The connections were obvious from the start, and now itâs official: Christopher Bell will graduate to the NASCAR Cup Series with Leavine Family Racing in 2020.
Toyota Racing Development had shepherded Bellâs development from the start, as a teenageÂ dirt racing star through every step of the stock car ladder system, where he is once again the favorite to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
At the same time, Bell had nowhere to go within the Toyota system. At face value, Joe Gibbs Racing had three veterans under long-term contracts in Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Erik Jones was an impending free agent, but a Bell-for-Jones swap would have risked that team repeating the mistakes of allowing Joey Logano to grow into a champion with another organization.
Toyota could not realistically expect Bell to remain in the Xfinity Series for a third full-time season and not bolt for another manufacturer in 2021, leaving Leavine Family Racing as the only option.
There, Matt DiBenedetto was under contract through the 2020 season, but Toyota offered team owner Bob Leavine an offer he could not refuse: Take on our driver and receive increased manufacturer support under more reasonable terms.
Thus, Bell will drive the No. 95 next season with support from personal sponsor Rheem and returning team sponsor Procore.
Bell will retain his Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, while current No. 95 crew chief, Mike Wheeler, will remain at Leavine in a competition director role.
Jones, meanwhile, received a one-year extension from JGR, which opens the door to relitigate this scenario a year from now. DiBenedetto landed at the Wood Brothers, where Paul Menard retired with one year remaining on his own contract.
The other details from Bell to Leavine Family Racing can be found below.
NOW LEAVINE FAMILY RACING CAN BE CITED AS THE NEW FURNITURE ROW
When Leavine Family Racing first joined Toyota over the offseason, there was a widespread assumption that Bob Leavineâs team would fill the void left by Furniture Row Racingâs closure.
That was never the case.
Leavine received technical support from both Toyota and Gibbs, but it was at a reduced tier from the Gibbs-Furniture Row alliance. For all intents and purposes, Furniture Row was a fifth Gibbs car over the past three seasons, but Leavine has raced totally independently — albeit with occasional, minimal technical support.
Now, Leavine is indeed a de facto fifth car, as characterized by TRD president David Wilson himself.
“The easiest way to characterize the alliance is itâs akin to what we had between TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing a couple of years ago,” Wilson said during a press conference on Tuesday. “Iâm certainly not going to get into the detail of it, but enhanced hardware, enhanced communication, sharing of information, the tools that TRD provide will be further enhanced, time available on our sim and again, everything that TRD brings to the table is going to be the same as what it has been with Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Bell will receive the same amount of simulator time as his GibbsÂ teammates, and his car will have access to the data of the four primary Gibbs cars, as well.
BELL WILL NOT MAKE HIS CUP DEBUT THIS YEAR
Bell came up just short in winning the Xfinity Series championship last season, and Gibbs and Toyota want the 24-year-old to focus on that goal this fall, especially with a Cup Series package that is radically different from the second-tier division.
There will be plenty of time for Bell to get into the simulatorÂ to prepare for the 2020 Cup Series season.
“Obviously, we canât just go out and put Christopher in a Cup car, as much as weâd love to, and go out testing,” Wilson said. “Thatâs not the way it works in our sport.
“We do have tools that will be made available to him once he finishes his business this year. And let me just add, the flip side of that is that Matt DiBenedetto and Bob (Leavine) and the family still have unfinished business, as well, and we certainly want to finish out our season strong and hopefully give Matt an opportunity to get up there in the winnerâs circle before the end of this season is over.”
BELL WILL STILL RACE SPRINT CARS AND MIDGETS ON A LIMITED BASIS
Christopher Bell launched a sprint car program this month and still expects to race those types of cars when his schedule allows.
Of course, as a Cup driver, his schedule will be more demanding, but Bell expects to manage that with respect to Toyota, Leavine and Gibbs.
“I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit,” Bell said. With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, itâs a little bit “bigger than what the Xfinity cars areÂ and itâs going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series, so as Bob (Leavine) alluded to, Iâm going to be allowed some races. But I understand that the schedule wonât be near what it has been the last several years.”
At the same time, Leavine recognizes that Bell running a handful of dirt races is important to his competitive spirit. Leavine also allowed Kasey Kahne to race dirt when they raced together in 2018. Leavine doesnât expect to tellÂ Bell just how many he can do.
“Sharon (Leavine) and I got to our first (dirt race) because of going to see Kasey race,” Leavine said. “He enjoyed that, and to take that away from someone who started out there like Christopher did, and he enjoys it so much, I canât imagine.
“Thereâs not a plan for him to stop that. I know he will be prudent in races he goes to because he understands the commitment that weâre going to ask of him in the Cup Series of getting familiar, the time spent like David (Wilson) said, in the simulator and those things. He knows heâs going to have to readjust his time and readjust his schedule, and heâs a smart enough young man to do that. I donât have to tell him. Iâm sure he will invite me to a race here and there.”
WHAT ABOUT JOE GIBBSâ 2020 XFINITY LINEUP?
That will be decided by Gibbs over the next several months, and while Toyota will have input, there is not currently a manufacturer-supported driver like Jones and Bell on the cusp of advancing to the Xfinity Series.
“Well thatâs really a JGR question,” Wilson said. “Certainly, we work hand in hand with Joe and the family over there, but weâre not prepared to discuss the 2020 lineup yet. I imagine it will be shortly, though.”