The writing was already on the wall. When Joe Gibbs Racing had announced this past summer that they had re-signed Christopher Bell for 2020 and beyond, but were working out a deal to retain Erik Jones too, the team had too many drivers for their allotted cars in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
It would make no sense at all to bring Bell back to a third year with the organization in the XFINITY Series. He has 15 wins in 68 career starts there. With a four team limit in the Cup Series and JGR having all four drivers lined up for next season, they needed a place to house Bell.
Leavine Family Racing is an aligned team with JGR already and with Matt DiBenedetto not having a contract lined up wit them for 2020, it was obvious what was coming. On Tuesday, the obvious became official.
LFR announced that they had signed Bell to drive the No. 95 Toyota next season and will bring his crew chief Jason Ratcliff with him. Ratcliff, currently Bell’s crew chief in the XFINITY Series, has six full seasons in the Monster Energy Series as crew chief, most recently with Matt Kenseth. Mike Wheeler, the current crew chief for the No. 95 and Matt DiBendetto, will remain with the company.
“Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing,” Bell said in a team release. “To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true. It also means a lot to me to have Rheem make the move to Cup racing with me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without their support and I’m also excited to have the opportunity to represent Procore now.
“Having been under the JGR banner these past seasons in the Xfinity Series and with TRD for as long as I can remember, having their continued support as I transition to LFR is extremely comforting and will be a tremendous benefit to me.”
This year, Bell has earned another seven victories to date, the most recent coming in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs opener at Richmond Raceway to lock himself into the Round of 8 in his quest for the series championship.
The 24-year-old from Norman, Oklahoma, began his NASCAR national series career in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, earning the 2017 championship with Kyle Busch Motorsports. In 54 races spanning over four years, including a pair of full-time seasons, Bell raced to seven victories under the KBM umbrella.
The 2020 Daytona 500 will serve as Bell’s first career Monster Energy Series start.
“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” team owner Bob Leavine said in a statement. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year.”
Also, Toyota is making sure that JGR and LFR are aligned the way JGR and Furniture Row Racing was. This past year, they weren’t as close as they will be in 2020. Essentially, Bell’s car will be a fifth JGR car but flying under a different banner.
“It is a huge priority to make sure Christopher (Bell) has what he needs to succeed,” said TRD’s David Wilson.
In 2016, FRR switched from Chevrolet to Toyota as that season began a new relationship between the two. It paid off in big ways.
From 2005 through 2015, the team had two career wins 23 top five finishes, 54 top 10’s, one pole and 1,064 laps led.
In 2016 alone, Martin Truex Jr. won four times, had eight top fives, 17 top 10’s five poles and led 1,809 laps. In 2017, they grew to a two car team to house Jones for a season. That was also the same year that Truex Jr. won the championship.
Between 2016 and 2018, Truex won 16 times, produced 47 top five finishes, scored 64 top 10’s, earned 12 poles and led 5,078 laps.
That’s what LFR is gaining next year with this new alliance. That’s why despite what DiBenedetto was doing, this underfunded team had bigger plans ahead that was out of their control. I’m sure that they would have loved to keep DiBenedetto and strengthen their alliance with JGR/Toyota but JGR/Toyota had more at stake to bring Bell over instead.