Turner Motorsports

Joe Gibbs on Christopher Bell: ‘We have to keep him’

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Christopher Bell’s three consecutive Xfinity wins have raised questions of if he’ll move to Cup next year, but car owner Joe Gibbs said Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” that the youngster is “scheduled” to be in Xfinity next year.

Bell’s status has gained attention because there’s seemingly no place for him in a Toyota Cup ride next year.

Joe Gibbs Racing already has Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones in its four-car lineup. The only other high-profile Toyota team, Furniture Row Racing, has reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., and seeks sponsorship for that team. That leaves the possibility of a second ride there less likely. Truex is a free agent after this season but indicated last month at Kentucky that “I don’t plan on doing anything different” for next season.

If Toyota added another organization, it could provide Bell with a path to Cup as early as next year.

“We have to keep him,” Gibbs said to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio of ensuring Bell remains in the Toyota and JGR fold. “Just put it that way. We have to. I think Toyota has a lot invested. We do. I really think he’s a future star. You never know when you step up to the next level, that’s a huge step. We think he’s well on his way. I think he’s showing everyone what his abilities are and his talents.”

Bell won the Camping World Truck Series title last year for Toyota-backed Kyle Busch Motorsports. He ran eight Xfinity races last year for Joe Gibbs Racing, winning in his fifth series start, before moving to that series full-time with JGR this year. Bell has four victories and 12 top-five finishes in 19 Xfinity races this season. He goes for his fourth consecutive Xfinity win — an accomplishment achieved only by Sam Ard in 1983 — Saturday at Watkins Glen (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Bell’s rise and the limited number of Toyota seats in Cup create a conundrum the manufacturer has faced before. Toyota’s driver development program goes from midget racing all the way to Cup, providing a ladder system for drivers to climb as they progress. But with limited seats in Xfinity and Cup, Toyota has lost some young drivers to other manufacturers and organizations.

Kyle Larson, who had been racing on dirt for a Toyota-backed team, signed with Turner Motorsports, a Chevrolet team, to drive in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2013. He later moved to Chevrolet’s Chip Ganassi Racing in Cup. After that, Toyota began to examine its development program to find more avenues for its young drivers.

Even with that in place, the manufacturer lost William Byron, who won a series-high seven Camping World Truck races in 2016 for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Byron moved to JR Motorsports, a Chevrolet team in the Xfinity Series, in 2017. He won the title before moving up to Cup with Hendrick Motorsports this season.

If there’s no room immediately at Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup for Bell, could the organization move him elsewhere as it did when Jones ran as a rookie last year at Furniture Row Racing before returning to JGR?

“Well, it’s so far in the future,” Gibbs said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think that’s what we’re all right now planning and looking at. I think it’s kind of up in the air right now. We’re kind of set next year. We want to keep him in Xfinity next year.

“I think he may have a chance to race a few other things. I think that’s kind of our plan. A year away, a lot can happen in a year. We’re just glad that we’ve got him under our banner.”