What a difference a year makes for Christopher Bell
When it comes to development drivers, what a difference a year has made for Christopher Bell.
Last Saturday, Bell won his third Camping World Truck Series race in just his 32nd-career start.
And while you can take a racer off of a dirt track, you can’t take the dirt-track racing out of the driver. But winning truck team owner Kyle Busch would surely like to try.
“We’re still working on it,” Busch said with a laugh. “We’re still trying to take the Sprint Car out of him.”
“I don’t know if that will ever happen,” Bell said emphatically to his boss.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Busch continued. “That kid grows up running 30-lap features, here, there, wherever. After 30 laps, the right rear is gone.
“So that’s been our problem, after 30 laps, the tires are gone. So we have a little Days of Thunder mentality going on here with him that we’ve had to work on over the course of last year.”
Evolving as a driver
Busch shouldn’t second-guess Bell’s career path. The 22-year-old Norman, Oklahoma, native has exhibited tremendous growth during his acclimation to stock car racing. He won at Eldora Speedway in just his third-career start. Bell ran seven truck races in 2015 with an average qualifying effort of 9.3 and an average finish of 11.9.
While his rookie season did not start according to plan, with wrecks at Daytona and Atlanta, Bell settled down and concentrated on the task at hand. His second career win came at Gateway Motorsports Park in June.
We do a good job of being able to scout talent and bring the talent up and have them be successful
The victory vaulted Bell into the inaugural Camping World Truck Series Playoffs. He finished third in the standings and now finds himself in the lead after the first two races of 2017.
“I feel like he learned a lot over the second half of last year, for sure, of being able to get into the rhythm of these races and run these races as they come to him and allowing the competition and our equipment to get him up front,” Busch said.
“There’s a lot of different guys that you have to race different ways and I think he’s learned that a lot, too. (Former Truck Series champion Matt) Crafton is one of the best. Obviously, he was able to outrun him (Saturday). And he outran me through much of the day as well. Certainly, he knows how to get it done when it comes down to running fast lap times and being able to do it for a long time.
“Here at Atlanta, is one of the hardest places to be able to do it for a long run. And man, he could do it for the whole time. It was really impressive to watch.”
Bell led 42 laps in his Atlanta Motor Speedway debut last year before a tire issue ended his race while the No. 4 truck was in the lead. Bell exacted his revenge on the 1.5-mile track on Saturday.
“This was definitely a race I had circled ever since we left here last February,” Bell said. “To be able to be as good as we were here last year and to come out as dominant as we were, is really cool for me. It’s really a dream weekend. Ever since we unloaded we were really, really fast off the truck. Everything we did just made it better and better throughout practice.
“As soon as they dropped the green in the race, it was just really, really good. I kind of got shuffled there on the restart, got stalled out in fifth or sixth. But whenever we were able to restart on the bottom, we could get right back up there.”
While veteran crew chief Jerry Baxter guided Bell through his rookie year, he’s found instant chemistry with new crew chief Rudy Fugle. With his win at Atlanta and an eighth-place run at Daytona, Bell currently has a seven-point lead over defending series champion Johnny Sauter.
Kyle Busch Motorsports has become a revolving door for aspiring NASCAR racers. There’s not a stronger farm club currently in NASCAR.
And Busch definitely recognized the “championship mindset” of Bell. Like Erik Jones and William Byron before him, it won’t be long before Bell moves on to the Xfinity Series and eventually Cup.
“It’s just a true testament to everybody at KBM that does such a great job building fast trucks,” Busch said. “That’s the first opportunity you’ve got to give these younger drivers and then from there, they have to have the know-with-all to be able to go out there and succeed in that equipment and we saw it last year.
“Christopher’s now won three years in a row in the Truck Series, which is really cool. We saw it last year with William being successful and being able to move on and Christopher is now kind of taking the reins of KBM and being the elder statesman here and the experienced guy in being able to kind of be our lead dog for the championship.”
Last season KBM’s Byron led the truck tour with seven wins but was eliminated in the playoffs when his engine failed at Phoenix — the final race before the championship round. Bell represented KBM in the final four.
This year, Bell and the No. 4 team have the potential to match Byron’s mark.
“We do a good job of being able to scout talent and bring the talent up and have them be successful,” Busch said. “What that means for us is, (Bell) won’t be with us next year. So we’ll have to find another one. So we’ll start looking.”
With the truck series on hiatus until April 1 at Martinsville Speedway, Bell, the 2013 USAC National Dirt Midget Champion, will return to his open-wheel roots this month in two midget races. During the six-week break between Martinsville and Kansas Speedway (May 12), Bell plans to race sprint cars.
Busch still has plenty of proteges waiting in the pipeline. Rookie Noah Gragson is piloting the No. 18 truck full-time. In addition to his Cup duties, Busch is sharing driving duties with a trio of teenagers.
“We’re working to the best of our ability to get out there and bring in younger talent,” Busch said. “We obviously have Noah and Myatt Snyder and Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, who are with us this year if any of those guys work out. Harrison, he’s too young still. He won’t be able to run full-time next year. But I think Todd turns 18 next May.
“So there are opportunities there that we have that. There are still guys that are available to be able to move up next year.”
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