Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell was made available to media via videoconference prior to the Daytona 500 this Friday:
CHRISTOPHER BELL, No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
What has the transition been like to rejoin Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR)?
“It’s been a lot of fun to transition back to the Cup side of JGR. I’ve spent a little bit of time in the Cup building throughout my Xfinity days, but for the most part it’s all new to me. A lot of the styles are similar to LFR (Leavine Family Racing) to JGR, but it’s just a completely new group of people. It’s fun to be able to work with my car chief Chris Sherwood again. He was my car chief on the Xfinity side, and he’s on this 20 group too, so between him, Adam Stevens, and everyone on this 20 car, just trying to get to know everyone and build those relationships. It’s been quite the offseason, and I’m excited to get going to the racetrack, week-in and week-out.”
This year, we will be making our return to Sonoma. What’s your thoughts of that track?
“I guess that still makes me a rookie for Sonoma. It’s one of the racetracks that I was excited about going to last year. I’ve never been there, but everyone talks about how much they enjoy it. It’s a slick road course, very challenging road course. I’ve grown to like road racing. I was looking to going there last year, but unfortunately, we did not get too. This year, I hope we get to go, and I’m excited to see what it’s all about. Road racing has definitely grown on me over the last couple of years and Sonoma is definitely a marquee road course across the United States, so I’m excited to try to tackle it.”
What about the fact that Sonoma is a one-day show?
“That’s going to be tough for me, just trying to do a lot of simulator time, that’s for sure, but fortunately, nobody has been there in a number of years now, so I guess that kind of equals the playing field a little bit.”
Do you have Bristol high on your list of places you can win this year?
“I would say Bristol is definitely a place where I should have an advantage, just having a dirt background, growing up like I did. It’s going to be interesting though. The Cup Series is full of a lot of talented race car drivers, and these guys are going to figure it out. I think it’s an afternoon race. It’s a long-distance race, so I don’t think it’s going to be a normal dirt surface like I’m accustomed to racing on. Nonetheless, it’s still going to be dirt, and I should have an advantage. Hopefully, it goes smooth, and I just want it to be a good race. I don’t want to go out here and have a bunch of yellows. I’m going to do my part on trying to provide a great show for the fans and hopefully, it’s something that will be a success.”
What are your expectations of Chase Elliott jumping into a midget this weekend?
“I was really curious to watch him there at Millbridge in his first race and I was blown away by how well he did. His car control was really good. He really did a good job figuring out lines and kind of studying the racetrack and figuring out where to be. The Chili Bowl was probably – I expected him to have a better run there, but it’s so tough. He got caught up there in the start of, I think, his prelim night b-feature. If he doesn’t get turned around there, he has a lot better week. I was really impressed, especially on Saturday at the Chili Bowl. I don’t remember what race he was in, but he really started coming on there at the end of his race. I think with more laps he’s going to be a contender right there with us.”
We haven’t seen you as much on the dirt recently. What do you have planned this year?
“I’d love to more dirt races coming up. I feel like everybody knows that I love dirt midget and sprint car racing. Hopefully in the future I get to do more of it. I definitely took some time off after Phoenix. The West Coast deal, I don’t know, with everything going on, I decided not to go out and do the West Coast races. Then, I ran the Shootout and the Chili Bowl this year. As far as going forward, I would love to do some more dirt racing. I’m not just entirely sure what my schedule is going to look like.”
How important do you think it is to connect grassroots racing with NASCAR racing?
“I think that it is really important. I feel like the disconnect – if there was a disconnect – was guys, whenever they got into NASCAR, that was all that they did. Definitely the crossover between any sort of late model racing or sprint car racing and NASCAR racing, and kind of doing both of it, is great because it keeps both fan bases interested. Whenever you have Chase Elliott going to run the Chili Bowl or going to Ocala this weekend, you have NASCAR people watching that style of racing and now Chase (Elliott) is building a fan base on the dirt side too by doing this, so all of the people that are watching him this weekend in Ocala or a couple of weeks ago in Tulsa are going to be cheering for him on the Daytona side of it. I think it’s a great crossover and the more drivers we can get that run all of the above, it just helps unify motorsports. Instead of having a dirt group and a pavement group and a NASCAR group and an IMSA group, you just get motorsports fans that tune into everything.”
What kind of pressure do you feel moving in-house to Joe Gibbs Racing?
“It’s tough. I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it. Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach (Joe Gibbs) provides all of the resources needed to have four championship caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough. This is my first year here. I don’t think that people are realistically expecting me to compete for a championship this first year, but eventually that needs to be the end goal – to have a championship caliber team, and I hope that I’m a championship caliber driver to lead that group.”
How important do you think it is to start the season on a quick start?
“I do think that there is not a reason out there that I can’t compete for wins at Daytona, Daytona Road Course, Homestead. I think that we have all of the ingredients that we need to compete for wins right out of the gate, but on the flip side, I’m definitely not going to be driving it 100% to win those races. Last year, I got buried in points by not having a good opening stretch of races, and that is our number one goal – to see the checkered flags, get to the end. Whether that is 10th, 15th, fifth – anywhere. Just to see the checkered flags and not make mistakes that cost us finishes. Adam (Stevens) has been really good about pushing that we need to build a foundation before we just go out here and start trying for wins. I think we have all the tools we need to win really early, but on the flipside, I don’t want to make a mistake trying to win too early. I would like to collect some good finishes and build on that, and then compete for wins.”
With Adam Stevens, how well have you got to know him this offseason?
“I’d say we have spent a decent amount of time together. It’s crazy when we started meeting in November and December, it was like what is your family about, how many kids do you have, where did you grow up, and now, all of a sudden, the conversations have transitioned to what is going to happen in Daytona, how do you like your cars, shift lights, and all of these other racing terms. Everything was definitely getting to know him at the end of last year, and now it’s more business stuff. I feel like we have built a decent relationship – from a personal standpoint we’ve built that relationship, but now from a business standpoint, we are going to have to get on track. I’m going to have to hear him over the radio, and he is going to have to listen to my feedback over the radio and see how that goes.”
How tough was it to see Jason Ratcliff go?
“It was difficult. I think we both kind of expected to transition to Gibbs together. We were not expecting the dramatic change up across the JGR lineup. It definitely caught us both off guard, and I wish nothing but the best for Jason and Harrison (Burton). Jason was a huge part of my success, and arguably the reason that I’m here today. Very thankful and grateful to drive for Jason across those years. He’s a great crew chief, and even better person. I love to see his smiling face and wish him and Harrison the best.”
Is the Playoffs a good way to establish a champion?
“I’ve been on both sides of the fence, well, I shouldn’t say that. I definitely have been on the wrong side of the fence for the championship format. You look at my Xfinity seasons between ’18 and ’19, where I was a championship caliber team, week-in and week-out, and I believe it was in ’18, I was on the outside looking in and we went into Phoenix, which was the last race before the championship race, and if I didn’t win Phoenix, I wouldn’t have even made the Championship 4. I feel especially for (Kevin) Harvick, I think he was the guy that got left out in 2020, and I feel for him. I was almost in that same boat in the Xfinity Series. It’s just the name of the game and you have to grade your season a little bit differently now than you would in years past. If you perform all season long and don’t make the Championship 4, then you can’t look at your season as a failure. On the flipside, it gives you time to learn each other and maybe if you don’t perform at the beginning part of the year, then all of a sudden, you start hitting your stride later in the season, you are not out of the championship chase, either. I see both sides of the story.”
What do you think NASCAR has done well and what they could do better with the Bristol dirt race?
“Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t been able to keep up with the dirt process, but I think they have a race coming up where we should be able to learn a lot about in March, before we get there. I think NASCAR, this has been a huge undertaking for them, to prepare a concrete or asphalt track and put dirt on it for a Cup Series event. This is a massive undertaking from a NASCAR standpoint, and I applaud them for doing it and taking it on. I’m a little bit concerned about the afternoon starting time and the race length and race distance. It has the possibility to be sunny outside, and dirt racing is primarily held at night just for the reason that the track stays a lot more consistent and raceable in that time condition, so it will be interesting to see how the afternoon race and the race length plays out.”
Is there any bad or weird blood with Erik Jones?
“I’m sure there is definitely some weird blood, but definitely not any bad blood. I have tremendous amount of respect for Erik. It’s unfortunate that my time at Gibbs came at his expense. I definitely didn’t want that. He is a guy that I look up to, and kind of followed in his footsteps, so to speak, through KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) late models and trucks and over to Gibbs. I think Erik is a tremendous race car driver, and I wish nothing but success for him. I have all the respect in the world for him.”
Are you surprised NASCAR chose Bristol to make the dirt race?
“I thought that Bristol dirt was amazing whenever the Outlaws did it back in the early 2000’s. That was a marquee event that was really cool to witness. It’s unfortunate that it came at the expense of such a great venue and event on the NASCAR side of things. Everybody in the industry loved both Bristol races – the night race and the Spring race. I love Bristol concrete, and the dirt race should be good for me because I have dirt experience and I should have an advantage going there, but it’s just a shame it came at the expense of such an awesome short track event. Maybe in the future, we will be able to get back to two Bristol concrete races, and a dirt race in there at the expense of another venue or whatever, but it’s going to be interesting to say the least.”
Where do you want to be to miss the big one at Daytona?
“Definitely if you lose the draft, that’s probably the safest spot, but nobody wants to do that and then you run the risk of getting a lap down. We’ve seen it time and time again that the guys racing for the lead will get together and wreck racing first, second or third, and then you will catch the whole field behind them. I just think you have to go out there and do what you think is best. If you think that your car is handling good, and you are able to drive up to the front, then definitely leading the race is probably the safest spot to be, but like I said, we’ve seen guys wreck from the lead too. It’s just kind of out of your hands and you’ve got to race the cards that are dealt to you.”
How much did your dirt racing background help you in NASCAR?
“I would say dirt racing really made me good at raw speed, and it seems like going fast really hasn’t been my issue, but one thing with my style of dirt racing that I did, it didn’t prepare me for distance races. That’s been the hardest part each step of the way, whether that’s late models, then moving into Trucks, and then moving into Xfinity. The races have just gotten longer, and longer and longer. Now the Cup races are sometimes twice the length of the Xfinity races that I just got done doing. So, the distance part has been the difficult part, making sure you can compete 500-mile races and have a car that’s in one piece. I haven’t done a great job of that through the course of last year and I’ve got to make sure I’m seeing the checkered flags with all of my fenders on the car. That’s something I’m really focused on this year is limiting my mistakes, making sure I have a clean car at the end of the race. As far as the downforce side of things, the Xfinity cars probably fit my driving style or my driving background a little bit more than what the Trucks and the Cup cars did. I would say that the Cup cars are really similar to the Trucks, so they do relate a little bit in that standpoint. It took me a little bit to get adjusted to that.”
Have you talked to Kyle Busch about running the truck?
“I think that definitely running the trucks at the mile-and-a-halves with the high downforce package is really the thing that relates the most, so I would love to do some Truck races in the future. I can’t say that there have been conversations about it, but it’s definitely something that I would love to do, and Toyota knows that I would love to do that as well.”
Do you think making the Playoffs this season is a necessity?
“I would say yeah, it’s a necessity. If I don’t make the Playoffs this year, that is not going to be ideal. That’s for sure. I don’t know what the results of that would be, but I don’t want to find that out. I think we have all of the tools necessary to make the Playoffs, and that’s for sure a big goal. If you make the Playoffs, typically you’ve been running well, you’ve won a race or you’re running exceptional in points to get there, so yeah, making the Playoffs is a big deal for us.”
What did you learn in your first season in the Cup Series?
“I would say the biggest thing that I’ve learned is the experience from distance racing. I mentioned that earlier on the call, but it’s a big deal to go from Xfinity races which are 300-miles at the longest, and short tracks are shorter. Then you go to Cup racing which you have 500-miles, 400-miles all of the time. You have a couple of 500-milee races and then you have the Coke 600. The distance part is a big difference and learning how to run all of those miles without making one mistake and getting into the wall and knocking the fender into the tire, cutting a tire, and getting into somebody – gaining that knowledge and experience. If we are on lap 200 of 325, you don’t need to push extra to get 10th spot or whatever. Just the on-track knowledge and experience of doing it is the biggest thing I’m going to take away from LFR (Leavine Family Racing) to JGR.”
What is your thinking with the growth of the road courses on the schedule?
“I don’t think that I’m where I need to be as a road course racer yet, but I have grown to enjoy it a lot more than I did in the past. It’s quite the challenge and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Actually, if you look back at the two road course races that we did last year, my finishes weren’t very good, but as far as raw speed, those were two of my better races over the course of the year. I’m especially looking forward to going to Road America. It’s a place where I was able to win a Xfinity Series race. Austin will be kind of a new venue for everybody, nobody will have an advantage going there, so I’m excited to go to Austin. Sonoma is going to be tough because I have never been there, and a lot of guys have a lot of laps there. It’s going to be a fun road course. I look at the road courses as a challenge and I enjoy doing it now, which is a change of pace from a couple of years ago.”
How big does the change in your attitude about road courses help?
“I’d say so. You look at the way races go to, right. You have guys that crash out all of the time in speedway racing, and they don’t like speedway racing. The guys that are more fortunate or better at it, they enjoy it. Definitely as I’ve gotten better at road racing, I enjoy it more. Imagine that. It’s all of the above. The change of attitude, getting better at it and just embracing it.”
What would it mean to you to take the No. 20 to victory lane in Daytona?
“It would be the first one in my life too. It would be really, really special to win the Daytona 500, regardless of car number. It’s a big one. It’s probably p.1 in motorsports, arguably. It’s hard for me to sit here and think about it, because it’s such a big event, but I will have a shot. I’m competing in the Daytona 500, so I’m really thankful for that, and hopefully I can do a good job and have a shot at it coming closing time.”
Is there any driver that you have raced on dirt that you would love to see race at Bristol?
“Yes. Absolutely. He goes by Rico. I would love to see Rico Abreu do it.”