Bell goes for spot in Coca-Cola 600

From 1971 to 2003, NASCAR's top racing series was the Winston Cup Series, when it was sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Now, the smokes are back and they are helping a Reno driver get his chance on the sport's biggest stage, the Sprint Cup Series.

T.J. Bell, 30, is being sponsored by Green Smoke, which makes electronic cigarettes, for at least three Sprint Cup races this year and probably more.

Bell qualified for the Sprint Showdown and NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race in Concord, N.C., last weekend. He finished 18th in the Sprint Cup Showdown and was on the lead lap, earning $23,875 for his finish.

"They decided to give me a chance," Bell said of Green Smoke.

Bell, who now lives in North Carolina, says the atmosphere is much different than Northern Nevada. Auto racing is king there, and most residents are involved with the sport in some form.

On his off days last week, he went to a children's hospital to sign autographs and, on another day, accompanied an ambulance to an area Wal-Mart to help raise awareness for the Children's Miracle Network.

Bell qualified for the Southern 500 on May 7, but had transmission problems in that race and finished 38th.

This week, he will try to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600, which is Sunday in Charlotte, N.C. The 600-mile race is the longest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race and also is the longest regularly scheduled race in the world conducted on an oval track.

The track is about 30 minutes away from where Bell lives in Mooresville, N.C.

Bell, who also still has a house in Reno, has been racing in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series since 2003. He will continue to compete in the Trucks Series this year.

After the 600, he will meet with team officials to discuss racing at Pocono and Michigan next month.

Green Smoke's sponsorship is the company's first stab at NASCAR racing, as well as the first NASCAR sponsorship by any organization in the electronic cigarette industry.

Bell must qualify by having a fast enough speed, since his team has not yet accrued any points this season.

"Every driver goes into racing wanting to compete at the highest level possible," Bell said. "Green Smoke has come on board to make racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series a reality for me and I'm looking forward to putting our No. 50 Green Smoke Toyota Camry to the test at Charlotte.

"This is a big step forward for my career and Green Smoke couldn't have picked a more perfect market to promote its product. I'm looking forward to a great future with Green Smoke and a very exciting Coca-Cola 600 debut."

Bell used last week's qualifying as a measuring stick for his Sprint Cup run this season.

"There's a lot of really good drivers who haven't won any races yet, so it will be tough, but fun," he said before qualifying attempts last week. "We'll see how we stack up. We'll use it as a test to get ready for the 600."

Bell will be reunited with his former crew chief, Jeff McClure, from 2004 when Bell was named the ARCA Re/Max Rookie of the Year.

"That will give me a little more confidence," Bell said. "In racing, having confidence is everything."