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Up to Speed: Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones & the Cost of Driver Development

Back in the summer of 2017, change was afoot at Joe Gibbs Racing.  During Kentucky Speedway’s race weekend, Matt Kenseth publicly announced that he would not be returning to the No. 20 Toyota in 2018.  Several days later, JGR confirmed that Erik Jones would move over from Furniture Row Racing to replace him.

The impending driver switch generated a lot of strong opinions among fans.  Many insisted that Joe Gibbs and his team were making a huge mistake in not offering Kenseth a new contract.  Alternatively, others insisted that JGR had to get Jones on its main team, no matter the cost.  Jones was a rookie in the NASCAR Cup Series at the time and had a legitimate claim to being one of the hottest prospects in the sport.  His resume included a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship along with eight Xfinity Series wins at only 21 years old.  Supporters of his move to JGR simply argued that Jones was the future of the organization.  If Gibbs didn’t take him now, he would surely get picked up by another team, and JGR would always regret that they let the next great NASCAR talent slip away.

For Jones, the shoe is now on the other foot.  On Thursday, Aug. 6, word leaked out that Jones and JGR would part ways at the end of the 2020 season.  Both the driver and team subsequently confirmed that the reports were true.  Jones’ replacement has not been officially named, but it is highly likely that Christopher Bell, a current Cup Series rookie and highly touted Toyota prospect, will be the next driver of the No. 20.  Just as Gibbs and Toyota did in 2017, they are betting on a brighter future with a prospect than with their current driver.

Of course, betting on the prospect did not work out the last time.  Since joining JGR, Jones has had moments of brilliance but has not delivered on the lofty expectations set up by his team.  Despite the success that the Gibbs organization has enjoyed as a whole, Jones has only won two points-paying races and has never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs.  Perhaps more telling, he and the No. 20 team have not taken a definitive step forward in terms of becoming weekly contenders for wins.

Jones may still have a bright future ahead of him, and the struggles of the No. 20 team are not all his fault.  But it is clear now that he is not the perfect fit for JGR that Gibbs and Toyota thought he was.

JGR would have been better off by keeping Kenseth all along.  Instead of Kenseth bouncing around to different teams on a part-time basis, he could have easily stayed in the No. 20 for another two or three years and likely retired on his own terms once Bell was ready to take over.  It’s true that Kenseth’s results with Chip Ganassi Racing this year have not been good.  But if he was still with a familiar team and did not spend all of 2019 on the sidelines, he would certainly be performing at a high level.  Casting Kenseth aside at the end of 2017 wasted all of the potential that the No. 20 team had to succeed.  Doing the same to Jones now only compounds the original mistake of letting Kenseth go too soon.

Given the history of JGR, it is important to understand exactly why Kenseth was so valuable to the organization.  In the early 2010s, Gibbs’ team looked like a rudderless ship.  The departure of Tony Stewart left them without any veteran leadership, a hole that was reflected in the drivers’ performance.  Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin had big-win seasons from time to time, only to follow them up with long stretches of races where they struggled.  Even worse was that Busch and Hamlin were often temperamental in their early years and got flustered by setbacks on the track.  Whenever it seemed like either of them were on the verge of stepping up and providing a real challenge to Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports, Busch and Hamlin would self-destruct.

If JGR was going to win another championship, it needed a driver who was not only excellent behind the wheel but one who could be a stabilizing force for everyone else.  Kenseth is just such a driver, and Gibbs knew that he would be the best person for the job.  That’s why Kenseth’s move to the Gibbs team in 2013 was such a big deal.  It wasn’t just a case of JGR getting a sought-after driver, it was a case of getting the right driver at the right time for a specific purpose.

Over five years, Kenseth fulfilled that purpose.  He may not have won the championship in 2013, but his seven wins were the most ever by a driver of JGR’s No. 20 in a single season.  Kenseth is still the only driver of that car to win multiple races in one season since Stewart last did it in 2007.  And several of Kenseth’s victories came at tracks like New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway and Pocono Raceway, places where he’d struggled with Roush Fenway Racing.  Right up until his last win in the penultimate race of 2017, Kenseth did great work for JGR.

Meanwhile, Gibbs’ organization really did improve as a whole.  Busch fought back from a nasty injury to win his first championship in 2015, showing a level of resilience he probably would not have had a few years earlier.  Hamlin had his ups and downs but became more consistent over time and has looked like a whole new driver over the last year and a half.  Even Joey Logano, who Kenseth displaced at JGR, went to Team Penske and elevated his game to a higher level, winning a title of his own in 2018.  Busch may have the trophies and Hamlin has the recent momentum, but JGR’s success in the 2010s hinged on the acquisition of Kenseth’s experience and abilities.

Unfortunately, Gibbs underestimated how difficult it would be to replace Kenseth.  No doubt he and Toyota assumed that they could just plug Jones into the No. 20 car and get the same results.  But as a young driver with little experience, Jones never stood a chance at filling Kenseth’s role on the team.  Expecting him to do so just because he appeared to be the next big thing was ridiculous.  Unlike with Kenseth, JGR’s only discernible strategy for bringing Jones on was hope, not stats that showed he might be able to live up to lofty expectations.  Regrettably, those same expectations wound up crushing Jones.

Further complicating matters is that JGR still does not have much of a plan for the No. 20 car.  If Jones really is a future superstar, then JGR looks foolish for cutting him.  If Jones is not a superstar or needed more time to adjust the demands of professional stock car racing, he should not have replaced a driver of Kenseth’s caliber.  Once again, it comes down to what the next prospect can do.  Bell, like Jones, has a Truck Series championship and a decorated Xfinity career, but there is no guarantee that he will be better than Jones.  And if Bell doesn’t adjust right away, does that mean that Gibbs and Toyota will toss him aside for someone like Harrison Burton in a few years?

For as much success as JGR has enjoyed recently, the No. 20 team remains a problem.  While Jones will likely land on his feet with another good team, his departure means that Gibbs will have to start all over with getting the new driver up to speed.  Meanwhile, the one-time, can’t-miss prospect will move on, just as Gibbs and Toyota feared might happen if they did not sacrifice their veteran leader on the altar of driver development.

It’s clear now.  Letting Kenseth go was a big mistake.

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About Bryan Gable

Bryan Gable
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past three years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.

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14 comments

  1. Avatar

    “Even Joey Logano, who Kenseth displaced at JGR, went to Team Penske and elevated his game to a higher level, winning a title of his own in 2018.”
    Maybe, like Joey Logano, Jones will thrive at a new team once leaving the 20.

    • Avatar

      Getting Kenseth for Logano was a mistake at the time. Logano turned a corner in the 2nd half of that season. In hind sight Logano was better than I thought he’d be.
      Also, Joey has a little bit of a personality. Kenseth is painfully boring, except for when he intentionally wrecked Logano.
      This situation isn’t as clear cut, but Jones should thrive as Kyle Busch did, with a change of scenery. Hopefully Hendick keeps 4 cars and Jones goes there.

      • Avatar

        Joey Lagano wrecked himself at Martinsville by ignoring the directions of his spotter…he was a fool to be racing with a car that was several laps down….most fans knew exactly what happened as iñdicated by the fan reaction at Holmstead….end of story

  2. Avatar

    All good points, though much of it is based on speculation. These days, sponsors have much more say-so regarding who drives a race car with their logo on it. It’s all about the money. And as sponsors leave the sport, that will only continue to increase the control over the race teams by the sponsors that are still in the sport. In other words, things are gonna get worse before they ever get better.

  3. Avatar

    Very good read. I agree with you about the Jones-Kenseth deal. The sport that depends so much on outside money is going thru a transitional stage. Not having anything to do with the current Covid19 situation NASCAR was losing advertising value for the last several years. Attendance and tv ratings have decreased dramatically. When you remove grandstand Seating you are in effect saying you don’t expect the fans to return. And then when we look at the affect of the pandemic and the tv ratings continue to drop when there is no competition from other sports events one has to wonder. In short, because team revenues are dropping teams have no choice then to reduce expenses. Driver salaries have really increased over time. I still believe that this played a big part in the Gibbs-Kenseth deal. I think that this is why Keselowski only received a one year contract and I bet if the truth were known his salary has been reduced. Success in the lower tiers of the sport do not guarantee success in Cup. Cases in point are Byron, Wallace, Jones and from the past David Green, Larry Pearson, Steve Grissom and Robert Presley. Unfortunately the ride buying is going to replace talent. Hence the current demand for Bubba Wallace’s services. Long term driver contracts are becoming a thing of the past.
    Another point that is overlooked by everyone is that I feel some drivers become complacent. The desire to win loses its appeal when you are getting rich for just driving the race car. An example was the Gilliland-Burton truck situation with KBM. Kyle called them out for not racing to their trucks full potential and that he was unhappy with their performance. It ibvioufsly shook them up as they both dramatically upped their game when their jobs were on the line. Jjones seem to run way better yesterday at Michigan probably because his future is at stake.

    • Avatar

      Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton will be in Cup cars no matter how they do in the lower series because of family connections, just like the Dillons are. And they wonder why fans are leaving in droves,

      • Avatar

        The only way Gilliland gets in a cup race is buying a ticket

      • Avatar

        The only reason the Dillons have rides is because someone in their family owns a race team. So if David Gilliland or Jeff Burton start a cup team then maybe what you predict will happen, otherwise, I agree with timinpayson. No way someone outside of the family would foot the bill for a cup ride for a driver lacking in talent assuming they could get a driver with more talent for the same price.

  4. Avatar

    With Leavine Family racing calling it quits and Hendrick possibly giving up the number 88 and going down to three teams, drivers in the pipeline may have to way longer for a shot in The Show. Small teams seem to keep folding with no new owners and investors on the horizon. This calls into question how NASCAR is really faring, financially. They may be getting TV money, this year, but the lack of butts in seats,money at the gates and souvenir money has to hurt.

  5. Avatar

    In both cases, Kenseth in 2017 and now Jones in 2020, I don’t think JGR was as forthcoming and straight with the drivers they weren’t renewing. It would have been nice for them to let these guys know earlier so they’d be able to set themselves up for the next year. In both cases the drivers have said they didn’t have any indication that they would not be back until the hammer dropped.

  6. Avatar

    Matt Kenseth was my favorite driver. I followed him for his entire Cup career. I liked his sense of humor, his self depreciating style and his ability to get the most from the car he was driving. He was not aggressive enough on the track, nor did he have saleable good looks and he was introverted, which was his downfall. He was always uncomfortable shilling for sponsors he knew very little about. But all of these traits, most of which I share, made him my favorite driver and my race day was always riding on the ups and downs of every race. These guys were good and nothing was given to the competition

    The man has 39 wins and one Championship. Other than a few current drivers, he has more wins than any other driver who has not already been selected to the Hall of Fame. I am very proud that I was in his corner every week. But father time catches up to all of us eventually, and Matt shows only occasional glimpses of his former driving abilities at his current age of 48. Many of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen, drove well past their own twilight years and accomplished very little on the track to show for it.

    My point is, Matt Kenseth was already showing signs of losing some of the ability he had displayed as a younger driver in 2017. I felt like he could drive that 20 car for maybe another good year, since the car and the team were top notch. JGR made their decision based on what they were seeing at that time and it was hardly a bad decision. Hindsight is 20/20. They may have made a mistake and Matt did deserve a better ending to his career.

    • Avatar

      Just few words about sponsors picking the driver take Dale jr he had the best of everything never amounted to anything

    • Avatar

      Good comment. Matt has always been one of my favorites also for the reasons you mentioned.

    • Avatar

      Matt Kenseth was always my favorite driver. Being from Wisconsin, I followed his career starting in the Busch Series. His switch to Joe Gibbs brought them wins & stability in addition to experience. They were so pleased with his results that they publicly announced that Matt Kenseth would have a ride at JGR as long as he wants. Fast forward a couple of years & he was out at JGR & not of his doing. They were cowards & liars at JGR & I will never root for another of heir drivers ever again. Not even a public apology that he surely was owed.