FORT WORTH, Texas (Oct. 24, 2018) — While his friends were begging him to come play with them in the dirt, five-year-old Christopher Bell had other ideas when it came to toying around in that Oklahoma red clay.
Two years later, Bell was speeding and sliding around the I-44 Riverside Speedway dirt track in Oklahoma City. It was the start of a racing career that has fast forwarded to this 23-year-old Norman, Okla. native on the verge of becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to win back-to-back championships in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series, respectively.
“I thought to myself that this kid is a little bit different than a normal five- or six-year-old,” recalled Bell’s uncle, Will Orr, who would bring Bell to I-44 Riverside Speedway to watch races as a kid. “We’d sit in the stands and the other kids would want him to come play and he wouldn’t play with them. He wanted to watch every race on the track.”
Added Bell: “Growing up in Oklahoma, I thought my career would go the route of the World of Outlaws racing sprint cars. But then I was fortunate to get a chance to drive a truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports and the rest is history.”
In 2017, Bell recorded five wins en route to capturing the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship for Kyle Busch Motorsports. This season, he moved up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series and over to Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 20 Toyota entry, but the results never wavered.
Bell already has set a single-season rookie record for the Xfinity Series with six wins – eclipsing the mark formerly held by Busch — and once again is a primary contender for the championship crown. He won two of three races in the opening NASCAR Playoffs Round of 12 to advance to the Round of 8, which returns to action with a visit to Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, Nov. 3, for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.
It is the middle race of the three-event Round of 8, which will determine which four drivers will advance to the Championship 4 to battle for the title Saturday, Nov. 17, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Texas Motor Speedway is my home NASCAR track and even as a little kid when we’d drive by it on the way to a dirt race somewhere, I’d be amazed at how big and magnificent the venue is,” Bell said. “From a kid growing up on fifth-mile dirt tracks driving by a mile-and-a-half speedway, you never really expect to race there. To win there (last year in the Truck Series) is something truly special.”
The path from a starry-eyed youth to a NASCAR champion can certainly be traced back to his racing roots at that little dirt track on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
“You have to have a starting point for these drivers,” said Mark Banister, owner of I-44 Riverside Speedway . “There wouldn’t be NASCAR drivers without the small local tracks, so the importance of these tracks – besides the family entertainment that it gives – is building careers. Without them, there’s nowhere else to race.”
There almost was nowhere else to race back in 2013 – literally. A tornado devastated I-44 Riverside Speedway, destroying its bleachers, catch fence and other valuable pieces of its property and structure. But in just 73 days, Mark and Gloria Banister, along with a dedicated crew of staff and volunteers, made sure the speedway was put back together enough to go racing that August.
Last week, Bell, in conjunction with his race car manufacturer Toyota, visited the speedway to help give back to the place that started his career. The Banisters are receiving a brand-new grandstand from Bell and Toyota that will sit on the backstretch coming out of Turn 2.
“They’ve done a really good job rebuilding this place and getting it back to being Oklahoma City’s only race track,” Bell said. “I never really would have anticipated being in a position to where I can help give back, so to be able to come back here and help the race track that made me. It’s an honor.”
“We’ve always tried to stress to Christopher that he appreciate where he came from,” said David Bell, Christopher’s father. “(We stressed for him) to give back when he can and to spend time with the fans and the people that he raced with and against, so this is very special for us.”
When Bell returns to Texas Motor Speedway next week, he finds himself in an unfamiliar position in the NASCAR Playoffs. He was dominant in the opening round with wins at Richmond and Dover, but got off to a rocky start in the Round of 8 opener last week at Kansas.
He got caught up in a multi-car accident on the opening lap that resulted in a 37th-place finish. He currently remains among the cutline to advance among the eight drivers, but is fourth in the points and just one point ahead of fifth-place Matt Tifft.
Bell has time to solidify his standing and position to advance beginning with next Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. CT, TV: NBC Sports Network, Radio: PRN, SiriusXM, 95.9 The Ranch locally) , where he finished second in April’s Xfinity Series race, and then the Round of 8 elimination race on Saturday, Nov. 10, at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
“With this NASCAR format, the goal is to make it to Homestead and have a shot at it,” Bell said. “We’ve done a great job winning races and getting the bonus points set up to where I can have a good cushion. If we just execute and do our job, I think we’ll be in the final four at Homestead and from that point it’s anybody’s race. The way this format works, there’s no clear-cut favorite once you get to Homestead because you don’t know who’s going to bring the best car and which driver’s going to get around Homestead the best.”
Since Texas Motor Speedway added a fall race to the docket in 2005, only two drivers have ever won that race and gone on to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship that same season. Jimmie Johnson did it in 2007 and ’13 while Tony Stewart accomplished the feat in 2011.
“RACING TO FREE SLURPEE DAY” — Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage was confident that Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson or Alex Bowman – the four drivers below the cutline at that time – would win last week’s Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway and automatically advance to the next round.
So confident, in fact, that Gossage came out publicly during Kevin Harvick‘s media visit to Texas last week and said he would give everyone free Slurpee drinks from the new 7-Eleven store being built on property at Texas Motor Speedway if none of the four wound up in Victory Lane at Kansas.
“The reason that I had Slurpee on the mind is we have a 7-Eleven store at the speedway and I was in it yesterday,” said Gossage during the press conference with Harvick. “… And I got to thinking about these four drivers so this is my word. Keselowski. Blaney. Larson. Bowman. One of them will win Sunday at Kansas and advance to the round of eight. But if one of them doesn’t win…”
Harvick chimed in: “They’re serving slurpees when they get here.”
Gossage: “I’m buying. I’ll pour them for everybody, ok? Slurpees for everybody so how’s that?”
Harvick: “I think that’s a great deal. Are all flavors on tap?”
Gossage: “I don’t know. What flavor’s your favorite favor?”
Harvick: “Well when I was a kid, I think it was like the Coca-Cola, it was the darker one.”
Gossage: “Yeah, you got the cola flavor and then you’ve got strawberry, raspberry, blueberry so anyway, everybody gets a Slurpee, that’s the deal.”
Harvick: “Make sure your Slurpee machine’s iced up.”
It better be now.
Race fans coming to next week’s AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Playoff tripleheader can thank Chase Elliott for the free Slurpee party as he emerged victorious at Kansas.
Elliott should be first in line when Gossage begins pouring free Slurpees at the new 7-Eleven store at Texas Motor Speedway from 4-6 p.m. CT on Friday, Nov. 2, of race week. The new store will be located on the inner ring road outside of the North Tunnel and will have a soft opening this Saturday, beginning at 8 a.m. CT when campers begin arriving on property.
FAST FACT II
With at least five laps led in next Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, Martin Truex Jr. will become just the eighth driver in history to lead at least 600 laps at TMS. Brad Keselowski can achieve the same feat should he lead at least 11 laps. Ironically, neither has been able to convert those laps led into a victory thus far at Texas.
“WALK THIS WAY” – NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ryan Reed of Roush Fenway Racing will serve as a special guest for the NASCAR Fitness Challenge Fan Lap powered by Lilly Diabetes that will be held Sunday, Nov. 4, prior to the AAA Texas 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
The event, which begins at 10:30 a.m. CT at the Lilly stage at pit out toward Turn 1, is open to all fans attending the AAA Texas 500 that have a race ticket and a pre-race pass. There is no sign-up for this event as interested fans can make their way to the stage area for the opening ceremonies.
Reed will be joined by co-host Kim Coon in leading the fans for a lap around the 1.5-mile track. Reed also will have a Q&A session with the participants, which will include his own battle with diabetes, and give the command to start the fitness challenge lap.
FAST FACT III
With a win in next Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, Kyle Busch can become the fourth driver in TMS history to sweep both races in the same year, joining Carl Edwards (2008), Denny Hamlin (’10) and Jimmie Johnson (’15). Busch also would move into a tie for second with Edwards for the most wins at TMS with four.