All around the dirt racing world, the names “CBell” and “Larson” carry great weight.
Larson staked his claim first, with a Turkey Night Grand Prix win in 2012. Two years later, Bell, then just a kid from Oklahoma, won that race and beat Larson to a Chili Bowl victory with a win in 2017.
“He [Christopher Bell] kicked my ass for a few years straight, like every race. I don’t know if I ever beat him. He made me work really hard to get better as a driver, especially on the dirt track stuff,” Kyle Larson said.
Bell shut Larson out of two Chili Bowl wins in 2018 and 2019. Then, Larson returned the favor in 2020, upsetting Bell after he led 38 of 55 laps.
Before Larson and Bell dueled for a Championship Four spot at Las Vegas, those races marked one of the most recent chapters in their dirt-to-Daytona duels.
Now, they get to write another one at Phoenix – all thanks to Toyota.
In the late 2000s/early 2010s, Toyota supported Keith Kunz, a midget car owner, in an effort to get more involved in grassroots racing.
Kunz’s driver was Kyle Larson.
Toyota introduced Larson to Joe Gibbs and then-NASCAR Cup Series owner Michael Waltrip. The manufacturer also supported him in his successful 2012 ARCA Menards Series East championship run.
By 2013, when it appeared there wasn’t a clear path to Cup with Toyota, Larson went to Chevrolet.
Meanwhile, Toyota picked up Christopher Bell, who took over Larson’s USAC ride and, before moving to Cup, went on to earn:
- The 2017 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship
- 16 NASCAR Xfinity Series wins
- 7 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series wins
- Four consecutive Championship Four berths (Trucks: 2016-17, Xfinity: 2018-19)
While Bell joined the NASCAR Cup Series in the pandemic-laden 2020 season with a closing Leavine Family Racing, he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021 and only needed two races to win.
Among this year’s Championship Four drivers, Bell had the fewest starts before his first NASCAR Cup Series win:
- Christopher Bell – 37 races
- Ryan Blaney – 67 races
- William Byron – 97 races
- Kyle Larson – 98 races
Now, in the Gen 7 era, Bell is the only driver who has made the Championship Four in both years. Three of his five Gen 7 wins have also been clutch playoff wins.
Another one at Phoenix would make good on the promise Toyota set to keep when they lost Larson and gained Bell.
Bell is among ten confirmed 2024 NASCAR Cup Series drivers who, since 2013, spent time with Toyota and won with them on their way to the top:
Bell, William Byron (also a ’23 Championship Four driver), Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, John Hunter Nemechek, Todd Gilliland, Ty Gibbs, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Preece, Harrison Burton
Besides Bell, Gibbs is the only other driver who has been with Toyota at every step of his career. They’re among the drivers who have helped Toyota amass driver’s championships in every rung of the NASCAR ladder.
Except for the NASCAR Cup Series.
Toyota earned two driver’s titles with Kyle Busch. They also won the 2017 championship with Martin Truex Jr.
Neither came through the ranks with Toyota. Even Joey Logano, Toyota’s first top prospect, went to Ford to earn his two Cup Series titles.
None of the Toyota Racing Development drivers have ever stayed with them all the way to earning the NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Christopher Bell could do that Sunday against the driver who, whether directly or indirectly, made it all happen.
“I hope that our story [Kyle Larson and I], which is oddly similar, I hope that that spreads hope to young racers out there. I think that that should extend outside of the dirt community, even for late models, Bandoleros, whatever it is. If you win races, you’re going to get opportunities. That’s the motto I want to share and I want young racers out there to believe,” Bell said.