When it was first announced that the NASCAR Cup Series would stage its first dirt race since 1970, there were a few names that immediately stood out as the most serious contenders to claim victory. One of those names was Christopher Bell. Although only 26 years of age, the native of Norman, Oklahoma is one of the most accomplished dirt racers currently competing on a regular basis in NASCAR.
Bell won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on dirt at the Eldora Speedway in 2015 then followed that up with a runner-up finish in the Eldora Dirt Derby the following year. He has won five World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series features, and has taken home three “Driller” trophies from the Chili Bowl Nationals as poof of his prowess on clay surfaces.
But aside from a history of past success on dirt, Bell will enter the Food City Dirt Race at the Bristol Motor Speedway with another key advantage. After spending a somewhat lackluster year with Leavine Family Racing in 2020, the talented young driver was moved to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2021 campaign and that move provided immediate success. In only his second race with is new team, Bell drove the No. 20 Toyota to a win on the road course at the Daytona International Speedway.
As a result of the triumph, Bell has almost certainly secured a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs. And that means he and his team will be able to take a few extra chances where they might have had to play it safe otherwise and use this race to bank points. That could spell bad news for the competition on Sunday.
“It’s definitely a race that I’ve had circled on the calendar whenever we went into the 2021 season and it still is,” Bell pointed out during a Thursday morning media availability. “I think I’ve got another great opportunity to win another race this weekend at Bristol and so we’re going to do everything we can to win another race. But man, it’s nice not having to rely on this and be like ‘man, this is our only way to the playoffs’. I think we have the opportunity for a great showing here and I hope we can capitalize on that and get some playoff points, get some stage points, have a good solid points day, and maybe come away with a victory.”
Bell knows that this will not a dirt race in the truest sense. Most dirt races do not allow spotters or two-way communication with crew members. Most dirt race cars do not have windshields. And few, if any, dirt races run to a distance of 250 laps.
For all of those reasons, the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion believes that another race held on dirt this weekend will serve as a true indicator of how things will go on Sunday in Thunder Valley. Several Cup Series drivers are set to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series preliminary race at BMS.
“I would say it’s no different than the Bristol truck race,” he explained. “It’s going to be a NASCAR race, that’s for sure. It won’t be a Midget race or a Sprint Car race. It still is a NASCAR race regardless of the surface underneath of us. It’s going to be an exciting one, though, and I hope we’re able to put on a great show.”
Although he has considerable experience on dirt, Bell understands his role on the No. 20 Toyota team. Championship winning crew chief Adam Stevens will still call the shots leading into and during the race.
“I’m definitely letting Adam run the show,” he said. “He’s an excellent crew chief and he knows what’s going on. So as far as practice plans and how many laps we’re going to do, I’m going to let him decide that. But definitely, my feedback is going to be critical because nobody knows what to expect, nobody knows what we’re going to be fighting, so Adam can generally lead us down the path.”
Again, with the NASCAR Playoffs essentially secured, Bell comes into the race that will be contested on a familiar surface with a great deal of confidence.
“I feel really good about it. I feel like I should have an advantage over the majority of the other competitors just because of my background and my experience on dirt tracks.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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