Christopher Bell has nowhere to go but up.
It came as no surprise when Bell admitted Thursday that 2020, his rookie NASCAR Cup Series season, did not go as he expected. Bell and Leavine Family Racing had hopes of winning a race for starters, but even if that didn’t happen, it would be OK considering it was his first season at the premier level.
But the numbers were disappointing, with Bell leading just 18 laps and earning seven top-10 finishes. He wound up 20th or worse in 20 of the season’s 36 races and 20th in the overall championship standings. The team’s struggles outweighed the sizzle.
“We expected to be more competitive than what we were and running up front more in the top 10, more in the top five than what we were,” said Bell. “Texas was a great race for us; we were a really competitive car at Texas, and I felt like I had a car capable of winning. (He finished third.) If we could have had more days like that, and we still didn’t win, I would have said it was a success. Unfortunately, we only had two of those days — at Texas and Pocono.
“There were a handful of races that I had cars that were capable of running in the top five and either I made a mistake, like (second) Pocono I spun out, or Indy we had a great car and I got damage on pit road early in the race. So, there were a handful of races we let slip by, but for the most part, we just weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be. We really struggled on pit road; that was a huge struggle for us, which put us behind the eight ball a lot. I feel like we had our hands tied a lot, and we couldn’t perform as we expected and wanted.”
Bell also went through the harsh realization that racing in the Cup Series is much different than what he was previously doing. While many can tell a driver there are many more capable drivers and cars in the Cup Series, genuinely grasping the field’s depth is not something one can prepare.
“My eye-opener was Las Vegas,” said Bell. “I expected to have a top-15 day, maybe compete for a top 10. Vegas is a good track for me as a race car driver. Joe Gibbs Racing won there with Martin Truex at the end of 2019, and all their cars were really good at the end of 2019, so I expected to have a top 10 and maybe compete for a top 10.
“And we go to Vegas, and I was running outside the top 20 and then all of a sudden, I look up in front of me and Denny [Hamlin], Kyle [Busch], Erik [Jones], I think Martin had a pretty good day, but they were outside the top 15 a couple cars in front of me, and that was eye-opening. Like, ‘Wow, it’s pretty easy to be outside the top 15,’ and for me, it was easy to be outside the top 20, and I didn’t expect the depth the Cup Series actually has.”
Now back in-house at Joe Gibbs Racing driving the No. 20 Toyota Camry, Bell keeps his expectations high. Truthfully, they are even higher for ’21, given having a better pit crew and being on a team that expects to have four championship-caliber cars.
Two-time champion crew chief Adam Stevens now calls the shots for Bell, and the team reshuffled. The pit crew stayed with Kyle Busch on the No. 18 team, but mechanics and engineers moved over with Stevens. Bell and Stevens have spent a lot of time getting comfortable around each other and building a relationship, and Bell knows that will speed up once the season starts and they are in the thick of competition.
“I feel like I’ve put in a lot of effort to be around Adam more, and hopefully, we can start good whenever we get back to racing,” said Bell.
The good news is that Bell’s second season in both the Truck and Xfinity Series were both improvements from the first.