Christopher Bell returning to Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry next season might have seemed like a no-brainer to many outsiders. But Bell said there was a time when he was “pretty scared” that he wasn’t going to be able to continue to his relationship with Toyota.
Leavine Family Racing realized a few weeks ago that its Cup team was becoming financially unviable, and on August 4, Bob Leavine announced the sale of his operation. By Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing and Erik Jones had confirmed that they’ll split after this season, and yesterday, Bell was named the next driver of the No. 20 Toyota.
Jones had felt he was making good progress in negotiating an extension, and Bell admitted that the situation is somewhat uncomfortable. While he’s happy to have a job, he acknowledged that Toyota has been just as big of a supporter of Jones as they have him, and Bell didn’t envy the position Gibbs found itself in.
“I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box,” said Bell. “But there was a time period a couple of weeks ago that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to continue my Toyota Racing relationship and I was pretty scared by that, just because they’ve been the centerpiece of basically my career, whether that’s NASCAR racing or dirt racing.
“I didn’t want that to end. I am extremely grateful I get to continue that relationship and continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD… for years to come.”
Leavine has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs. In his rookie Cup Series season, Bell is working with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, with whom he was paired while racing for Gibbs in the Xfinity Series. Since signing Bell to a development deal, Toyota has mapped out his path forward and took the dirt racer into pavement racing where he became a Truck Series champion, a contender in the Xfinity Series, and brokered the deal for Bell to get into the Leavine car.
Toyota intended to build a long-term relationship with the Leavine team, and for Bell to be in the car for a few seasons. When the future of Leavine became clear, Bell became worried because he only saw two options.
“It’s either the 20 car, or I’m done with Toyota,” said Bell. “There’s no other option. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end, and for me, a little bit it was like if I can’t be with Toyota, is my NASCAR career going to be over because they’re the ones who got me basically everything? I knew that once LFR shut down that there was only one place for me to go, and the 20 has a great driver in it right now, so how is that going to work? How am I going to go to JGR when they’re full?
“My homecoming was at the expense of another driver, which is unfortunate, but I’m grateful for the opportunity. Hopefully, I can prove to everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing I’m capable of being in the 20 car for the rest of my career.”
Bell has five top-10 finishes this year and is 19th in the standings.