The NASCAR Cup Series futures of Erik Jones and Christopher Bell are uncertain beyond 2020. Which driver will end up in Joe Gibbs Racing’s fourth car next year?
Joe Gibbs Racing are one of the many top-tier NASCAR Cup Series organizations without a fully confirmed driver lineup for the 2021 season.
However, they have arguably the most straightforward decision to make, given that three of their four drivers are set to return and the would-be replacement for the fourth is obvious.
Even still, things may not be all that simple for the four-car Toyota powerhouse.
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are all slated to return to their rides in the #11 Toyota, #18 Toyota and #19 Toyota, respectively, next year. But Erik Jones is in his third season driving the #20 Toyota after signing just a one-year contract extension late last season.
While Jones has admittedly been snakebitten on many occasions during his first two-plus seasons with the team, his numbers still don’t come close to comparing with those of his three teammates, and even though Joe Gibbs Racing have struggled (relatively speaking) to open up the 2020 season, he is still five positions shy in the championship standings of his closest teammate.
Since the 2018 season began, Hamlin has won 10 races, despite not winning at all in 2018, and Busch has won 13 races. Truex joined the team ahead of the 2019 season and has won eight races already.
Jones, meanwhile, has just two wins and has never advanced farther than the opening round of the playoffs. His three teammates were all in last year’s Championship 4, with that having marked Busch’s fifth consecutive appearance and Truex’s third (fourth overall) in NASCAR’s winner-take-all championship round.
Nevertheless, the 24-year-old Byron, Michigan native has been able to run at the front of the pack and has shown speed just as often as his teammates. Only his three teammates, perennial Championship 4 driver Kevin Harvick and then-reigning champion Joey Logano scored more top four finishes than he did last year, and only Busch had more non-winning top three results.
But if the team don’t get what they want out of him in year number three, which the results would indicate they clearly haven’t thus far, where would they turn?
The obvious choice is Christopher Bell, the Joe Gibbs Racing rookie who competes for the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Leavine Family Racing behind the wheel of the #95 Toyota after tearing up the Xfinity Series with a historic first two seasons in 2018 and 2019.
While the 25-year-old Norman, Oklahoma native struggled even more so than Jones to open the season, he has been vastly improved as of late, and the team seem to have gotten things together to be able to provide him with a car capable of running in the top 10 or top 15 on a weekly basis.
This past weekend, he finished in fourth place at Pocono Raceway and ran as high as third before crashing at the same track the next day.
Toyota would understandably like to keep both drivers. Toyota’s presence in terms of the number of cars they field in the Cup Series is small, as they field only these five chartered cars at Joe Gibbs Racing and Leavine Family Racing as well as another full-time entry with Gaunt Brothers Racing for Daniel Suarez. So why shake things up?
Additionally, Hamlin and Truex are both set to turn 40 years old later this year. It would only make sense to hang on to the youth with the intention of having both competing in Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas a few years down the road.
But the one-car Leavine Family Racing team face an uncertain future given the financial strain on the team caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the unexpected 10-week hiatus to which that led.
Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern has reported that Jones has been in preliminary talks on another contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, and that the extensions of primary sponsorship deals could play into that equation.
Where things could get interesting is the fact that Bell’s contract was reportedly a “multi-year” contract that keeps him tied to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, so the obvious destination for him if Jones stays with Joe Gibbs Racing is Leavine Family Racing, assuming they come back in 2021.
On the other hand, if Jones walks, he would likely land completely outside of the Toyota camp, while freeing up the #20 Toyota for Bell.
But if things don’t pan out for Bob Leavine’s team, what next? Of course, the hope is that things don’t get to that point, and it looks as though that won’t happen.
The best-case scenario is Jones improving, signing a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Leavine Family Racing improving and keeping an improved Bell around for at least another season before he can move up to the big team and be replaced by somebody such as Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity Series driver Harrison Burton, who, at 19 years old, need not be in any rush to get to NASCAR’s highest level.