Toyota restocks youth ranks with signing of Christopher Bell to Truck deal – USA TODAY
The sting of losing Kyle Larson to a rival manufacturer was the catalyst for Toyota to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Christopher Bell was announced Thursday as one of the two cornerstone drivers for Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Camping World Truck Series team, marking a significant step toward the manufacturer’s goal of keeping its homegrown talent.
Bell, whose dirt racing background helped him score a victory at the Eldora Speedway Mudsummer Classic in July, will join K&N East Series champion William Byron in driving for KBM full-time next season.
“It’s all been a complete surprise,” Bell told USA TODAY Sports of his rapid rise. “A month ago, they were telling me I was going to have a couple Truck races for 2016 and more Super Late Model races and go dirt racing again. Then I got a phone call: ‘You’re going full time, get ready.’”
Byron and Bell, a Toyota development driver for several years, now join Toyota’s well-stocked roster of young talent in the NASCAR ranks — a list which also includes Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez.
That’s important to Ed Laukes, the vice president of marketing, performance and guest experience at Toyota Motor Sales USA. Laukes told USA TODAY Sports the loss of Larson to Chevrolet was key in getting Toyota to emphasize its youth movement.
“We’ve been focusing on this ever since we got in (the) situation with Larson,” Laukes said. “He lived and breathed Toyota, we nurtured him from the very beginning and then we had no place for him. So we decided we were going to look at a youth strategy.”
It’s expected the next five years could see a major turnover in the Sprint Cup Series. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, both 44, have announced their retirement plans. Matt Kenseth is 43, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 41, Jimmie Johnson is 40 and Kevin Harvick turns 40 in December.
That’s a lot of major seats to fill, and Toyota recognized it needed a way to focus on the younger drivers by creating a pathway through the NASCAR ranks, Laukes said.
“The youth movement is coming, and we have a place for them to be able to learn and come into NASCAR,” he said. “KBM is a great place for that, along with our other truck teams.”
That’s benefited drivers like Bell, 20, an Oklahoma native who won the 2013 USAC National Midget Championship and has had what he called a “whirlwind” year.
“Before this year, all I was promised were 10 Late Model races,” he said. “Then I got a phone call: ‘Hey, you want to run Iowa in a Truck?’ Then it was, ‘Hey, I think we’ve got Kentucky, too.’ Then all the sudden I ended up with seven Truck races on the schedule.
“Now to have a full-time ride in a premier Truck in 2016, it’s pretty special.”