The worst kept secret in the NASCAR garage was confirmed on Tuesday afternoon. Christopher Bell will pilot the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing during the 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Tell me if that’s breaking news. I’ll wait.
See, everyone knew that this move was coming. Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota weren’t going to let Bell get away from them the same way Kyle Larson, William Byron and others have. Bell, is a rising star and Toyota ensured that they were going to keep them. With JGR being the top Toyota team, it meant that his contract extension was going to keep him with JGR/Toyota for the foreseeable future.
The problem is, you can’t have more than four full time teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. JGR already had Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin under contract for 2020. Erik Jones was working on an extension to remain with them himself. Jones, is a serviceable driver too. Why kick him to the curb?
So, the likeliest destination would be to move Bell to Leavine Family Racing. The issue there was that LFR had Matt DiBenedetto who was doing a lot with a little there. LFR wasn’t receiving the alliance support with JGR like Furniture Row Racing was. There was some support, but not a lot.
With DiBenedetto running so well, fans gave LFR a ton of backlash for new renewing his contract for next season. At that point, Jones was coming back to JGR and with DiBenedetto not coming back to LFR, we knew then that Bell was going to be their driver.
So, LFR made a business decision. How can you blame them? They are a team searching for money. That’s how this thing works now. If you don’t have the money or resources, you’re not going to beat the top teams and if you’re not running up front with those said top team, you’re not going to be around this sport long.
LFR had an opportunity to lock up closer with JGR/Toyota, the same way Furniture Row was, but the only catch was going to be them housing the driver that JGR/Toyota chooses. Sounds like a no brainer right?
If someone said that they’re going to give you millions of dollars and top notch equipment to make you a top team in the sport that you love with the only catch is not hiring a fan favorite driver but allowing them to choose the driver for you, why would you turn that down?
“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.”
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.