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4 Burning Questions: What’s Next for Erik Jones?

What’s next for Erik Jones?

It was reported by Fox Sports and later confirmed by Joe Gibbs Racing itself on Thursday evening that Erik Jones would not return to the No. 20 Toyota in 2021.

It’s not a huge surprise after it was announced earlier in the week that Leavine Family Racing, the only other chartered Toyota team at the NASCAR Cup Series level, is being sold and will cease to exist next season. LFR’s driver Christopher Bell, while not yet confirmed for the No. 20, is practically a lock for the ride.

It’s been obvious for years now that Bell would one day drive for JGR at the Cup level. Bell enjoyed so much success at the Xfinity Series level, where JGR teamed him with celebrated crew chief Jason Ratcliff, following Ratcliff’s partnership with Matt Kenseth in 2017. This raised some eyebrows at the time, as Ratcliff is arguably a top five Cup crew chief and JGR had so much confidence in Bell that it just handed him somebody like that in NXS competition. Ratcliff has followed Bell up to Cup with LFR and would most likely follow the young driver to JGR.

Jones drew the short end of the stick. While he has found some success at the Cup level with JGR, he also seems to have hit a bit of a wall as far as week-to-week contention for race wins. And it’s incredibly tough to carve out a place on a four-car team with three future Hall of Fame inductees as teammates in the primes of their careers.

It really seems like Jones would thrive with a race team where he could be the lead driver, much like how Kyle Busch thrived once he left Hendrick Motorsports. Jones’ best option in that category may be the Nos. 1 or 42 Chevrolets for Chip Ganassi Racing, as the older Kurt Busch may very well be entering the twilight of his career.

Jones could also be a nice fit over at Hendrick Motorsports to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson. Jones wouldn’t be the face of HMS – that’s Chase Elliott’s job – but he’d at least be on fairly equal footing with his younger teammates compared to JGR.

In this 2020 free agent class, with Brad Keselowski no longer on the market, Jones has shot up as the highest ceiling from a pure driver standpoint. He’s not going to draw the sponsorship Bubba Wallace is going to, but his presence on the right team could be a disaster for the rest of the Cup garage for seasons to come. It’s just about finding the right place.

How will the rest of 2020 look with the new changes?

On Aug. 6, NASCAR made three big announcements as to how the rest of the 2020 season will be contested.

First and foremost was the announcement of the schedule, which will have no alterations for the Cup Series from the originally scheduled 2020 races as far as location and date for the final 10 weeks of the season.

Scheduling three months in advance seems a bit shortsighted, because a lot of things can change very quickly with coronavirus and how local governments are responding to it. Case in point: IndyCar just had to announce that there will be no fans at the Indianapolis 500 just a few weeks prior to its running. But NASCAR also isn’t really thinking about that and instead just wants everybody to know the playoff schedule before they begin.

Every weekend in September, October and the championship weekend in November will be a triple-header weekend with a single Cup, Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series race. The only two exceptions for this will be the weekend at Richmond Raceway, where there will be two NXS races, and the weekend of the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, where there will be no Truck race. This schedule will put all series to their correct, originally scheduled number of races on the season.

The next announcement was that all national touring series races for the rest of the season, outside of road courses and Daytona International Speedway/Talladega Superspeedway, will use the choose cone rule. As somebody who is a big fan of the choose cone rule as just something that makes a lot of sense, it seems a little much to push such a dramatic rule change out mid-season like that. But it’s also NASCAR, and it does that kind of stuff all the time.

The last was a change in qualifying procedure. The idea of a qualifying draw worked the first couple of weekends, but by about a month in, it got pretty tiring having the same drivers starting up front every single week. It also made it hard for teams in the bottom two pools to make any headway on the pool above them, as they were missing out on those first stage points most weeks.

The system seems very gimmicky with such a complex formula, but it’s really just basic math. If it works out well enough, and the teams all seem happy with it, maybe NASCAR doesn’t go back to conventional qualifying for every race. There’s been a lot of talk about reducing track time going forward for NASCAR. The reason not to be open to a new way of doing things should never be because that’s the way it’s always been, so perhaps NASCAR could make this more standard going forward if it is a success.

Was the penalty too much for DGM Racing and Alex Labbe?

Last week, Alex Labbe and his Mario Gosselin-owned car got their hands caught in the cookie jar.

In a Sports Car Club of America test at Daytona on Aug. 1, Labbe was entered in a Gosselin0owned 2019 Chevrolet Camaro. The car looked suspiciously like an NXS car, with some key giveaways that points to it being a current spec, composite body racecar.

Racing has has a long history of cheating. It’s something that has been around since the dawn of time. Crew chiefs are expected to look for gray areas in the rulebook and teeter as close to the legal line as possible.

That being said, there are lines that today’s crew chiefs and team owners do not cross. The five unspoken don’ts of the NASCAR garage, rules that the teams don’t often break because they are not often that stupid and because they break the spirit of competition/sportsmanship.

  1. Don’t bring a big engine. I mean like dozens of inches in size, not something that’s maybe a fraction of an inch too big.
  2. Don’t mess with the tires. Watering tires down or putting tires on the wrong side of the car falls under this.
  3. Don’t dramatically cheat on the car body. Goofy stuff like small blade at a big blade race.
  4. Don’t mess with the fuel tank. Smokey Yunick did it better than you 60 years ago, and all you’ll end up doing before getting caught by NASCAR would be to further endanger the driver.
  5. Don’t go past the test ban. Especially when it’s at a NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack, during a pandemic and at a racetrack that NASCAR has made extremely clear that it does not want any drivers on it prior to their race so that everybody can enter equally blind.

But $50,000 and 75 points isn’t a big enough penalty. If these accusations are correct and DGM really did send a spec car to a track for testing, the hammer needs to drop on this team. Not doing so sets a tremendously bad precedent for teams and essentially puts a price tag on breaking the testing ban.

Both Labbe and DGM really need to be suspended a few races and taken out of playoff eligibility. That team has made great strides this season, having a Canadian presence in NASCAR brings some needed diversity to the sport and I completely understand something that severe could mean essentially the death penalty for a team that small. But what NASCAR has done with its initial ruling is open the floodgates for larger teams that can take the points and the fine while still staying above the minimum points threshold for playoff eligibility. Those gates have to close, or else there will be no point to the testing ban, which would lead to larger teams having yet another step over their smaller peers.

Who could be competitive at Michigan International Speedway?

This week will feature a Cup doubleheader at Michigan. These two races will be fairly short by Cup standards, clocking in at 312 miles, or 156 laps. These short races are going to make the crew chiefs go crazy with strategy. Michigan itself is a strategy racetrack, with a fair amount of its races ending in fuel conservation battle. And with how close the series is getting to the playoffs, it wouldn’t be surprising if a locked-in driver or two don’t try to race for either the win or 20th in the first race so that they can line up for the pole on Sunday.

It may seem cliche to pick the hometown hero. But Keselowski seems to really be on a roll these past couple of months and may finally get that elusive first win at his home track in one of these races, perhaps thanks to a gamble he and crew chief Jeremy Bullins cook up as far as strategy goes.

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

2 comments

  1. Avatar

    Regard your Don’t Do’s: #1 Who was it that had an engine just barely over the cubic inch limit a few years back?

    Carl Long. Engine size was supposed to be 358CID, was 358.19 CID. $200K fine, suspended the next 12 races. 200 owner and driver points.

  2. Avatar

    And who won a race in 1983 with a way oversized engine? Supposed to be 358 CI and was actually a whopping 381.983 CI. Uh, I guess you could say that’s a slight competitive advantage. Furthermore, the car had left side tires installed on the right side. That was Richard Petty’s 198th victory, which he got to keep, although he did get a $35,000 fine and 104 points loss. And poor Carl Long got the NASCAR hammer dropped on him for having an engine that was barely out of spec, and that was not because he was trying to get a competitive advantage. It was because the engine was bought used and was worn out thus putting it over spec.