The rumor mill is starting to heat up this summer as the a number of high-profile rides in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series look to be up for grabs at season’s end. Some of the teams that appear to possibly be in play are the No. 1 team of Kurt Busch and the Nos. 14 and 41 rides at Stewart-Haas Racing.
The other top-tier ride that has come up in recent weeks has been the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing entry, with Erik Jones potentially being ousted in favor of Christopher Bell. Is that the right move or simply another flavor-of-the-month selection that might not produce results better than its current occupant? This week, Vito Pugliese and Clayton Caldwell square off over That Jones Boy.
That Jones Boy is Where He Belongs
If there’s one constant at JGR, it’s that whoever shows up to drive the No. 20 car post-Tony Stewart – or anything other than the Nos. 18 or 11 – doesn’t seem to have the same tenure or leash as Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin. Joey Logano had a rough tenure there. Even Carl Edwards only lasted two seasons there before he walked off from his crashed car at Homestead-Miami Speedway like Sylvester Stallone at the end of the second Rambo, while Matt Kenseth was ushered out the door for cheaper help at the end of 2017. Speaking of which, are we really talking about bailing on Jones after a little more than a year on a team with a future?
His first year at Furniture Row Racing was a bit star-crossed, as it became apparent early on that year that the No. 77 team was not long for this world – or the No. 78 for that matter. Now, a year after winning his first race at Daytona International Speedway in July 2018, Jones faces talk that Bell might be ousting him as the next big thing at JGR.
A quick look at a stat sheet would show this would be a bit short-sighted. Jones has eight top fives so far this season, with the past three races being a pair of thirds and a runner-up finish at Pocono Raceway. At the ripe old age of 23, Jones has been showing marked improvement each season since going full time in 2017. The laps-led column is a little lean, but being on a team with the shooters JGR has, is it really to be believed that the No. 20 is on the same plane as the Nos. 19 or 18? Going back to the first week of May, the only real stumbles the team has had are a 40th-place finish at the Coca-Cola 600 after a blown right front with no warning while running 12th and a 31st at his home racetrack, Michigan International Speedway, in June.
Bell, on the other hand, has been tearing it up in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season, winning five races, leading 22% of all laps run and sitting second in the point standings. He’s certainly making a name for himself and earning his way up the ladder, having won the Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship in 2017 and sitting in prime contention to win an Xfinity title this year. But does being the flagship team in a second-tier series qualify a driver to replace one who’s in the process of gaining consistency and becoming a legitimate contender in a series with a talent depth chart among teams that is easily two to three times what is in the Xfinity Series?
I’m not so sure replacing Jones with Bell would have a measurable effect that would warrant the move at this point. You’d lose at least half a year in a best-case scenario just getting the team to gel around Bell before any improvement would likely be realized – if there was any improvement.
It would appear to me that Jones is part of a team that is building momentum, mixed among two championship-winning drivers and a veteran with two Daytona 500 victories and 34 wins. Busch has been driving for the same team since 2008, while Old Man Hamlin has been around since taking over the No. 11 at the end of 2005. Hamlin’s only winless season to date was last year, and he’s already won three races this season, so that’s no longer a concern. Martin Truex Jr., now under the same roof, hasn’t missed a beat since transferring in from Colorado. Gibbs cars have won over half the races this year and narrowly missed out on two more wins this year: when Busch was edged out by older brother Kurt Busch at Kentucky Speedway and when Hamlin was outdriven by Kevin Harvick at New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Jones is swimming with sharks in the deep end, and while he hasn’t been able to get a win this year just yet, he’s on the cusp of doing so any week. With as many top-three finishes as he’s been reeling off, Jones is starting to lay down the kind of finishes that eventually turn into multiple race wins at tracks that make up the lion’s share of the playoffs.
Bell deserves a ride in the Cup Series, no doubt. But does he deserve to do so at the expense of Jones? I think the move would be premature and sponsor-driven if anything, and that Jones is doing what, in years’ past, would make him the envy of virtually every car owner in the garage: a young driver who is consistent and doesn’t tear up equipment while reeling off top fives and top 10s as effortlessly as Bobby Labonte in the late 1990s. -Vito Pugliese
Too Little Too Late
It’s too little too late for Jones.
I know Jones is only in his third year in the Cup Series. But he has yet to win on a regular basis and could fall the same way that Daniel Suarez or Logano did. Maybe a change of scenery is better for Jones. However, he has spent the better part of three seasons in the Cup Series in top-notch equipment and has just one win. That is too little, too late.
Bell is an all-world talent. His background as a dirt racer has translated nicely into the stock-car world, and I would hate to be JGR and watch Bell walk out to the door. This season, Bell has proven himself once again, leading the points with five wins in the Xfinity Series. Last season, he won seven races, something Jones never did in the Xfinity Series. Bell has a Truck Series title and is on his way to winning the Xfinity Series championship if he stays on track this year.
Jones, meanwhile, has shown some flashes, but they are few and far between. This season, all three of his Gibbs teammates have multiple victories and all three are considered championship contenders as the playoffs draw closer and closer.
The same cannot be said for Jones, whose three straight top-five finishes have recently propelled him into the playoffs. Still, I need to see more to keep him over Bell. He doesn’t seem to have the consistency that Bell has had. I know Bell is in the Xfinity Series, but even when Cup regulars come down to the Xfinity Series, Bell beats them, even Kyle Busch.
That is impressive and shows his prowess and how ready he is ready for the next level. You cannot let a talent like that walk out the door. Jones has not had the success of his teammates — that’s where you have to wonder if he is good enough to take the next step.
I gave Jones a pass his first year in Cup. He was a rookie driver with a rookie team and a rookie crew chief. But when he replaced Kenseth in the No. 20 car, I felt like that was a vote of confidence from his car owner, Joe Gibbs. He finished 15th in points last year and finds himself 13th in the standings so far this year. That’s just not good enough.
Gibbs could potentially have the most dominant driver lineup in the sport by adding Bell to the fold. I believe his talent succeeds Jones’ and it would make JGR a much deeper organization. Bell could get into the Cup Series and win races right away – I am confident in that. Ask Kyle Larson how talented Bell is. Bell is the one to keep even if it means letting Jones walk out the door. I don’t think JGR would regret it at all. -Clayton Caldwell