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Auto racing: Norman native Christopher Bell set for NASCAR Cup debut at Daytona 500

Christopher Bell, a 25-year-old Norman native, will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500 at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. [Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports]
Christopher Bell, a 25-year-old Norman native, will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500 at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. [Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports]

A life spent going in circles was Christopher Bell’s dream.

But the Oklahoma-born race car driver’s life away from the track has been spinning, too.

The Norman native was promoted to NASCAR’s top series in September, and less than two weeks ago, the 25-year-old married his girlfriend of more than five years, Morgan Kemenah.

On Sunday, Bell will become the second Oklahoman ever and the first in 58 years to race in the Daytona 500. NASCAR Cup’s equivalent of the Super Bowl kicks off the season at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, televised by Fox, and Bell will be representing Oklahoma with pride, as he has done in the lower-level series over the past five years.

“It’s been a lot of change in my life, that’s for sure,” Bell told The Oklahoman. “But it’s been a lot of fun. The offseason’s gone by really fast, and it’s not because I’m racing that much.

“Morgan was spending a lot of restless hours getting prepared for the wedding. Along with that, I was spending a lot of time in the shop getting accustomed to ... Cup racing. It’s been a change of pace.”

With all that’s gone on away from the track in the last few months, Bell hasn’t been racing quite as much as usual, though he made it to Tulsa for the annual Chili Bowl Nationals dirt-track extravaganza last month.

On the dirt, of course, is where Bell discovered both his love and his talent for racing.

His father, David Bell — who will have to watch the Daytona 500 from his couch in Norman while he battles an illness — has a few special memories from his son’s racing career.

Christopher’s first win in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2016 — which made him the first Oklahoman to win a race in any of NASCAR’s three top series — and his first Xfinity Series win in 2017. Also in 2017, Bell won the Truck Series season championship, and he has been in the top four of either the Truck or Xfinity Series final standings in each of his full-time seasons.

But more than any of those accomplishments, David best remembers Christopher’s first win in a car that David hadn’t built himself.

“Up until that point, I had been piecemealing his cars together,” David said. “Then Darren Ruston took Christopher on in mini-sprints and put Christopher in brand new equipment. We went to a pretty big race at I-44 Speedway. We entered Christopher in two classes, and he won them both.”

Afterward, a 12-year-old Christopher had an I-told-you-so moment for his father.

“Dad, if I can get in good equipment, I told you I could win,” Christopher told his dad.

By the time Christopher was 16, he had moved to asphalt racing and got linked up with Toyota’s developmental program. That helped his meteoric rise through the ranks as one of the sport’s top young drivers.

The manufacturer has continued to be supportive, as has former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, who employed Bell in the Xfinity Series the past two seasons.

That support was crucial to Bell’s promotion with Leavine Family Racing.

While the leaders at Joe Gibbs Racing expressed a desire to keep Bell in their system, they didn’t have any open seats in their Cup cars.

But in the middle of last season, Gibbs and Leavine orchestrated an alliance that involved sharing equipment and information.

That meant Christopher would stay connected with Gibbs and Toyota, while also achieving his goal of racing in the Cup Series.

With that came another conversation with his father.

“He called and said, ‘Dad, we’re going Cup racing,’” David recalled. “It was the culmination of reaching the ultimate goal in auto racing.

“It was very uplifting and exciting that the goal had been achieved.”

When the green flag flies on Sunday, that achievement becomes official, when Christopher shifts through the gears of his Toyota Camry alongside racers who have been in Cup cars since before he could reach the pedals of a go-kart. And he'll be doing something only one other Oklahoman, Troy Ruttman in 1963, has ever done, competing on racing's biggest stage.

“It’s unbelievable,” Christopher Bell said. “I’m out there in practice, drafting with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex. Seeing all those cars with the sponsors on the front that you’ve been watching on TV for years, and the next thing you know, it’s real life. They’re right in front of you.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity, and hopefully I’ll be able to mix it up with ‘em.”

Scott Wright

A lifelong resident of the Oklahoma City metro area, Scott Wright has been on The Oklahoman staff since 2005, covering a little bit of everything on the state's sports scene. He has been a beat writer for football and basketball at Oklahoma and... Read more ›