Christopher Bell ends dominant year as a deserving Truck Series champion

John K Harrelson/Harrelson Photography Inc.

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Celebrate, dirt racing fans.

You have another NASCAR champion.

Christopher Bell capped off a dominant 2017 season with a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in Friday’s Ford EcoBoost 200, finishing second behind friend and fellow dirt graduate Chase Briscoe to top rival Championship 4 contenders Johnny Sauter (who finished third), Austin Cindric (fifth) and Matt Crafton (sixth).

“There are no words to describe what this means to me,” Bell said afterward.

“To be able to be here and to finish out my career at Kyle Busch Motorsports with the championship is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life and, man, to be able to do it with JBL on the truck – they’ve been with me since day one and the start of my career, and were with me through last year. We had a struggle point there through the beginning and middle parts of last year and they stuck with me and believed in me, and we were able to preserve and come away a champion a year later.”

The result capped off what might have been Bell’s best year to date.

After falling just short of Truck Series title in the 2016 Championship 4, the 22-year-old began 2017 with the most emotional win of his young career – a triumph in his native Oklahoma’s own Chili Bowl Nationals.

The momentum from that victory carried Bell into his second full NASCAR season, and the Kyle Busch Motorsports ace blossomed into a star. After suffering from inconsistency and occasional bursts of impatience in a one-win rookie season, Bell became the Truck Series’ best driver in his return.

It took the sophomore just two races to get to victory lane, avenging a 2016 crash out at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a dominant win. He added another victory three months later at Texas Motor Speedway, and followed it up by piling on additional regular season wins at Kentucky Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

Bell became the Truck Series’ first regular season champion, and entered an overwhelming favorite to make it to the Championship 4 due to the playoff points from his wins and points position. In the end he lived up to that expectation, winning the the Round of 8 opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and cruising through the rest of the opening two rounds with top 10s to secure his spot in the final four for the second-consecutive year.

He didn’t qualify well at Homestead-Miami Speedway – starting 13th – but Bell quickly proved to have a strong long-run car as he maneuvered his way to the front of the field for a Stage 1 victory.

Once he got to the front, Bell showcased the one thing that separated his 2017 run from previous years – patience.

Bell had arguably the best truck throughout the evening on Friday night, but he never forced the issue. Much like in his breakout Chili Bowl win at the beginning of the year, the Oklahoman excelled by avoiding mistakes.

He passed Briscoe late in Stage 1 to take the segment victory, but did so easily and cleanly. Throughout the second and final stages Bell once again proved to have a strong truck, but he bided his time, running a lower lane and driving carefully behind Briscoe and Ben Rhodes as the laps wound down.

With Sauter a distant fourth in the final laps, Bell kept his cool. He backed away from Rhodes and avoiding taking on any unnecessary risks; though he did pass the Kentuckian after he ran out of fuel with five laps remaining.

In a race that saw no cautions outside of the two stage endings, Bell showcased his growth and maturity with an old-school Homestead drive to his first NASCAR championship. The result was more than he ever could have dreamed of.

“You never know when your last win is, when your last championship is, so to be able to be standing here as a NASCAR champion is something I would say I dreamed of,” Bell said. “But I didn’t ever think it was a possibility, so I didn’t ever really dream of it. But it – I’m just really speechless.”

For the first time, he’ll have a championship trophy from an asphalt series to sit alongside the trophy from his 2013 USAC National Midget Championship.

But while the Truck Series title was Bell’s first on asphalt, it may not be his last.

Next season Bell will make the move up to the XFINITY Series with Joe Gibbs Racing, a pairing that already produced a race win this season at Kansas Speedway.

He’ll be competing for arguably the best team in NASCAR’s second series – they’ve won 12 races this season – and he’ll bring the same championship pedigree that propelled him to a title over a host of fellow young prospects and the veterans Crafton and Sauter in the Truck Series this season.

Make no mistake, Bell should be among the list of championship favorites in the XFINITY Series next season.

Of course, he has another goal in mind first.

“It’s been the career year for my life so far,” Bell said. “So, got another Chili Bowl to win here in a couple months.”

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