Toyota Racing – Christopher Bell
NASCAR Xfinity Series (NXS)
Daytona Media Day – February 14, 2018
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell was made available to the media in Daytona:
CHRISTOPHER BELL, No. 20 Rheem Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Did you get to Volusia?
“No, I actually didn’t make it out there.”
Not even to watch?
“Nope, watched it online.”
Got too much going on? I mean, just kind of getting used to everything that’s going to go on with your rookie season, just want to concentrate on that?
“Well, for me, not going to Volusia (Speedway) was just ‑‑ I didn’t have a reason to be down in Florida, so I stayed home and watched online.”
Just so much going on at Gibbs?
“Kind of. I mean, not ‑‑ a little bit, but I’m just trying to build those relationships with my team, and yeah, I just didn’t really have a reason to be down here early, so I stayed home and enjoyed another week at home.”
How has that been getting along with the team?
“It’s been going really good. We were able to go test at Atlanta (Motor Speedway) at the end of January, so that was really nice to be able to go to the racetrack, get some laps, and see how everyone is in a work environment, and so that was a great step in the right direction. It was a lot of fun, too, so I enjoy everyone that I’m working with now at Joe Gibbs Racing, between Jason Ratcliff and all of our team members. I think we’ve got a great group of people, so yeah, we’ll see how we go.
Obviously when you run better, it helps create those relationships faster, so hopefully we can be fast right out of the box.”
Have you done anything as far as practice with your crew to try to acclimate to the five men over the wall?
“Honestly, I have not. Me and my crew chief have talked about it quite a bit, and he’s been going to a lot of the practices, and he said it’s totally different. It’s going to be interesting. I was paying attention to the Clash, how that went, and it’s going to be slowed down a lot, and it’s going to be different. The big thing for me is going to be not to jump the gun, don’t get antsy, and make sure I’m patient inside the car and wait for the job to be done before I leave.”
What have you learned from Jason Ratcliff so far?
“I’ve learned that he’s a really, really smart guy. Jason is one of the smartest crew chiefs I’ve ever been around, and he’s really straightforward, as well. Whenever it comes to his ‑‑ the way he communicates, he tells it how it is. There’s no beating around the bush with him, and that’s something that I really enjoy, and I’m thankful that I’m paired with him. He’s obviously proven himself time and time again, and that’s what I need as a young driver.”
How important was that Atlanta test to get acclimated to a new car?
“Well, I think it was huge for multiple reasons. A, to get me back in a stock car. That’s something that’s different about stock car racing compared to the racing that I grew up doing is off‑season really doesn’t exist in open wheel cars. I would either go to Australia, New Zealand, or over the last couple years I’ve been able to stay around here and race, but stock car racing, once Homestead is done, you’re done until Daytona. For me to get back in a car was huge, and also we’ve got the lower ‑‑ well, not really lower downforce, but we’re going to composite bodies, and so they don’t have as much downforce as the steel bodies. That was good to get some laps in that. My crew chief Jason Ratcliff hadn’t been in XFINITY cars in a very long time, so for him to get to work with the cars and work with me was another huge benefit.”
What can be done to get dirt track fans to pay attention to this side of the sport, and vice versa?
“Well, I think having myself and Kyle (Larson) and just bridging the gap a little bit – Tony (Stewart) has always been kind of doing it, but I think maybe he was flying under the radar a little bit doing it, where myself and Kyle, I guess, advocate a little bit more, or advertise that we’re doing it. It seems to be a pretty hot commodity of bouncing back and forth right now, and I think the more guys that come up from the dirt track ranks to NASCAR help bring that fan base over here. Whenever you see guys like Kyle Larson have the success that he’s had, then the NASCAR guys wonder how he did that and start paying attention to the dirt track side of things. Hopefully it’ll continue to grow, and that gap will get closer and closer in the future.”
Do you think it’s realistic for stock cars to go after dirt fans?
“I think so. For myself, I’ll be honest, even as a kid, whenever I was just a dirt track racer, I didn’t pay much attention to NASCAR, and then once Kyle made the jump to NASCAR, that’s when I really started following it. Just from watching the dirt guys go to pavement is something that got my interest, so I’m sure that a bunch of fans are thinking the same way.”
How does it feel to be moving up into a different series this year and continuing to grow year after year? Just talk about the stable of experienced drivers that you get to look up to as you continue to grow in your career?
“Yeah, it’s really good for me to be able to continue to move up the ladder. That’s what every driver wants to do, and the best thing about my situation is I’ve been from Kyle Busch Motorsports, which is the premier Truck Series team, to now Joe Gibbs Racing, which is one of the premier Xfinity teams, not only XFINITY teams but Cup teams, as well. For me hopping in this great equipment is huge for me, and I’m really thankful for that opportunity that I get to continue my learning process in equipment that hopefully can showcase my talent if I do a good job behind the wheel, and so I’ve got a great opportunity. Hopefully I can make the most of it.”
What are some of the things that have motivated you throughout your career to keep growing, keep growing, and if you can talk about one thing that stands out in your mind that might have been a big road block for you to overcome to continue to get where you are now.
“Well, for me, my motivation is winning races. There’s no ‑‑ I wish I could explain what it feels like to win a race, but I can’t. And just winning is ‑‑ it’s the greatest feeling and the most addictive feeling that I’ve felt. So that’s what keeps me going. For myself, making the transition from dirt cars to pavement cars, learning how to run the longer distance races, that’s been my road block. I seem to have crashed quite a bit in my short NASCAR career, so I’ve had to ‑‑ and I still have to overcome that and get that crashing problem fixed. But that’s been my road block.”
Do you think the long runs is your biggest transition or learning curve going from dirt to asphalt?
“Not necessarily the long runs. I feel like that’s something that related to me even in dirt cars. If a race would go green to checkered, I would be more successful than if there were a bunch of yellows that broke it up. But pit stops, the amount of restarts, the amount of pit stops, stuff like that really was hard for me to figure out. A sprint car race, once they drop the green flag, if you’re in 10th or whatever, you have to pass those cars to get up to the front, where in NASCAR there’s so many different variables to get to the front than just passing cars. If you can’t pass cars, then you can try different strategies and try and leap frog them there. That’s been the hardest part for me is figuring out that there’s a lot more ways to win a NASCAR race than just being the guy that runs the hardest.”
What’s going to be your hardest thing this year going to Xfinity?
“Number one is getting used to the cars. Thankfully Toyota had given me the opportunity to run, I think, eight Xfinity races last year, so I do have some experience in these things. But I struggled last year with raw speed. I seemed to have okay results, but my speed wasn’t where it needed to be, so I’ve got to learn how to get faster, and learning a new crew chief, that’s always a big question mark, as well.”
As I’m learning more about dirt stuff here, I went to my first Outlaw Series the other night, and the one similarity I thought from Chili Bowl is how honest everybody was about the track. People were very blunt about, oh, the track sucks. I remember at the Chili Bowl, there were some people saying, the track is really good, it’s going to be great racing, or it’s probably not going to be a great show tonight. Is that something ‑‑ am I on to something there with people in the dirt world? Because in NASCAR, it’s like, everything is great, even if it’s not ‑‑
“Yeah, that’s an interesting point, and it’s cool that you’ve caught on to that. I think the biggest thing is whenever you go to a NASCAR race, the track is so similar each year, whether it’s ‑‑ obviously the repave throws a kink into things, but you go to Atlanta every single year and the racing is similar. The lines are the same. So there’s not really a good track and a bad track. We’ve seen it more now like with the Texas repave, Kentucky repave. Texas was one of my favorite racetracks before they repaved it. You could run all over. So that was a significant track change. But whenever you go dirt racing, from one night to the next, the track could be a worn‑out Texas to a repaved Texas, and so you have those big swings in track conditions from night tonight on dirt, which you don’t really have on pavement. So I think that’s why track preparation is so much more talked about on the dirt side of things.”
Is it sort of like ‑‑ almost like the how’s the weather conversation? Like oh, how’s the track, that’s just something everybody talks about?
“Yeah, it is. It’s talked about a lot. The thing is that the racetrack ‑‑ that’s probably the most important factor in putting on a good race. That’s one thing that’s unique about dirt is you can kind of manipulate the surface to get whatever you want, and so that’s why track prep is so important and it’s so talked about, because whenever you get a racetrack that’s really good, you want to duplicate it, but it’s really hard to do. Yeah, for sure it’s one of the most talked‑about topics whenever you go dirt track racing.”
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
“My biggest pet peeve? I have no idea, honestly.”
Do you have something that just drives you up a wall?
“When my girlfriend doesn’t put her suitcase away.”
Drivers don’t drive you crazy, or driving down the freeway when somebody is in the fast lane?
“Yeah, but I think that’s a pet peeve for everyone, right, whenever you’re left lane riding doing 68 in a 70.”
What’s something that you don’t think anybody knows about you?
“You know what, so my pet peeve is blocking. I hate ‑‑ whenever you go to a mile‑and‑a‑half and you get a big run on someone, and then they run you all the way down to the bottom of the straightaway, that’s one of my pet peeves. You know, if you’re ‑‑ I’m not going to ‑‑ they shouldn’t just let you by, right, but if you get a run on them and you’re clearly faster than them, don’t block them. So I guess that’s my pet peeve in racing.”
Does that come into play at a place like Daytona and Talladega?
“Well, the thing about Daytona and Talladega, because of the trailing car the draft is always faster, so blocking is just the name of the game here. Mainly just mile‑and‑a‑half stuff or ‑‑ yeah.”
Do you remember the first time that you got someone from either Toyota or Kyle Busch or Joe Gibbs Racing or somebody ‑‑ the first time they took notice of you?
“Yeah, for me, whenever I got hired at Keith Kunz Motorsports to drive the USAC national midget scene, I think I went maybe a full year before I got introduced to Tyler Gibbs and David Wilson at TRD ‑‑ maybe it wasn’t that long, but anyway, those were the first two key people, and then later introduced me to Jack Irving, who’s kind of head of the Toyota Racing driver development deal right now. But anyway, those three people kind of ‑‑ I remember it was maybe spring of 2014, they brought me to Charlotte, and I’d never been to Charlotte before, and then they took me to maybe RIB Racing, KBM, Red Horse, Gibbs, and just kind of showed me around, introduced me to NASCAR shops and introduced me to Steve de Souza and at the time Bond Suss, who was at KBM, and all those ‑‑ I think Chris Rice was at RIB and maybe they introduced me to him. But just talked to a bunch of people, and so those three people at Toyota were kind of the first people to bring me on to the NASCAR scene.”
So did they basically open your eyes to the stock car option, because at that point had you really done any?
“Yeah, I had done nothing, and honestly, I didn’t even think stock car racing was an option until I had met those people at Toyota and started driving for Toyota Racing Development. That was new to me, and yeah, it was my first introduction to stock cars.”
Had you ever done any sim racing or videos with stock cars?
“Not really. I mean, iRacing was out, and I might run a couple races here or there, but I’d never really been to ‑‑ never done much of it. I always run the sprint cars or midgets on there but not really in the stock car stuff.”
Did they really have to push you, or were you open to ‑‑
“No, I was all for it. Yeah, as a kid from Oklahoma, I never pictured NASCAR. I never knew that that was a possibility, so my heart was never really set on it. But then once they introduced me and brought me down here and kind of told me what they were hoping, it was like, oh, my God, this is a reality, and then obviously that became very strong and passionate.”
So when was the first time that you ever got in any kind of NASCAR? Was it a test?
“No, I never got ‑‑ well, does K&N count?”
“Okay, so I went to ‑‑ whenever I went to ‑‑ they took me down into the shop tours, I actually got on their simulator, and I ran an Xfinity car around Vegas, and that was my first time in a stock car on a simulator, and then I ran ‑‑ Erik Jones was running, I think, a Texas truck race in June, and he couldn’t make it to a practice for a Milwaukee late model race, so I got to practice his late model at Milwaukee, so that was my first time actually in a stock car, and aside from that, my first time in a NASCAR would have been a K&N car at Irwindale. I think it was maybe 2015, but I ran the K&N race at Irwindale in that year.”
Did you think, this is not the same as I’ve been doing, it’s not going to work out, or did you feel comfortable when you started doing it?
“Yeah, it was totally different, but thankfully I was getting in great equipment. So whenever I started running for KBM in the late model stuff, I had speed right off the bat and was able to win my first ever super late model race. I guess the hard part was once I made my transition into the full‑time Truck Series in 2016, I struggled a lot, and that was just the learning curve catching up with me of running a full‑time schedule, and then I realized at that point I had a lot to learn, and thankfully I got a mulligan year last year and got to redeem myself.”
When you’re trying to get that experience and trying to get caught up with something that’s so totally different, you had an opportunity to do some simulator stuff, but were you more into iRacing to do that? How do you gain that experience other than real world?
“Yeah, a lot of it ‑‑ I did use iRacing quite a bit, and you know, the hardest part for me was the pit stops and the restarts and just really simple stuff that goes into every ‑‑ like going down pit road and following my tach and then trying to find my pit sign and stopping and knowing when to put it in gear and how to take off, I had never driven a manual before I got in a stock car. It’s all the simple stuff that added up for me that was extremely difficult to put together and to do correctly.”
How important is it for you ‑‑ I think you’ve talked about this a little bit before, but given how your start was, to still be able to do the thing that actually got you started while pursuing NASCAR?
“Right. Well, thankfully I’ve had car owners that kind of let me do ‑‑ let me go race. I think for myself personally, I do a better job in the stock car whenever I’m able to go run sprint cars and midgets, and not only have fun but build confidence, right? Racing is such a mental game. Whenever you run good and you can win, then it’s easier to win in the future. And for me, I think that’s what made 2017 such a successful year for me. I was able to win right out of the box at the Chili Bowl, and then I was able to race a lot more dirt races throughout the course of the year, and winning just keeps leading to more wins, whereas ’16 I didn’t race as much, and I struggled more.”
As you continue up this ladder, is there sort of a fear in the back of your head that at some point somebody is going to say, you know, you’re now a Cup driver and we don’t want you doing that other stuff as much?
“Well, I know that’s not only a possibility but a probability, right, but right now I’m going to enjoy getting to run the XFINITY Series. I think I’m going to get to do some dirt races this year. I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got, that’s for sure.”
Talk a little bit about the pressure that’s on you guys today; Kevin Harvick was just talking about 20, 30 years ago you drove your way up, maybe the pressure wasn’t as great. Talk about how much pressure there is today.
“There’s a lot of pressure. Racing is really a simple sport; if you win, you go up; if you don’t win, you go down. Unfortunately every time you hit the racetrack, there’s 39 other guys that want to win just as bad as you do. It’s an easy name of the game, but it’s hard to accomplish. Hopefully I can continue to win and keep moving up.”
Demands on time, things like that, all factor into that?
“Yeah, I mean, it’s ‑‑ you know, we’ve got a great lifestyle, right; we get to enjoy what we do, so it’s a lot of fun to get to drive race cars for a living, but you’ve got to win. You’ve got to perform.”