harder to race at the grassroots level?
"That’s a great question. I don’t know how it’s going to affect my dirt racing. We haven’t really talked about it other than the fact that I’m going to be at JGR next year. I don’t really have a great answer for your there on what my dirt schedule is going to look like."
Do you think Erik (Jones) is going to race you harder for the rest of the season?
"That’s a good question. I don’t know. I know that everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and myself included, we want to see Erik land on his feet somewhere. As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward. I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well."
How nerve-wracking was it for you when you found out LFR was shutting down and the No. 20 at JGR might be available?
"It was just scary. I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here. They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to truck racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end. For me, a little bit, it was like, ‘If I can’t be with Toyota, is my NASCAR career going to be over?’ They’re the ones that have gotten me basically everything. I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now. How is that going to work? How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full? Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver. It’s very unfortunate, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and hopefully I can prove to everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing that I’m capable of being in the 20 car for the rest of my career."
What’s the current vibe at LFR?
"I was really worried about it honestly. The team notified me a little bit before they did their announcement and I was scared. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know how this is going to affect the team moral.’ It’s all an effort to compete at this level and I was really happy at Michigan, which was the first race that the guys prepared the car after they got notified. We went to Michigan and had one of our best cars that we’ve had all year. That gives me a lot of hope moving forward for the remainder of this year to be able to compete for wins. We have a lot of details that we need to clean up before we’re ready to win a race, but Michigan was definitely a strong sign that we still have all the pieces of the puzzle if we can just put them together and everyone does their job. Maybe we’ll have a shot."
Were you truly scared to not have a ride if the No. 20 deal didn’t come through?
"The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it. It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to exceed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’ I’m glad I don’t have to go out and be a free agent."
What have you seen with Tucker Boat Motorsports and what do you think the future looks like for that team?
"Chad’s (Boat) become one of my best friends and it’s been really cool to see him turn from race car driver to team owner, team manager, crew chief, all of the above. He’s done a great job with it. Now it’s basically turned from him racing with his Dad to him owning a powerhouse team on the USAC schedule. He’s done a great job and it’s been really cool to see his drivers step up. Right now they’ve got Chris Windham leading the USAC points, which is a huge opportunity for Tucker Boat Motorsports. Hopefully, they’re able to continue on and get great drivers in the future. Maybe join the Toyota driver development deal where he’s able to groom some drivers along KKM."
Do you think Tucker Boat Motorsports is at the top in USAC right now?
"They’re doing good. I think Chad’s (Boat) got great drivers with Chris Windham and Andrew Layser. It’s been fun to watch. I think his cars are driving really good, he’s been working really hard on getting his cars better on different style race tracks. You’ve seen over the course of the years that Chad has his tracks where he’s really good at, but then he’s had his tracks where he’s struggled at too. He’s working on his struggle points to get his cars better where they will go good everywhere. They’re definitely headed in the right direction."
Was there any discussion with any other race teams?
"I guess I’m not really the best person to ask for that because nobody informed me of another option or another team out there. I was not notified of another team."
How much is the new method of determining the starting lineup embraced by you and your team?
"Well, it came about a month too late. How ironic is it now, I’m finally in the top-24 in points so I would have been in that next bracket, which would have been all I could have asked for. It’s nice regardless of what happens now, at least I have the opportunity to prove my starting spot instead of just a random draw so that’s good. It’s just been so frustrating and finally at Michigan there, I got to start inside the top-10 and it’s so much easier. Everyone says these cars are hard to pass and I was able to move from my eighth starting spot and get into second in the first stage. Every single week instead of going from eighth to second, I’m starting 35th and I’m lucky to get into the top-20. You have to do so many different tricks and strategies to get up to the front whenever you start that far back. It was nice to be able to start up front at Michigan in that second race and now hopefully, well, I understand if we don’t finish well we’re going to start in the back again. At least we get to race for our starting spots now so I am happy about that."
How much of a risk were you taking starting in the back of the field?
"For me, being a rookie and going to these race tracks with no practice, I would not drive hard. I would take it easy and we would have competition cautions at the beginning of the races so whenever they would drop the green flag, I would use that opportunity to learn the car, learn what I have and not make a mistake and crash. You would get the guys like the professionals in the sport that have been around for so long, they’re able to just blow by all the slower cars back there where, am I capable of doing that? I think so, but at the same time, I don’t want to make a mistake and crash on lap five of a 500-mile race. I don’t have that opportunity of or I haven’t taken advantage of that opportunity of blowing by everybody on the start when they’re going slow because I don’t want to make a mistake. I think whenever I start further up front, I’m going to be able to learn off of those guys and I’m not going to have to pass as many cars. Hopefully, it will be an improvement."
Do you still do any iRacing and does it help you?
"Honestly, I haven’t fired up my computer for a while now. I think that’s been the case for a lot of us. Definitely come November and December time, that sucker is going to be on all the time and maybe you’ll see me in there racing with you."
— Toyota Racing —