He’s been regarded as one of the top young talents in the sport for the last several seasons, and starting in 2020, Christopher Bell will finally get a chance to showcase his talents in the Cup Series.
Bell has been tabbed as one of the future building blocks of Joe Gibbs Racing, but thanks to an embarrassment of riches, JGR doesn’t have a seat open for the wunderkind at the Cup level amid its loaded driver lineup.
In order to keep Bell in house while allowing his career to progress, JGR and Leavine Family Racing have worked out a partnership that will put Bell behind the wheel of the LFR No. 95 Toyota with increased support from the JGR mothership. The situation will be similar to what we saw with Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones when they drove for Furniture Row Racing, essentially a satellite organization of JGR.
He has the pedigree, and thanks to deal between LFR and JGR, Bell will be stepping into what should at least be close to a premier ride. The only thing left for him to do is show that he can continue to have success at NASCAR’s highest level and keep his career on an upward trajectory toward stardom.
There are plenty of drivers who have a chance to prove themselves in top-tier equipment, but not all of them make the most of the opportunity. Bell has been nothing short of dominant at the XFINITY level the last two years for JGR, showing the potential to become a star in NASCAR for years to come.
After posting seven wins and 18 Top 5s and leading 759 laps as an XFINITY rookie in 2018, Bell won eight times, logged 20 Top 5s and led an incredible 2,005 laps last year. Yes, he had dominant equipment to work with, but a deep dive into Bell’s numbers suggest that he is much more than a product of fast cars. Per Motorsports Analytics, he ranked second last year in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), Adjusted Pass Efficiency and Surplus Passing Value.
PEER is essentially a more thorough alternative to the Driver Rating stat that is commonly used. It is used to gauge a driver’s overall ability, weighted to take into account the equipment they are working with. The passing stats point to Bell as being one of the best at gaining track position on his own, regardless of where he is running.
In NASCAR’s lower series, Bell was able to dominate races so frequently that he could afford to take a checkers-or-wreckers approach on the track. He piled up 38 Top 5s over the past two XFINITY seasons, but he had just 41 Top 10s in that same span while failing to finish 11 races. In other words, he was either fighting for the win or not even in contention for a decent finish. While he learns the ropes at the Cup level, he will need to put more of an emphasis on consistency.
Bell will be the first to admit that road racing isn’t his specialty, but you wouldn’t know it by his results. The only other concern would be how he handles the adversity that will inevitability come his way. In this era, nobody is jumping to the Cup Series and becoming a dominant force overnight. For a driver like Bell, who has known nothing but success in NASCAR’s national series, there is the danger that he could potentially start pressing if he gets off to a slower-than-expected start.
The 2020 rookie class is set to be one of the deepest in recent memory, but Bell’s ceiling appears to be the highest. Not only is he a part of the Joe Gibbs Racing machine, but he has been able to win races and lead laps at a rate that the other heralded rookies, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick, simply haven’t been able to match in the lower series.
Yes, he may wreck a few more cars than the other rookies, but I think Bell has a chance to deliver double-digit Top 10s in 2020 while leading all rookies in Top 5 finishes. Don’t forget that Matt DiBenedetto was able to finish with seven Top 10s and an 18.3 average for the No. 95 team last season, and by the second half of the year, he was a regular in the Top 15. With JGR upping its involvement with the team, Bell’s equipment will be even better.
He is my personal pick to win Rookie of the Year honors, and I expect Bell to be an immediate factor in both season-long and DFS fantasy formats. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him finish as a Top 15 driver overall as a rookie, and don’t think some occasional dominator points are out of the question in DFS contests. He could be particularly valuable at short tracks where he won six of his 14 starts at the XFINITY level, leading 1,235 laps. Bell is the real deal.