If only we had the ability to look into the future and see an answer – that would be something that would’ve helped both Clayton Caldwell and Vito Pugliese in this week’s 2-Headed Monster debate. It also may have helped one of the premier organizations in NASCAR make sure that it made the right decision on a driver move that they made that may greatly effect the organization’s success for years to come.
This past week, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) announced that they will move on from Erik Jones as the driver of the No. 20 at the end of the 2020 season. It was announced on Monday that his replacement is going to be Christopher Bell. Bell is in his rookie season for Leavine Family Racing (LFR), an organization that will be sold at the end of the year to Spire Motorsports.
The sale put Bell without a ride, and though he is driving for LFR this season, Bell is still a Joe Gibbs Racing property. LFR gets its chassis and engines from JGR, and their crew chief (Jason Ratcliff) is a Joe Gibbs Racing employee.
The sale also put Joe Gibbs Racing in a tough spot: Would the team resign Erik Jones and lose Bell? You know they aren’t moving on from Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch. Those drivers are championship contenders. The other option was letting Jones walk into free agency and hire Bell for the No. 20 car. They chose the latter. Our writers debate whether JGR made the right move.
It Just Wasn’t Working
Christopher Bell will be the new driver of the No. 20 car in 2021, and while I believe Erik Jones is a solid race car driver with a bright future in NASCAR, it just wasn’t working for him at Joe Gibbs Racing. As much as things have changed in NASCAR, it’s still a competition-based business. At the end of the day, Jones wasn’t getting the job done.
When he came to the Cup Series in 2017, expectations were extremely high. He was coming off an Xfinity Series season that saw him win four races and secure a spot in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The previous year, he had won two Xfinity races in just 23 starts. While running full-time in the Truck Series he won three races and the championship. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jones had talent, and it appeared he was going to be a big-time winner in Cup. That has yet to happen.
In 2017, his rookie season in Cup driving the No. 77 car for then JGR-affiliate Furniture Row Racing, he struggled. Not more than any other rookie, but compared to his teammates, it was a bit of a surprise. In 2018, he took over the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth. In the five seasons prior to 2018, the No. 20 car won 16 races and finished in the top 10 in owner points in all five seasons. In Jones’ two full seasons, he has won just two races and has yet to finish in the top 10 in overall championship points. This season has been more of the same. There’s no doubt that JGR cars have been successful, with 54 Cup Series wins and two Cup championships since 2017. Jones has just fallen short of expectations.
That’s been the biggest issue with Jones: He hasn’t been horrible, but he’s been clearly behind.
Christopher Bell will also come into 2021 with high expectations. While he struggled out of the gate in his rookie season, what he’s done recently shouldn’t be taken lightly. After the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Bell was 29th in the point standings. He currently sits 19th, a 10-position gain for a rookie driver. He isn’t even in top-tier equipment and is closing the gap to Jones. Put him in the right car, and he’ll get results.
Bell’s stats exceed Jones’ across the board, from Xfinity to Trucks to dirt racing. In 74 Xfinity Series starts Bell has won 16 times – a winning percentage of just under 22%. Add that to Bell’s dirt racing resume and you get an all-around great race car driver. He is the only three-time winner of the infamous Chili Bowl and has a very decorated dirt racing background. Everything that Bell has been in, he has won races in. He is a diverse driver that can handle any situation he is given. There’s no doubt in my mind Bell will be a winner on the Cup Series circuit before too long.
In the end, Bell was too good to let slip away. The organization knew that, and they made the right move. –Clayton Caldwell
For Whom C. Bell Tolls
This is a change that, to me, doesn’t really make a lot of sense for a number of reasons.
Erik Jones has won a race the previous two years – one of which a crown jewel event in last year’s Southern 500. He’s on a team stacked with champions, which makes it tough to compare them to Jones. What exactly were the expectations here? What exactly are you gaining by passing on Jones and going with Christopher Bell?
This isn’t to impugn Bell, who is well-deserving of a high-profile ride. But it seems redundant that it’s at Jones’ expense. JGR and Toyota are cannibalizing their satellite teams, leaving Jones to join the ranks of Matt DiBenedetto and Daniel Suarez. This is the biggest exodus of talent since Roush Fenway Racing.
While the move is to Jones’ detriment, it also doesn’t seem to benefit Toyota, which has been fielding the same faces for over 10 years. Looking at some of the drivers working their way up the ranks, there isn’t one driver who is showing the same kind of consistent threat to win in Xfinity as Jones did.
Erik Jones won the Truck Series championship at 19, and rattled off poles, wins, and top fives in Xfinity. He gets to Cup, narrowly misses the playoffs with a team that is about to dissolve, replaces a former champion in Matt Kenseth on the Cup side, and wins a couple of races. And for what? For Bell to be rewarded with his seat.
There’s no other Toyota team of consequence to place Jones with. Much like the scenario with Joey Logano when he was moved out of the No. 20, this might end up being a decision that comes back to bite JGR and Toyota.
While concentrating the energies and limiting the exposure of technology to just one organization with Joe Gibbs Racing has been a successful model for Toyota thus far, at some point the rosters are going to have to be refilled, and championship caliber talent is being traded away and depleting their opportunities to pick from.
This is an unenviable position for Jones, Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, with the latter two being forced to address the distinct lack of seats in their talent pool, leaving them with no one to draw upon in the future. -Vito Pugliese