Christopher Bell's first NASCAR Cup win set off huge celebration in Oklahoma. Here's who cheered loudest
David and Kathy Bell would’ve loved to have been at Daytona for their son’s first NASCAR Cup Series win.
But being 1,267 miles away in Norman did not temper their emotions.
“We were yelling and crying,” David said with a chuckle.
Christopher Bell scored the first Cup Series victory of his career Sunday at the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253. Running on the infield road course at Daytona International Speedway, he was near the front all day but didn’t take the lead for good until the next-to-last lap. He passed Joey Logano, then pulled away on the final lap for victory.
It set off a wild celebration all across the racing community in Oklahoma; Bell is the first Oklahoma native to be a full-time NASCAR driver.
But nowhere was the celebration greater than at his parents’ house in Norman. COVID protocols kept them from traveling to Florida but not from reveling in the moment. There were cheers and tears. There was happiness and joy.
But there was relief, too.
“Going to Joe Gibbs (Racing) this year was a big deal because they let Erik Jones go to make room for Christopher,” Bell’s dad said of the offseason move to one of NASCAR’s premier racing teams. “There’s a lot of pressure on him.”
Drivers are expected to win. Their teams want it. Ditto for their sponsors.
After a winless rookie season, Bell felt the weight of those expectations. He didn't even give himself a pass because COVID limited practice and magnified his learning curve.
Going to Joe Gibbs Racing only added to the pressure. The team includes some of NASCAR’s top drivers. Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. The team provides them the best equipment possible, but then, they are expected to go out and win.
“I knew that going into this year that I was going to have to perform,” Bell told reporters the other day.
His parents knew it, too.
So when Bell told them after the Daytona 500 a couple Sundays ago that he felt like he had a car capable of winning, there was excitement. That first win might come soon. But there was worry, too. What if he ran great but got caught up in a wreck? Or if he did everything right only to have a tire blow?
Racing can be cruel that way.
And racing on a road course can be even more cruel.
“With all the left and right turns and the cars are really close together, somebody can get right on your rear,” David Bell said. “If you let up at all, they can turn you.”
That meant the Bells were holding their breath almost the entire time Christopher was on the track Sunday.
When he made contact with Kurt Busch on a pass with about five laps to go, it bent the right front side of Bell’s car. The tire started smoking.
“Ugh,” his dad thought, “that’s gonna ruin a good day because that tire’s gonna go down and put us in the wall.”
Then came Bell’s pass of Logano with just over a lap to go. Logano is known to be aggressive — his style was partially the cause of the big final-lap crash a week earlier in the Daytona 500 — but Bell avoided any contact on the pass. He then extended that lead on the final lap.
But back in Norman, his parents knew nothing was certain until he reached the finish line. Only when the checkered flag flew did they finally celebrate.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” David said.
Their phones started buzzing and ringing almost as soon as the race was over. Most of the calls came from people in the racing community in Oklahoma, people from local tracks and teams who had supported Christopher all along the way. Clyde and Patti Steen, who owned I-44 Speedway when he started racing. Mark and Gloria Banister, who bought the racetrack from the Steens. Shane Carson and Danny Jennings, legendary local racers.
On and on the calls and texts went.
Then around 11 p.m., Christopher called.
“I could tell he was smiling ear to ear,” his dad said. “He was enjoying the victory. Winning a Cup race is very, very, very hard, and it just kind of validated everything to him.
“It’s been quite a journey.”
So many people in Oklahoma have been part of it. They believed. Encouraged. Supported.
And Sunday, they celebrated — none louder than David and Kathy Bell.
“I felt like he was gonna win some races this year,” his dad said, “but to have it out of the way this early is great.”
“It relieves a lot of pressure on mom and dad,” he said, “and I’m sure a lot on him.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.