By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It hasn’t been the best start to Christopher Bell’s Sunoco NASCAR Rookie of the Year campaign, but Sunday’s Food City Presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway may have just build valuable momentum.
Despite a late-race uncontrolled tire penalty, Bell’s No. 95 JBL Toyota Camry was able to survive the mayhem that “Thunder Valley” provided and scored a ninth-place, equaling his Coca-Cola 600 effort last Sunday.
“We struggled a little bit early, but we continued to make progress on the JBL Camry,” said Bell. “I felt like for a time there we had a contending car, which was good.”
Not only it’s Bell’s second career Cup Series top-10 over the last three races, it also proved that the Leavine Family Racing has Bristol down.
Car owner Bob Leavine told Motorsports Tribune that since returning to racing, he’s been really satisfied with the turnaround.
“Considering our first four races the performance has been really satisfying. Everyone was excited to get back on track after Phoenix,” said Leavine. “It’s like a clean slate for us being able to put those four bad races behind us. Christopher is getting more comfortable and he’s doing a great job. I’m glad to see things turning around and now we are doing what we knew we could do on track.”
Although the result didn’t match Matt DiBenedetto’s runner-up effort where he led 93 laps last August, Leavine described the team’s success at Bristol as a natural fit to not just his former driver and the valiant Oklahoman, but others that raced his No. 95 car.
“Bristol just happens to fit both Matt and Christopher’s driving styles. Back when Kasey (Kahne) and Michael (McDowell) drove for us we were also decent at Bristol,” Leavine on his drivers’ performances over the years. “There’s really no commonality, Bristol is just a fun track and sometimes you are lucky there and sometimes you are not.
“Like the crash today, Christopher maneuvered around it and some others weren’t so lucky. Bristol fits Christopher and we’ve always had a decent setup there for our cars.”
Bell said that it’s good to see himself having results that goes the team’s way and hopes it continues at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“We battled back and have begun to see some results, which is good,” said Bell. “It’s nice to be getting some results after the start of the season we had. We are continuing to build and get better, which is the goal.”
Since racing resumed two weeks ago, Bell’s sudden progression propelled him from 32nd heading into Darlington to now 25th in the regular season standings going into the QuickTrip Folds of Honor 500 June 7. Live coverage beings at 3:00 pm EST on FOX with the race consisting 325 laps.
Leavine commented that most of the real progress has come from Bell getting used to competing at the sport’s highest level as well as the team working on the car, notably Bell’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff and competition director Mike Wheeler being real helpful.
“They worked hard at the shop and it’s brought everyone together. We’ve got a great group of guys who work well together,” said Leavine. “Christopher is getting better by leaps and bounds each week and being more patient and knowing when to push something or not. He’s picking it up fast, he did a great job today. Confidence builds on confidence.”
Bell already two national touring wins at the popular 1.5-mile circuit which hasn’t been repaved since 1997, winning in both the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series (2017) and Xfinity Series (2019).
That in mind, for LFR to push forward with the positive momentum, it’ll require additional learning from the 25-year-old as June rolls along.
“I’m a rookie and I’m learning more every race,” Bell on keeping the momentum alive. “Jason is new with this Cup Series package, and as we continue to go back to the tracks we are continuing to grow and learn as a team.”