How long do you think it took Christopher Bell to do the math?
Carl Edwards’ shocking announcement of his abrupt exit from the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has had a ripple effect that could go far beyond the promotion of Daniel Suárez to a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride.
Because Suárez will fill Edwards’ seat in NASCAR’s premier series, he won’t defend his NASCAR Xfinity Series title. Bell will be one of the beneficiaries of the changes in Suárez’s schedule.
“Right now, we have a solid plan for Christopher,” said Dave Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA. “He exceeded our expectations. He got all the way to Miami (the championship race of the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway). This year, we expect him to get to Miami and win.
“And if circumstances play out, we really would like to get him into an Xfinity car for a couple of races. We’re working hard on that, and we’re optimistic, but that could very well be a domino that falls. Those are helpful—those couple of races where there’s zero pressure, but it gives you a look at the next step.”
Last week at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the 22-year-old Bell wasn’t thinking about the next step. He was contemplating the next race, trying to become the first native Oklahoman to win the marquee event of midget racing since Andy Hillenburg accomplished the feat in 1994.
(And, no, the Andy Hillenburg in question is not the Indiana-born driver who ran NASCAR races and later bought Rockingham Speedway. The Andy Hillenburg who won the Chili Bowl is a sprint car racer from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.)
Bell was also thinking about the upcoming season in the Camping World Truck Series, where his own expectations mirror those of the Toyota brass.
“I guess it could open it up for me,” Bell said of Edwards’ departure. “But, honestly, I haven’t even really thought about it, because my schedule’s already set, obviously, with Kyle Busch Motorsports. That’s where my focus is, and we’re going to aim really hard to win races this year.
“We came close on the championship last year, but we didn’t win many races—we won one time. My goal is to win races with KBM.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Bell wasn’t enthused about the prospect of getting his first taste of the Xfinity Series.
“That’s great,” he said during a break between features at the Chili Bowl. “That’s good that I might get a couple of races—that’s really good.”
The extent of Bell’s participation in Xfinity races depends to some degree on sponsorship. Wilson said Suárez’s primary sponsor, Arris, which also sponsored Edwards, will be confined to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup car, even though Suárez will still run between eight and 12 Xfinity races.
“If he (Bell) does what he should do in ’17, then, naturally, we would love to get him into an Xfinity ride in ’18,” Wilson said. “Yes, this could play into Christopher’s further development and get him one or two more Xfinity races that we may not have foreseen prior to the news (about Edwards).”
On January 14, Bell fulfilled his long-standing dream of winning the Chili Bowl, noting that competing in the Truck Series had informed his approach to dirt-track racing. Biding his time in the 55-lap “A” Main, Bell started on the front row and passed polesitter Justin Grant on Lap 26. He stayed out front the rest of the way.
“In years past, it’s been attack, attack, attack,” Bell said. “This year, it didn’t have to be that way. I just ran hard enough to stay in position but not get into trouble. I was able to ride behind Justin there for a while. I knew the bottom was slowing down quite a bit and I kept trying the top. I tried it two times and I almost got passed, so I knew it was going to be a matter of too early or too late at the top.
“I started to watch the big screen. (Eventual runner-up Daryn) Pittman was running the top at the time. I knew he was in eighth, and I looked up and he was third or fourth so I knew I had to go. Once I went, I was able to squeak by Justin on the straightaway, and then it was a matter of just not screwing up.”
That sort of patience is emblematic of Bell’s maturation as a driver. Early last season, he didn’t look like a championship contender. In the second race of 2016, at Atlanta, his aggressiveness led to a wreck that collected Suárez, his teammate, and fellow Toyota driver and two-time series champion Matt Crafton.
But Bell won at Gateway Motorsports Park nine races into the schedule, and he finished outside the top 10 just twice in the last 16 events.
It’s the quality of that performance, combined with Edwards’ sudden departure, that should earn Bell his Xfinity Series debut in 2017.
“You could say it’s like throwing a pebble into a pond,” Wilson said. “There is a ripple effect, or a domino effect—potentially. Obviously, the next domino that fell was Daniel Suárez… In the winner’s circle at Homestead, after Daniel won the Xfinity championship, I put my arm around (team owner) Coach (Joe Gibbs) and said ‘Now what?’
“Daniel was ahead of schedule. The good news is he was happy to do another full season, and we’re not going to hurt him (by running Xfinity again), but we know we have somebody who’s probably ready. So when we got the shocker, it was a no-brainer.”
Likewise, Bell is ahead of schedule, and all that remains to be seen is what he does with the opportunities that fall to him earlier than expected.