Did You Notice? Joe Gibbs Racing is making future plans for Erik Jones even though the organization has four Cup drivers signed through 2016? Owner Joe Gibbs hopped on SIRIUS XM Radio Tuesday morning and expressed his support for the young driver, indicating he’ll have a long-term connection with the program. Jones has already racked up three wins combined in Xfinity and Truck competition this season while impressing observers in his one-race Cup stint subbing for Kyle Busch in May.
“We look at Erik as a big part of our future,” he told the network. “It’s not something we’ve talked about in public but we all kind of know inside our racing organization.”
That strategy, according to Gibbs, is for Jones to run full-time under the JGR banner in NXS next year. He’ll also have the opportunity to run up to seven Sprint Cup starts with a fifth JGR team as a Cup Series rookie. However, NASCAR’s four-team rules prohibit anything more, meaning Jones will be replacing a current JGR driver under contract should all go according to plan and he’s ready for Cup full-time come 2017.
Who’s the odd man out at JGR then? Hard to say. Remember, Toyota is looking to expand its program, and with the pending departure of Michael Waltrip Racing, a JGR satellite team would be more than welcome. Kyle Busch, running his own Truck operation, could potentially start his own team at the Cup level armed with extensive financial support. It seems unlikely though the man who helped develop Jones would give up his spot on a top-tier team for the very prodigy he produced. Carl Edwards, too appears unlikely to go anywhere with a three-year contract running through 2017. The No. 19 team underperformed early this season but Edwards and crew chief Darian Grubb are starting to mesh; Edwards, 36, still remains in his prime and will be given a fair shake after JGR pursued him for years.
That leaves Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Hamlin, who was once rumored to be courted by Stewart-Haas Racing, has seen a downturn in performance in recent years. Yes, he made the Final Four last season but won only once (Talladega) while missing a race due to a bizarre eye injury. Since the start of 2013, he’s tasted Victory Lane just three times, the lowest total out of everyone currently employed at JGR, and accumulated a whopping 11 DNFs. A crew chief switch, from Grubb to Dave Rogers has only moderately improved performance outside the plate tracks (where Hamlin has three of his six top-five finishes this season).
Then, there’s Kenseth, turning 44 next year, which is the same age as the retiring Jeff Gordon and struggling Tony Stewart. Sunday’s Pocono win has shown he’s still got the muscle to run up front and remains one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit, piling up 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts. Sponsor Dollar General is happy, Kenseth is two years removed from winning a career-high seven races and he could easily be this year’s championship sleeper. Conventional wisdom says Kenseth wants to stay in the fold, especially with JGR offering opportunities to son Ross in the Xfinity Series but you never know.
Right now, my money’s on Hamlin to get pushed out, but don’t underestimate Toyota pushing to make a satellite JGR operation in some way. The barrier to entry in this sport is so large these days, and with Hendrick consolidating power, upping its engine program to a potential 12 teams with a Chip Ganassi Racing/MWR merger, Toyota’s going to need to find a way to fight back. One thing’s for certain, though; Jones is the real deal. If not for that rookie bobble in May, he would have cruised to a top-five finish at Kansas in his Cup debut. In a battle between Chase Elliott and Jones for top prospect right now, I’d take Jones, even though Elliott has won a championship. There’s more raw talent there. And while Hamlin is a great driver, Jones is younger, has a higher winning percentage across all series since the start of 2014 and appears to have more potential upside over time.
Did You Notice? How the Pocono finish would not have unfolded the way it did if the race was still going 500 miles? One of the more bizarre races in recent history raced clean the final 63 laps, causing the fuel mileage finish where only a handful of cars could make it on one green-flag stop. It added a little spice to a race that would otherwise have featured a bunch of cars running in place, handicapped by both minimal tire wear and aerodynamics for much of the race’s second half.
During the first half of Pocono, we caught a glimpse into the way racing used to be there in the 1990s. Back then, the goal was simply survival; engines would grenade like clockwork while heavy, hard crashes would occasionally interrupt the proceedings. Kevin Harvick’s blown engine was a reminder equipment can still, in fact break; Kasey Kahne’s pit road crash, created by his own mistake, also showed us drivers can still lose control.
But those type of races, one where cautions and mechanical failures litter the first half, are the exception to the rule these days. Instead, you end up with a race like the one we saw Saturday night in Iowa with the Xfinity Series. During the first 150 laps, there were two cautions, none for wrecks, and all the cars simply ran in place with roughly half remaining on the lead lap. Only during the race’s final 50 laps did the cars start jockeying like crazy and the aggression from drivers turned a race from snoozer to sizzling.
If it takes so long to get to that action, then maybe shortening more races is the right call? If NASCAR is so big on both pushing safety and limiting creativity, you’re going to see fewer bad parts and more cars making it the full distance. And with rules like the wavearound, most drivers who do get in trouble (read: flat tire) during the race don’t feel like they need to push it to work their way back on the lead lap. No wonder why you see everyone bottle up their energy these days until a race’s “4th quarter.”
NASCAR could change this philosophy, of course, by tweaking the rules, loosening up the box these crew chiefs are put in and forcing drivers to race for their laps back. However, I don’t see that happening so let’s bring that 4th-quarter action we saw at Iowa (or a shortened version of Pocono, where the cars aren’t using strategy long enough for the race to get boring). 500 miles at Charlotte? What about 400. If most everyone is going to end up on the lead lap, running on all eight cylinders what is the actual point of longevity?
Did You Notice? The drama of Michael Waltrip Racing? I’ll be writing more about the Michael Waltrip Racing situation tomorrow (a column pushed back from my usual Tuesday slot). But Mr. Kauffman’s statements over the weekend, ones which caused more questions than answers, perked my eyebrows up twice. The first time: when he called Mr. Waltrip a “close personal friend” and made it clear the two were navigating this future plan together. Um, OK, so if Mr. Waltrip is such a close friend why is the most talkative, extroverted guy in the sport running from television and writers like the plague? A close personal friend should seem eager to at least give a statement that future plans are coming soon, there’s nothing to worry about and all is kosher over at MWR.
Second eyebrow moment: Kauffman said whether the “new” Chip Ganassi Racing team he’s buying into could be a three or four-car team based on performance. That tells me perhaps there’s bonus or performance clauses written into the contracts of sponsors like 5-Hour Energy or Aaron’s. Remember, two years ago the 5-hour Energy CEO was very outspoken over the way NASCAR handled both “Spingate” and the Chase. That sponsor more than most understands the visibility and extra exposure this sport’s postseason brings to their company. Maybe Clint Bowyer sneaking in on the bubble this season could rake in a few extra million? These days, that doesn’t sound like enough to tip the scales but maybe that’s what Mr. Kauffman needs to bridge the gap on a fourth car with his own money.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off…
- Here’s what surprises me the most about Elliott Sadler’s potential move to JR Motorsports next season: he’s giving up a potential Sprint Cup opportunity at Roush Fenway Racing. You have to think Jack Roush is disillusioned with the performance of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Sadler, especially with the backing of a sponsor like OneMain would have to be on the short list of replacements. Did he fall out of favor with RFR despite the internal bickering bringing down the teams of Ryan Reed, Chris Buescher and Darrell Wallace Jr.? The No. 1 car has three top-five finishes in recent weeks and has been showing arguably the most consistent speed out of the group. Color me confused; JRM won’t be handing him a Cup ride anytime soon. Maybe Sadler’s goal has shifted purely toward an NXS championship… and no longer a road back to Cup?
- It’s early yet, but give NBC Sports Network a leg up over FOX Sports 1 in the NASCAR television battle. NBCSN has pulled a 2.5 average over the last four-race stretch, which beats the 2.4 average put up by FS1 during their final four Cup races televised. NBCSN, despite dropping 7% year-to-year with its Pocono overnights, seems to be doing a slightly better job at retaining their audience as well. The lone exception: Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa, which pulled a paltry one million viewers. Perhaps that’s yet another nail in the coffin of Saturday night racing? When will NASCAR learn Saturday night is the worst time to pull in the key demographic they covet, 18-to-34-year-old males who are all likely doing anything but parking their butts in front of the television?