NASCAR — 2017 truck series champion Christopher Bell ready to move to Xfinity series

NASCAR


Christopher Bell knows he has tremendous talent when he wheels a sprint car. He knows the feel that he wants and knows what he needs to do to get up front and stay up front.

It’s not that way yet when racing full-bodied stock vehicles. But his gradual improvement over the past two years in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series serves as a good sign that Toyota hasn’t wasted its time grooming him as one of its next NASCAR Cup stars.

Bell, 22, won the truck title in 2017, a year after advancing to the championship round at Homestead. He will leave the trucks and Kyle Busch Motorsports behind for the NASCAR Xfinity Series next season as he heads to Joe Gibbs Racing for a run at another NASCAR national series crown.

Bell, who already has an Xfinity Series win to his credit, celebrated his truck title by winning the prestigious Turkey Night midget race less than a week later at Ventura (California) Raceway. Capturing both the Turkey Night win and the Chili Bowl earlier this year (two of the biggest midget races on the calendar), he remains one of the hottest drivers in any form of motorsports.

He’s still learning, though, the whole stock-car thing. So having confidence is a work in progress.

“I’m getting there,” Bell said after winning the truck championship. “I’m not there completely. The pavement deal is very difficult, especially coming … to a place like Homestead where every lap your truck does something different or your car does something different.

“I think that’s just a product of me running on dirt for 16, 17 years now and only being on pavement for four years and having maybe 100 races total [on pavement] under my belt. I’m definitely gaining confidence as I go, but that’s going to take a lot of time.”

Bell, who was lauded on Dec. 9 along with the Xfinity Series champion William Byron at the annual awards ceremony for both series, is following a path set by Toyota-backed drivers Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez.

But the difference is that both Jones and Suarez had stock car roots. Bell is the first Toyota driver with sprint-car roots to head to the Xfinity Series (Kyle Larson drove a Toyota in sprint cars but ended up with his stock-car development coming in Chevrolets).

“One-hundred pavement starts is pretty phenomenal to grow that fast and that quick,” team owner Kyle Busch said. “Obviously, Kyle Larson is probably one of the only others that’s been that quick, so it’s cool to see, especially coming through us with KBM.”

Busch, the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion who had Jones and Suarez in his stable, said the biggest thing for Bell is to learn how to go fast with a tight race car.

“That was a little bit of a learning experience for him, just knowing how fast and how good you could be, being able to have a little bit of tug on the steering wheel,” Busch said.

“But other than that, I think learning traffic is one of the biggest things. I think [Bell and Jones] both had to learn traffic an awful lot over the course of the years that they’ve been with us. And trucks are probably the most difficult series to race aero dependently because they just punch such a big hole in the air with the truck in front of you.”

Bell learned about racing in traffic for the win this year. He was side-by-side with KBM teammate Noah Gragson last month at Phoenix, and Gragson ended up spinning. In his Xfinity win in October, at Kansas he did a somewhat traditional dirt slide job in front of Jones, who ended up hard on the brakes, with damage and frustrated.

But the learning process is the whole point of racing in the developmental series.

“Him winning that Xfinity race I believe probably gave him a big boost confidence-wise,” said Johnny Sauter, the 2016 truck champion who was among the four finalists in 2017. “I was a little worried about that when he did that. … He’s obviously driving a great truck.

“That truck has been very fast over the last four or five years no matter who’s driven it. But he did a good job and took care of his stuff, and obviously he was way too loose [at Homestead] last year, … and this year they said that he was too tight on the radio all night. Obviously, he learned.”

No matter how Bell performs over the next couple of years, 2017 will be a memorable one.

“As a calendar year overall, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” Bell said about the Chili Bowl and truck titles before he even won at Turkey Night. “You can’t compare the two.

“One of them is a race, and one of them is a championship over a course of a year. So, hey, it’s really tough to compare them, but to be able to win both is definitely a dream come true.”

Sitting across from Bell on stage at the awards banquet was William Byron, a 20-year-old driver who won the Xfinity title and will compete in Cup next season.

Bell, who has a two-year deal to drive in the Xfinity Series for JGR, tried not to think about expectations and whether he would sit at the end of 2018 or 2019 where Byron was sitting in 2017.

“To win a championship, you have to have a good night [in the finale] at Homestead,” he said. “Obviously, we want to win a championship but our goal has to be to make that final four [in contention at Homestead]

“If you can make that final four, you’ve had an exceptional year. That is our No. 1 goal.”

Elliott Sadler, an Xfinity Series veteran who drives for JR Motorsports, expects Bell to be there and challenge for the title.

“He’s going to be very fast,” Sadler said. “We’ve already seen he can win in an Xfinity car. The more he drives and the more he communicates with his team next year, he’s going to be one of the guys to beat.

“We all know how fast the Gibbs cars are. He’s shown a lot of speed in everything he’s ever been in. He’s going to be very good next year.”



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