Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Christopher Bell

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In Norman, Oklahoma, the Sooners are king.

Growing up in the city 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City, the Sooners were a regular part of Christopher Bell‘s life, especially since his father, David, was a high school basketball coach when he was a little.

“As a kid I guess that’s what I dreamed of doing, was playing football and basketball,” Christopher Bell told NBC Sports. “Obviously that got derailed at a very young age once I got introduced to racing.”

Bell was 4 or 5 years old when he was invited by the family of one of his father’s players to watch him compete in a micro-sprint car race.

Christopher Bell drives his No. 4 Toyota at Michigan International Speedway in August. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“I was hooked ever since,” Bell said. “From then on, I started racing when I was 6. Haven’t missed a weekend since.”

The most recent race weekend saw Bell, 22, win his seventh Camping World Truck Series race and his fifth of the year. The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver leads the playoff standings after one race. It’s been almost a year since he made it to the championship race, the only driver out of four born after 1980.

This year has seen Bell get his feet wet in the Xfinity Series, making four starts for Joe Gibbs Racing. He’ll also compete in the final four races of the year.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Do you have a favorite basketball team?

Bell: I used to love the Hornets. Whenever the Hornets, they were in New Orleans and then I think Hurricane Katrina got them. Then they moved to Oklahoma City (temporarily). So whenever the Hornets were in Oklahoma City (in 2005-06), I don’t think I ever missed a game. I loved the Hornets, so that was really cool. I have a lot of memories of going to Hornets games with my father as a kid.

NBC Sports: What’s the most fun race you’ve ever been part of?

Bell: Homestead last year was a ton of fun. I don’t know if that’s the most fun I’ve ever had. But the last 20 laps of the truck race at Homestead last year was really, really intense. Homestead races really well. There’s a bunch of different grooves there. Me, Matt Crafton and Timothy Peters were all racing for second place in the championship and it was a heck of a race and that was a ton of fun.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup Bristol night race, what would you choose as your intro song?

Bell: “Hall of Fame” by The Script. … As a race car driver, your dream is to be the greatest. … I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day.

NBC Sports: Which phone app do you use the most that’s not social media related?

Bell: I don’t ever really use my phone that much. I use “Sleep Man” a lot, which is a fan that I can use in hotels because I sleep with a fan on. That would be my No. 1. … Basically it just makes noise like a fan would. Because I always sleep with fans, but in hotels you don’t have a fan.

NBC Sports: In your career, what’s the best advice or criticism you’ve received?
Bell: Recently, it would have to be from Kyle Busch. Kyle Busch’s best piece of advice he gave me was ‘to let it happen.’ If it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. Don’t try and force it. So that sank in really hard because Kyle Busch has won so many races and he said ‘if you try too hard, it’s not going to happen. You can’t force it to happen. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’ That’s really sunk in.

NBC Sports: How did you meet Kyle Busch?

Bell: We were actually going to a Snowball Derby test (in 2014) and he went with us.

Christopher Bell talks with Kyle Busch at Martinsville Speedway in 2016. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What were your initial impression of him?

Bell: I was shocked how he was just another, I don’t know. We flew on a plane from Concord, (North Carolina), to Pensacola, (Florida). I didn’t even know he was on the plane with us`and then all of a sudden we get off the plane and I end up riding in the car with him. We get to the race track and he was just in a T-shirt laying on the ground, working on his late model harder than any of his employees. It was cool to see how involved he was and how he was working on the car. He was on the radio asking what the car needed, then he was the one making changes to the car. I was blown away by how hands-on he was about the whole thing.

NBC Sports: You’ve got four more Xfinity races at the end of the year. If you could pick a track to race in Xfinity at, what would it be?

Bell: Bristol. Bristol is badass. The way the banking is, the short track. It’s a short track that races with speed like a mile-and-a-half. To me that’s just a recipe for awesomeness, man. It’s just one of the coolest races ever, because of all the stands wrapped around the race track. You’re basically racing in a coliseum. It’s one of my favorite tracks we go to.

NBC Sports: What’s been your highest high and the lowest low of our career?

Bell: The highest high was definitely winning the Chili Bowl. That was my dream race … that’s kind of what racing means to me is the Chili Bowl. So to win it was something that was incredible. My lowest low was probably wrecking last year at (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) while qualifying. I wrecked a lot of trucks last year and then I went to Canada. Me and my crew chief (Jerry Baxter) sat down and we realized we can’t wreck. We had a big conversation about not wrecking and then I went out and wrecked in qualifying. So that hurt really bad. That stung.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

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John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.