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.”
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.”