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Christopher Bell Is Living His Texas-Size Dream

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 9 2016
Christopher Bell will be driving a truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Christopher Bell will be driving a truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – By the time he had determined that driving race cars was what he wanted to do “for a job,” Christopher Bell was familiar with every gas stop and greasy spoon dotting Interstate 35 heading south from his Norman, Okla., hometown. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex typically Camping World Trucks Series logowas on his GPS, pointed to facilities familiar to any area dirt-track racing fan.

“Not every weekend, but we raced quite a bit around the DFW area,” said Bell, recalling those three-plus-hour/160-mile drives in a pickup truck towing a trailer-full of race car and parts. “I ran Devil’s Bowl Speedway (in Mesquite) quite a few times, Cowtown Speedway before it shut down, Kennedale Speedway Park and Mountain Creek Speedway in Grand Prairie. I remember we’d drive by Texas Motor Speedway, but I never imagined I’d be able to race there.”

That dream was realized last November, when Bell started 11th and finished a lead-lap eighth in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino & Resort 350 driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. That race was won by KBM prodigy Erik Jones en route to the 2015 Truck Series championship.

Bell’s tenure at KBM has continued full-bore this season, with the baby-faced 21-year-old emerging as another talented prospect being groomed for success by team-owner Busch, the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

“I’ve been racing my entire life, starting in 2000,” said Bell, whose seven starts in KBM’s No. 4 JBL Toyota Tundra last year were highlighted by his victory in the MudSummer Classic at historic Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. “That was a big deal because I won my first NASCAR race, but it doesn’t relate to what’s on the rest of the circuit.

“All my life I’ve been open-wheel and dirt racing and hadn’t got my first pavement start until the end of 2014. As a kid, I just wanted to race for a living, whether it’d be Hobby Stock at a local track or ASCS Sprint Cars _ just be able to race for a living, or a job. I never dreamed that I would have been a NASCAR driver, and I’m kind of riding where the wave takes me.”

Consecutive top-five finishes at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway (fourth) and 1-mile Dover International Speedway (third in his 12th series start) through mid-May served as welcome morale boosters for Bell and crew chief Jerry Baxter as the series headed to TMS. The 1.5-mile quadoval will play host to the Rattlesnake 400 night race on Friday, Round 7 on the schedule and the season’s third event on an intermediate track.

“Being from Oklahoma, Texas is as close to home as it gets on the NASCAR schedule, so it’s always great to get back that way,” said Bell, currently ninth in the championship standings, five points out of the eighth and final Chase spot. “As a race car driver all you can ask for is to be able to move around and race multiple grooves and that’s something that we‘re able to do at Texas. Not only is it a home race for me, it’s also a home race for the Tundra, since all of the production models are made at Toyota’s manufacturing facility in San Antonio. So it would be a really cool place to pick up a win.”

Amazingly, TMS is the first track on the 2016 schedule that the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender will have collected previous notes.

“Last year I raced seven times on a variety of tracks, but I didn’t start until the middle of the season, so this year all of the tracks we’ve been to have been new to me,” said Bell, second in the Rookie of the Year standings, three points behind KBM teammate William Byron. “Texas will be the first track that I’ll be going to that I raced at last year, so I’m really looking forward to it. We’re coming off three solid runs, so I’m expecting to have another fast JBL Tundra this weekend and feel like that we’ll be able to run up-front and compete for the win.

“I’m still trying to get my first pavement win. I felt like I’d get one last year but still haven’t. We’re trying hard to be better every day with a fast truck, and if I can do my job the win is right around the corner.”

Bell’s fourth-place finish at Kansas Speedway capped an intramural battle with KBM teammate Byron. Bell was lined up second and anticipating NASCAR overtime when he lost two spots over the final two laps after getting shuffled back on the final restart. Byron, 18, went on to record his first series victory.

“The only ‘team orders’ we have is help each other before we race each other,” Bell said. ”That’s what we were able to do at Kansas _ draft and pull away from the field before we started racing. I didn’t have enough for William but we were close. Again, the only thing you can ask for is to be in contention.”

The good news for Bell was that he finished the Kansas event shiny-side-up. Bell was scored in the fourth position when the field took the final restart for the season-opener at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway _ where he ended the race on his roof and with a 16th-place finish. Bell was leading with eight laps remaining on Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout when a blown right-front tire relegated him to a 26th-place finish. Bell then finished 19th on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway following a late-race accident.

That outcome left Bell 22nd in the Truck Series championship standings with a five-week break in the schedule to ponder. Fortunately, Bell spent the NCWTS downtime racing in other disciplines. A win in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Super Late Model at Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, N.C., and another for Venturini Motorsports in the ARCA Racing Series at Salem (Ind.) Speedway helped his confidence and spurred improved results when he returned to the No. 4 Tundra.

Bell posted that season-best fourth-place finish at Kansas, then bettered it a week later with a third-place run at Dover. Bell added  his third consecutive top-10 finish with an eighth-place result in the series’ most recent stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway, like AMS a sister 1.5-mile track to Texas Motor Speedway. Bell’s 85 championship points-scored over the last three races are second only to championship leader Matt Crafton (106) during that span.

Crafton has won the last two Truck Series races and the past two June events at TMS (9 p.m., EDT, on Fox Sports 1). The ThorSport Racing driver also has three runnerup showings at Texas. Driver of the No. 88 Tundra, Crafton leads the standings on the strength of two wins, three top-fives and five top-10s. He holds a 12-point advantage over second-place Timothy Peters.

While the Truck Series hasn’t raced since May 21 at CMS, Bell has kept sharp with plenty of seat time. He finished 10th in the first road-course start of his career in the ARCA Racing Series event at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville on May 28 and then toured several dirt tracks over the last week. The “racing gypsy” picked up a win May 29 in the NRA Sprint Invaders event at Eldora and then won June 3 in the USAC National Midget race at Bloomington during Indiana Midget Week.

Bell won a combined 44 feature events across a variety of motorsports disciplines in 2014 and 2015, including the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. On dirt, he collected wins in the POWRi Midget, USAC National Midget, USAC Silver Crown and World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series.

“From my background, dirt-track, you race all the time,” Bell said. “I’m not happy if I’m not racing and I told these guys when we were making out the schedule, if we’re not racing trucks that’s fine. But keep me busy because I don’t want to be sitting at home. I’ve got an awesome group behind me at KBM,  Venturini Motorsports, JBL and Toyota and I’ve got a situation where I can continue to race and get better.”

To that end, team-owner Busch paired Bell and crew chief Baxter for 2016 after a one-race tryout last season. Baxter spent the 2015 season calling the shots for KBM’s No. 51 team, which collected two wins, 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes with drivers Daniel Suarez (12 starts), Matt Tifft (six starts), Busch (three starts), and Bell. In addition to his seven wins at KBM, Baxter boasts one other Truck Series victory (Cale Gale, 2012) and one NASCAR XFINITY Series win (David Reutimann, 2007).

“I’m really looking forward to getting to Texas,” said Baxter, who is in his fourth season atop the pit box for KBM. Baxter’s KBM drivers have posted seven wins, three poles, 1,218 laps-led, 26 top-five and 42 top-10 finishes across 72 starts.

“We finished second with Daniel in both Texas races last year, so I feel like we have a good baseline setup to unload with,” Baxter said. “We’re taking our newest Tundra, KBM-39, which we turned around quickly after racing it for the first time at Charlotte. The truck showed some good speed and Christopher did a really good job of bouncing back and getting another top-10 after we had some issues in the middle of the race.

“Even though the Truck Series has been off for a few weeks, Christopher’s been racing a lot of other stuff and getting lots of seat time _ which is good for a young driver. Coming over from the dirt stuff, the mile-and-a-half tracks that you can move around on seem to really fit his driving style, so I feel like we have a really good shot to run up-front and compete for the win Friday night.”

Baxter, who spent 12 years at Michael Waltrip Racing, is enjoying his tenure at KBM. “Kyle pretty much lets all the crew chiefs run their own program,” said Baxter, a 57-year-old native of San Diego, whose NASCAR resume dates to 1986. “Our company is built on winning races. We expect Chris to win, William Byron to win and Daniel Suarez to win.  It’s not something we discuss…it’s something we just know.

“Through all my years at Michael Waltrip Racing and here, I’ve always been given the young kids to work with. That goes back to David Reutimann or Scott Speed to the (Ryan) Truex kid, Travis Pastrana and Bubba (Darrell Wallace Jr.), so I’m pretty sure I’m a decent judge of talent. I’d say Chris is at the top of my list as far as a natural talent. It’s yet to be proven, but in my gut he’s as good as I’ve ever seen. He’s 21 and very young as far as knowing the sport and the workings of the sport. He’s just full of questions all the time. He’s turned into a good student of the sport; I like that attitude with my driver and with my employees.”

Bell said he appreciates being able to rely on Baxter and Busch during the sponge-phase of his NASCAR career. Bell added it’s quite gratifying to be able to repay his parents _ David, a real estate agent, and Kathy _ for their investment in his nomadic career choice.

“It’s been a really cool ride,” said Bell, recalling those I-35 commutes. “I grew up racing for my family and then there was a turning point where we didn’t have the money or the equipment to contend. I was able to meet some good people along the way and that’s what it’s all about _ getting an opportunity and making the most of it.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 9 2016
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