After running his rookie Cup Series season with now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, Christopher Bell has moved on to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he’ll drive the No. 20 Toyota and team with Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin.
Bell has interacted with the latter trio on many occasions. Now, they’re side-by-side under the same banner, and he wants to prove himself as a valuable ally to them and JGR as a whole.
“I don’t want to be the one that’s taking all the time,” Bell said during a Thursday video teleconference. “I want to provide and help the group grow. That’s difficult, but I feel like the better I run, the more valuable my information gets.
“You look at races where I didn’t run good. People aren’t gonna look at my notes. They’re not gonna look at what I was fighting (with the car) or how my car was. But all of a sudden, Texas (in October) – I arguably had one of the fastest cars there … They’re gonna look at (my) car and see what set-up I ran, what my comments were, stuff like that.
“The better that I run, the more valuable my input will be and our notes as a group will be.”
Bell hopes to be well ahead of where he was for LFR in 2020.
While he said he wasn’t expecting to win a race, he did expect to be more competitive. The Oklahoman instead had a quiet year, finishing 20th in points with just two top-five results.
His best showing came in October at Texas, where he finished third behind Busch and Truex.
Bell felt that struggles on pit road “put us behind the eight-ball a lot.” But there was also the stronger competition at NASCAR’s top level to deal with.
His first lesson came in February at Las Vegas, where he expected to possibly compete for a top-10 finish.
Instead, he and his then quasi-teammates at JGR all had poor outings. Busch led the group with a 15th-place finish. A mid-race spin relegated Bell to 33rd.
“We go to Vegas, and I was running outside the top-20,” Bell recalled. “Then, all of a sudden, I look up in front of me, and Denny, Kyle, and Erik (Jones) were outside the top-15, a couple of cars in front of me.
“That was eye-opening. It’s pretty easy to be outside the top-15. For me, it was easy to be outside the top-20. I didn’t expect the depth that the Cup Series actually has.”
Running in the mid-pack for most of 2020 was another learning experience.
Bell said that the level of intensity in the Cup Series between front-runners and mid-pack drivers was relatively similar. The level of respect between them was another matter.
“I’ve noticed whenever you get up into the top-10, you’re racing different cars than what you are in the 15th to 25th range; if you catch someone and it’s not their day and they’re running eighth, they’re more likely to cut you a break and let you go,” Bell said.
“(But) if you’re running 18th and you’re trying to pass a guy for 17th, you don’t typically get those breaks.”
Mid-pack battles won’t do for Bell anymore.
His No. 20 team will feature two-time Cup champion crew chief Adam Stevens atop the pit box. Bell also said he’ll be supported by a new pit crew and core personnel from Stevens and Busch’s No. 18 group this past season.
It all adds up to high expectations. Bell is ready to show he’s worthy of them.
“I do think we need to win, and being at Joe Gibbs Racing, (Joe Gibbs’) expectations are to have four championship-caliber teams,” he said. “At some point, if we’re not a championship-caliber team, I don’t expect to be at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“It’s definitely a high-pressure place to be, but that’s where I want to be and I’ve got to prove to everybody that I’m the driver to be in that car.”