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McFarling: Bell aims to ring up more results

McFarling: Bell aims to ring up more results

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NASCAR Bristol Auto Racing

Driver Kyle Larson (right) pushes Christopher Bell after a wreck during a NASCAR Cup Series race on March 29 in Bristol, Tenn.

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If they did, that might have gotten costly. But with Christopher Bell standing in Victory Lane after the Daytona Road Course race in February, having won in the NASCAR Cup Series for the first time, folks didn’t need unlimited text messaging plans to send unlimited texts.

“What’s going to stick with me forever was seeing how much that win meant to so many different people,” Bell said Wednesday in an interview with The Roanoke Times. “My phone was obviously blown up with text messages — not only my phone, but my mom’s phone, my dad’s phone, my old car owner’s phone, my mentor’s phone.

“Everybody had people reaching out to them, and it was really cool how it just meant so much to so many different people. That’s the thing that’s going to stand out the most to me.”

Connections. They’re good to have. And the one that Toyota built with Bell a decade ago paid off once again that day.

So far, that race has been the highlight of the seven that Bell has run in his first season in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. There have been some challenges, too. Bell was among the favorites at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol two weeks ago but finished 34th after a wreck.

“We’ve been to some racetracks where we thought we were going to really succeed at, and we fell on our face,” said Bell, who also had top-10 finishes at Las Vegas and Phoenix. “And then some of the racetracks where I had bad races last year were my good races this year. So we haven’t really gotten a rhythm.”

He hopes to develop one beginning at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night. Last year, while driving for Leavine Family Racing as a Cup rookie, he finished 28th in the spring race and 15th in the fall.

Bell admits the track layout is not his favorite — he prefers full-throttle venues over Martinsville’s flat, tight corners — but he’s hoping to take another step at the historic half-mile oval.

“We came close to winning a clock there in the Truck Series — unfortunately didn’t, but came close,” said Bell, who claimed the Truck Series championship in 2017. “It’s a place that can be really rewarding if you get it right, and I know my crew chief [Adam Stevens] has won there a couple times. I’m looking forward to seeing what we unload with this time.”

Bell, 26, is one of 35 drivers who’ve won at least one race in each of NASCAR’s top three national series. It’s a path Toyota envisioned when recruiting the Oklahoman at a young age and funded him as a developmental driver in the lower ranks.

When Leavine Family Racing (which had a partnership with JGR) shut down after last season, Bell moved to the manufacturer’s flagship team, sending expectations soaring.

“That adds, naturally, a level of pressure,” said David Wilson, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduate who serves as president of Toyota Racing Development. “And yet what I enjoy is Christopher handles that very naturally. He has a calm about him that I’ve always admired. I have never questioned his talent.

“We believe we saw something really special in this young man from way back. Just like a friend, like a family member, it fills us with a tremendous amount of pride [to see him win] … It’s tremendously satisfying, but we’re just getting started. We really are.”

Listed at 50-to-1 odds to win Saturday’s race at one of Virginia’s legal sportsbooks, Bell is the longest shot of any JGR driver. In a stable with Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, that’s understandable, but Bell would love to get the text messages flying again with another surprise win.

“We have every opportunity that the other three Gibbs cars have,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of which team executes best is going to run the best throughout the course of the weekend.”

Contact sports columnist Aaron McFarling at 540-981-3423 or aaron.mcfarling@roanoke.com.

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