NASCAR Cup rookie Christopher Bell will drive the No. 20 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing next year, the team announced Monday. Bell is replacing Erik Jones, who is parting ways with his longtime JGR team next season.
Bell, 25, is a Toyota developmental driver currently racing the No. 95 for Leavine Family Racing. Spire Motorsports will take over LFR next season, the team announced Tuesday, and Bell will transition to the No. 20 car.
Bell said the deal was both a relief and bittersweet knowing that he would replace Jones, who has charted a similar path with Toyota through his career in NASCAR’s national series.
“I was really happy for myself but at the same time, just as Toyota’s been a huge part of my career, Toyota’s been a huge part of Erik’s too, so it was a tough spot,” Bell said Tuesday. “And I didn’t envy Coach Joe Gibbs at all because he had to make an extremely tough decision on what he wanted to do.”
Bell was the 2017 Truck Series champion driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He advanced to a successful full-time Xfinity Series career the following year, notching 15 wins and 38 top-five finishes in the Xfinity Series driving full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 and 2019.
In his current rookie Cup season with LFR, which has a technical alliance with JGR, Bell has earned one top-five finish at the first Pocono race and has 10 top-five finishes. Bell raced in the top-five to close the first two stages of Sunday’s race at Michigan, running side-by-side with Jones early before earning a 17th place finish.
“I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “But I’m gonna be cheering for Erik just as well as everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing is.”
Jones, who still doesn’t have a ride announced for next year, told NBC’s broadcast Sunday before the race at Michigan that he was “blindsided a little bit” by the team’s decision to not extend his contract. Jones had secured two playoff berths for the No. 20 car in 2018 and 2019, and was looking for another extension with the team.
“I didn’t expect it coming from our talks,” Jones said. “I thought we were moving in a good direction.”
Bell similarly said the news about LFR’s closure caught him off guard and put JGR ownership in a tough spot for determining the No. 20 driver for next year.
“I don’t think any of us — myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota — none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box,” Bell said. “But there was a time period a couple of weeks ago that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to continue my Toyota relationship.”
Bell was able to land the deal, however, and said that he’s been racing better knowing that his job was on the line.
“I feel like I perform better under pressure and under stressful situations,” Bell said. “Whenever money is on the line, I feel like I perform my best and I’ve been racing for my job the last couple weeks ever since it’s been known that LFR was going out of business.”
“I didn’t know exactly where I was going to land,” Bell added. He said if there were offers from other teams since LFR’s announcement, he wasn’t made aware of them.
“But it worked out really good for me,” Bell said. “I’m really glad that it did. I understand that I’ve got a lot more to do to prove myself in this sport.”
Bell will be the fifth driver competing in the No. 20 Cup car for Gibbs, following Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Jones, all of whom have had to make the jump from Toyota. Bell, however, will stick with his roots for at least another year.
“I am extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays,” Bell said. “And race with (Toyota Racing Development) hopefully through the grassroots part for a long time to come.”