The start of silly season is finally here.
It took long enough, didn’t it? Rumors have been all over the Internet for the past month or so, featuring headlines with dozens of scenarios that have a slight chance of taking place.
Speculation has its ways, and accurate or not, it is certainly bringing attention to the NASCAR realm.
Finally, Joe Gibbs Racing made the absolutely stunning announcement that not a single person could have guessed: Erik Jones will pilot the No. 20 car in 2018. Shocking, right?
Not a chance.
But now that the first piece of the puzzle is solved, the rest of the pieces will begin to fill out.
Q: With Erik Jones joining Joe Gibbs Racing, what makes 2018 the opportune time to do so? – Stephanie R., Baltimore
A: If Joey Logano was sliced bread, what is Jones?
The kid is one of the most aggressive, yet diligent drivers in NASCAR’s top division this season. His consistency to race in the top 15 for a brand new team is quite impressive, mixed with his way of working with sponsors.
In 2017 alone, Jones is bringing a major corporation of GameStop to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, along with longtime NASCAR partner SiriusXM.
GameStop is a company that has been involved with Joe Gibbs Racing since 2008, sponsoring an XFINITY Series car with Matt Kenseth and Logano behind the wheel. Since that time, GameStop has sponsored a JGR car in 134 races, featuring Kenseth, Logano, Jones and Denny Hamlin in a GameStop fire suit.
During Kenseth’s inaugural season with Gibbs in 2013, GameStop decreased its primary sponsorship from 13 races the year prior (one with Hamlin and 12 with Logano) to 10 races with Kenseth. The next year saw GameStop on a car 10 times once again, with 11 races in 2015 and 12 last year.
However, with all of GameStop’s primary sponsorship in the XFINITY Series, the company never made the jump to the Cup Series until Jones arrived at Furniture Row Racing this year. Now, the company is welcome in the sport’s premier division, thanks to having a young driver who can promote the gaming store to a different audience, one that spans a diverse age demographic. He can also help promote gaming products, which JGR has done for several years, using its XFINITY cars as a platform to showcase new items on GameStop’s list of hot items.
The move to Cup for GameStop is one that takes away from its XFINITY Series sponsorship, being featured just three times on Jones’ No. 20 car this year. But the addition of the Cup sponsorship is worth it for a company that sees a future with a budding star who will now be able to attract a bigger audience for the price the organization is paying to have its logos on a racecar.
That is what makes Jones an optimal choice to be put in Gibbs’ Cup car next year. Taking a step over from Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in the sport’s premier division will give both the driver and team a chance to not only continue existing partnerships that likely need a fresh start, but to create new ones for the long-term.
Kenseth’s car has gone unsponsored twice through 18 races, and that number is expected to ascend as the team only has 28 of 36 races sold after Dollar General left the sport completely at the end of last year. While there was good news for the team, adding Circle K to its sponsorship lineup, the six-race deal does not fill the gap needed to bring Kenseth back given the uncertainty of how satisfied the company will be with its investment.
So why not make a switch? In a money-driven sport, moves like this one have to be made. For better or for worse, it gives Kenseth the chance to have another fresh start and end his career on a high note and enables Jones to really make a name for himself with an elite organization.
Q: What are Matt Kenseth’s options for 2018? – David A., Columbia, South Carolina
A: Fortunately, Kenseth enters the free agency pool in a year featuring several top rides that are open, including one at Hendrick Motorsports.
Brad Keselowski, a former Hendrick driver himself, made a great point on Tuesday’s version of Race Hub on Fox Sports 1. The Team Penske driver made a key statement, discussing the possibility of Kenseth returning to the Cup Series part-time in conjunction with either Alex Bowman or William Byron to help mentor them as they adjust to racing full-time for one of NASCAR’s premier organizations.
The idea isn’t out of left field, either. Mark Martin helped mentor Aric Almirola and Regan Smith at Ginn Racing/Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007 and 2008. Terry Labonte also stuck around part-time at Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car during the 2005 and 2006 seasons while Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers adjusted to Cup competition.
However, Hendrick has not intentionally split a full-time car between two drivers. Of course, there have been several occasions that have forced the team to do so, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that kept him out half of the 2016 season, amongst others that gave opportunities to drivers who wouldn’t normally be in a Hendrick car.
If sponsorship doesn’t come along for Kenseth to get a full-time ride at HMS, it wouldn’t be the worst situation to have him mentor a younger driver and still compete at a high level in the Cup Series before he is ready to ride into the sunset.
Should a sponsorship opportunity come about, however, Kenseth is the ideal candidate for Earnhardt’s ride at this time. He is a veteran who is still capable of winning races, and he can keep the seat warm as Hendrick looks to figure out what to do with Byron and decide whether or not the team plans to keep Kasey Kahne through the completion of his contract in 2018.
There are several other options out there for Kenseth if Hendrick opts to consolidate a car and puts a driver like Bowman behind the wheel, especially given Earnhardt’s liking for him with an opportunity to woo sponsors.
Kenseth could end up at Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Danica Patrick. Patrick is rumored to have a team option at season’s end, and the team could cut her loose if they want. However, like Kahne, her contract allegedly is up at the end of 2018, making it a sticky situation. With Nature’s Bakery originally scheduled to sponsor 20 races on the No. 10 car next year, it would be incredibly difficult for Kenseth to come up with funding for 20 races while Gene Haas pours funding into Kurt Busch‘s No. 41 car.
The opportunity for Kenseth to join SHR would reunite him with Ford, which he won the 2003 Cup championship with. The reunion would likely be a welcome one in the Ford camp, strengthening SHR’s ever-growing relationship with Ford.
But as always, it will come down to funding, making Keselowski’s suggestion more likely by the moment.
Keep in mind that Aspen Dental, Patrick’s lead sponsor this year, could have a major say in whether she stays or goes. With her recent performance of six top-25 finishes over the past seven races, it is possible she can convince her sponsors and team owners to give her one last shot at competing in NASCAR.
But if SHR is fed up of Patrick’s misfortune and wants to put Kenseth in to warm up a seat for eventual SHR XFINITY Series driver Cole Custer, who has little funding outside of Haas Automation himself, it will have to convince Patrick’s current sponsors to stick around. That’s a task that could be quite difficult given her marketability over Kenseth.
Let’s face it: Patrick’s image and likeness are worth more than most drivers in the garage area, and that could keep her in a car for another year, even with rumors continuing to say she’s done in the midst of increased performance.
And one can’t help but remember that Jones’ current ride, the No. 77 car, has a charter and is also available for the 2018 season. 5-Hour Energy has to stay in order to continue to be involved in the Cup Series, but it can swap over to Martin Truex Jr.’s car, forcing the organization to shut down its second car if no funding is found to bring over a driver like Kenseth.
If Kenseth wants to stay full-time, he could also end up with Wood Brothers Racing or Richard Childress Racing, given that Ryan Blaney is likely heading over to Team Penske and Paul Menard could very well be on his way out at RCR.
Whatever happens, it is safe to say Kenseth has options. Even if he doesn’t end up with a top-tier ride, there will still be options available in the middle of the pack that would enable him to lift an organization. Also, don’t forget about the XFINITY Series.
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