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Christopher Bell leaving comfort of Kyle Busch Motorsports for Joe Gibbs Racing

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Christopher Bell‘s last NASCAR race of 2017 didn’t go well for the 22-year-old driver.

Driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota, Bell started third in the Xfinity Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but his engine gave out on Lap 78.

He finished 36th for the first DNF in Xfinity career, which only eight races old.

Bell’s spirits weren’t low for long.

“It’s disappointing to blow up, but once I got out of my firesuit and I looked at my phone, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m still a champion’,” Bell told NBC Sports Thursday during an event for NASCAR’s national touring series champions at Top Golf in Charlotte.

The night before his engine blew, Bell clinched the Camping World Truck Series championship. It’s his first NASCAR title in his second full-time year in the series.

The native of Norman, Oklahoma, reached the championship race in both of his full-time seasons driving the No. 4 Toyota. This time around, Bell reached the Championship 4 off five wins, 15 top fives and 21 top 10s.

Bell will accept his championship tonight at the Xfinity and Truck Series Awards Banquet in Charlotte. Bell expects his champion’s speech will be the “most uncomfortable part” of the evening.

“Just trying to concentrate on what I want to say,” Bell said. “I don’t want to spell it out and not make it heart-felt whenever I get up there. At the same time I need a guide to follow along and I think I’ve got a pretty good guide.”

Christopher Bell, right, and team owner Kyle Busch after Bell clinched the Camping World Truck Series title. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

While he drove the No. 4 for KBM this season, his guide in the cockpit was crew chief Rudy Fugle. It was Fugle who taught Bell what he needed in a race car to win races.

Bell only won a single race in his rookie year with Jerry Baxter.

“Before Rudy, I didn’t really know what I needed,” Bell said. “I just was looking for lap time. Looking for lap time in practice is different from what you need to be able to race. I feel like Rudy did an excellent job of teaching me that.”

Now comes the next level.

Bell will compete full-time for JGR in the Xfinity Series next year driving the No. 20 Toyota after his eight races in 2017, which included a win at Kansas Speedway in October.

Bell has been partnered with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who has spent the last six seasons in the Cup Series. The last five of those were with Matt Kenseth. Together they won 14 races.

Ratcliffe has been a NASCAR crew chief since 2000 when he worked with Casey Atwood in the Xfinity Series.

“I haven’t been around Jason very much,” Bell said. “I was able to have lunch with him a couple of weeks ago and this week I got to spend a little bit of time with him and kind of go over his priorities and my priorities going into next year. He’s a super switched-on guy. There’s nobody else I’d rather have. To be able to use his expertise, his knowledge, he’s been there, done that. That’s been really good for a young driver like myself and I’m going to lean on that a lot next year.”

What are Ratcliff’s priorities?

“From him going Cup racing for so long, he was able to prioritize where you need to be good, what we need to focus on,” Bell said. “He’s really big on restarts, qualifying, making sure I maximize pit road speeds and stuff like that. Those are areas we need to really focus on.”

Through his eight Xfinity races and his Kansas win, Bell feels he validated JGR’s choice to hire him full-time next year, where he will be teammates with Brandon Jones and Ryan Preece.

Those eight races helped Bell get a grasp of the lower downforce in Xfinity cars, the series’ longer races and its deeper fields of talent.

“I feel like that took a lot of pressure off me going into 2018, knowing that I can do it,” Bell said. “Proving to myself that I can do it. Also proving to JGR. They took a chance on me by hiring me to run the full season. I’m glad I was able to win early on in my Xfinity career and prove to them I can do it.”

With his move up the ladder in 2018, Bell will be leaving Kyle Busch Motorsports, his racing home of four years as he transitioned from dirt racing to pavement.

“I’ve been at Kyle Busch Motorsports a very long time now,” Bell said. “I think that’s something that most people don’t understand. I’ve been pavement racing for four years now, four years off-and-on. All four of those years I’ve spent at Kyle Busch Motorsports. So I’ve gotten to know almost every single person in that shop by name and have a relationship of some kind with the majority of the people in that shop, so that’s what I’m going to miss the most about the Truck Series.”

Bell still has time before his Xfinity career gets fully underway in Daytona. He has a slate of dirt races on his schedule, including the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in early January.

After that, “it’ll be time to get serious.”

Driver-to-Driver with Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’ve got a lot to prove still’

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Jimmie Johnson is in his 17th year of full-time Cup racing and is in the midst the longest winless streak of his career at 42 races.

But the seven-time champion’s competitive drive is as strong as ever.

Johnson sat down with NBC Sports’ Dale Jarrett to discuss his career at this point in the latest edition of Driver-to-Driver.

“I can honestly say I spend more time now than I did my rookie year focusing on my job,” Johnson said. “I think that the support I have from my wife (Chandra), my kids are 7 and 4, to have them watch me be passionate about something has another meaning I didn’t anticipate coming. I’m lovin’ what I’m doing. I wish the results were a little better than what we have right now, but the process of what I’m going through is really fun.”

Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is in a slump. The team is in the middle of the second longest winless streak in its history at 35 races.

Johnson admits it’s hard to know when the right time will be for him to retire.

“The thing I can pull out of it is, don’t pick a number, make sure that fire’s gone out and that fire hasn’t gone out,” Johnson said. “The other thing that’s weighing on me, I don’t want to go out not at my fullest potential and not on my terms. The last thought that’s going to run through my mind is to walk away or, ‘Oh, it’s not going right, time to stop.’ Uh uh. I know I still got it. I’m going to go down swinging. I’ve got a lot to prove still.”

Watch the above video for more.

 

New Hampshire Cup race in rain delay

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The Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is in a rain delay.

The race was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET. The start time had been moved up from 2 p.m. ET due to the threat of weather.

Kurt Busch is on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. will start second.

Check back for more.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at New Hampshire

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver rediscovers his magic here and locks into the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. wins back-to-back races for the first time in his career.

Daniel McFadin

Kevin Harvick earns a career-best sixth win of the season.

Dan Beaver

Martin Truex Jr. is getting into the same groove he had last year. This week he catches Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Next week, he starts to pull away,

Today’s Cup race at New Hampshire: Start time, lineup and more

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The Cup Series holds its only race of the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway today with the Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301.

Kurt Busch starts on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. starts second.

Here’s all the info you need for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Jean Swift, treasurer of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Counsel, at 12:51 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 1 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 301 laps (318.46 miles) around the 1.058-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 75. Stage 2 ends on Lap 150.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 35

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 7:30 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 11 a.m. Driver introductions are at 12:05 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Vanessa Salvucci will perform the anthem at 12:45 p.m. The Canadian National Anthem will be performed by Kirk Young at 12:42 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race beginning at 1 p.m. Coverage begins at noon with Countdown to Green on NBCSN. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at noon p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 70 degrees and a 78 percent chance of rain and storms at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Denny Hamlin won this race last year over Kyle Larson. Kyle Busch won the playoff race over Larson.

TO THE REAR: Landon Cassill (backup) and Michael McDowell (backup).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the complete starting lineup.