The path to landing a Cup Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing was bumpy for Christopher Bell, who was hired for the coveted job after the team told Erik Jones he was being let go at the end of the season.
The decision by Gibbs blindsided Jones, who thought talks on a contract extension had been progressing. That was before Leavine Family Racing said it was closing at the end of this season, a decision that could have put Bell out of a job.
The 25-year-old from Oklahoma is a longtime development driver for Toyota, a former Truck Series champion and twice nearly won the Xfinity Series championship driving for Gibbs. With the Leavine seat going away, both Gibbs and Toyota had to find a spot for Bell. It came at the expense of Jones.
“Uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said Tuesday. “I don’t think any of us, myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box.
“There was a time period a couple weeks ago that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to continue my Toyota relationship and I was pretty scared by that. They have been my centerpiece of my career, whether that be NASCAR racing or dirt racing. I didn’t want that to end.”
Leavine a week ago said it was closing and Jones was informed Gibbs would not renew his contract two days later. Bell was formally announced as the next driver of the No. 20 Toyota on Monday.
That closed a whirlwind week in which Jones appeared to be the last to learn his job was in jeopardy. Another longtime Toyota-supported driver, he has two wins in 133 Cup Series starts. He won the Truck Series championship in 2015 and has been part of the Gibbs organization his entire NASCAR career.
“I was blindsided a little bit. I didn’t expect it coming from our talks,” Jones said on NBC Sports before Sunday’s race. “I thought we were moving in a good direction.”
Bell said the way things unfolded have been “bittersweet” because it cost Jones his job. Bell followed Jones’ exact path through NASCAR’s national series and moved up each time Jones was promoted. The two are also de facto teammates since Leavine is a partner with Gibbs’ four-car organization.
“It was a tough spot,” Bell said. “I didn’t envy Coach Joe Gibbs at all. He had to make an extremely tough decision on what he wanted to do. Fortunately, it worked out for me, but I understand that it’s a very hard situation and I did have a lot of remorse for Erik because he has kind of been a guy that I have followed up through the same path and he has been along with Toyota just like me.”