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2-Headed Monster: Did Joe Gibbs Racing Get It Right By Choosing Christopher Bell Over Erik Jones?

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

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About Clayton Caldwell

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Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.

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17 comments

  1. Avatar

    Joey Logano came in as a highly touted but inexperienced rookie and won a couple of races but never was fully accepted by his teammates. He got booted to greater glory with Team Penske .Then came Kenseth and Edwards both proven winners at the Cup level and they fit right in and won races.Eventually Kenseth got the boot and Edwards opted out. Saurez came in as an emergency replacement and got the Logano type cold shoulder and soon was gone. He was replaced by Jones who had some success but never seemed to fit in with the Gibbs big 3.He soon felt the boot
    All I can say is good luck Chris Bell and don’t get too comfortable in your good fortune.

    • Avatar

      Suarez wasn’t replaced by Jones. Martin Truex Jr. replaced him in the #19 car. Jones replaced Matt Kenseth in the #20.

  2. Avatar

    Toyota clearly has had the biggest pool of talented young drivers in recent years, due to KBM in Trucks and JGR in NXS. The only issue has been where to place those drivers when they are ready to move up to Cup. As long as Toyota limits itself to one full-time 4-member Cup team, this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. Perhaps Kyle Busch has been TOO good as a mentor, unlike Dale Jr. who only seems to specialize in grooming sponsor-friendly MPD candidates. But the proof is in the results. JGR keeps winning races and championships; HMS wins popularity contests.

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      I have to laugh at that last sentence. Either you just became a NASCAR fan in the last 3 years or you just couldn’t resist taking a shot at Jr and/or HMS. I’ll assume you are a new fan. Look back at the last 25 years and tell me what you find with respect to wins and championships and what team has the best results. Idiot.

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        I have to laugh at you, Bill B. I have been a NASCAR fan longer than you and I suggest you look in the mirror to see an idiot! HMS hasn’t been competitive since Jimmie Johnson lucked into the championship in 2016. I’m not talking about the “last 25 years.”, I’m talking about NOW. The trouble with most old-timers is that they fail to move on and I believe that’s your problem. HMS is running mid-pack NOW and for the last 4 years, while JGR routinely puts multiple drivers into the Final Four. SHR and Penske are also way ahead of HMS. Seems HMS’ days as a top-tier organization are in the past – as are you.

        Get over it, boomer!

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          If you’ve been a fan longer than me then you must be a boomer too.
          To only look back 4 years and be able to declare “But the proof is in the results. JGR keeps winning races and championships; HMS wins popularity contests.” is very short-sighted. Also very convenient for your purposes, I stand by my idiot remark and will add a blow me douche bag.,

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          Bill B – you call it short-sighted; I call it facing reality! But you and most of the FS readership share the inability to move out of the past.

          All of the top teams in NASCAR history have eventually lost what it takes to dominate. HMS is no different, in spite of your wish to live in the past.

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          Hey, I agree with you about facing reality. If you graph HMS performance over the last 4 years all the data is trending downward. And maybe in a few more years you will be able to declare “But the proof is in the results. JGR keeps winning races and championships; HMS wins popularity contests.” That’s the only part of your comment I had a problem with and that was the only part which I was addressing in my comment. If those trends continue for the next 3 or 4 years then maybe it will be time to makes such an ridiculous statement.
          And for the record I am not that big of an HMS fan. Once Gordon retired they are just another team to me.

      • Avatar

        Bill B. I figured you were a fan of somebody at HMS (Jeff Gordon) and that you hate Toyotas as some kind of weird matter of principle. But, as I pointed out, the Ford teams of Penske and SHR are also far stronger than HMS.

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          Couldn’t care less about car manufacturers. There have been Toyota drivers I’ve rooted for.

          You just don’t get it do you? I am not arguing how good HMS is, who is better or who is worse. I am saying the statement you made;

          ” But the proof is in the results. JGR keeps winning races and championships; HMS wins popularity contests.”

          … is idiotic and inaccurate and was more about YOUR hate for HMS and/or Jr. if you look at stats from more that just the recent past your argument falls apart. And you are not willing to say, yes, you are right that was a stupid statement

      • Avatar

        I don’t “hate” HMS. In fact, “for the record,” my favorite driver drives for HMS. Even so, I can see that his future isn’t too bright with an organization that has lost relevance.

        And I am sick of your unfounded insults. I’ll put my knowledge of NASCAR (and my IQ and education) up against yours all day any day, old man! Instead of stating facts, all you do is hurl vulgar comments at someone who dares to disagree with you.

        And yes, I’m right, your “stupid statements” are only a reflection of your inability to accept the reality of today. Like so many FS writers and fans, you only want to live in what you believe is a glorious past. Time has marched along and left you behind. This is 2020, not 1994 or 1978 or 1960.

        Check this out for Autoweek’s take on this issue: https://sports.yahoo.com/hendrick-motorsports-stay-relevant-081800836.html?src=rss

        • Avatar

          Good article. But I didn’t see the part where the reason for HMS’ issues was because they hire drivers “to win popularity contests”. Or was that just your personal dig?
          You really have comprehension problems. I accept the reality of today. HMS is not the top dog anymore at this moment. Once again, your statement “But the proof is in the results. JGR keeps winning races and championships; HMS wins popularity contests.” is just a load of crap. JGR has won 2 championships and 1 with their satellite team in the last decade. Or did I miss one? That doesn’t quite sound like “JGR keeps winning championships” unless you only look at the 4 year period you want to use to prove your point.

        • Avatar

          Bill B. There is no “magic number” of years to determine which organizations are winning and which are not. You keep harping on 4-year performance as being “stupid,” to use your highly scientific term. So, what’s your “magic number”? Is it 5 years, 8, 25 years…or maybe just one or two years?

          My point was and continues to be, that JGR/KBM does a FAR BETTER job of developing new driver talent than HMS/JRM. I would say YOU are the stupid one for failing to acknowledge what is plainly true. KyBu works with his drivers as a true mentor. Junior sits back in the broadcast booth with his cornpone commentary, collects sponsorship money, and lets his drivers struggle without guidance. He does no more for his drivers than Teresa did for him. And to dispute that fact is a LOAD of CRAP.

          As they say, “there’s no way to fix stupid” – and that means you.

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          I would say a 10 year period provides a large enough data set to make the type generalization you want to make. So now you are also an authority on what both Jr and Kyle do behind the scenes with their drivers. How do you know all this? The truth is, nowhere did I ever say anything about what either of them do behind the scenes with any of their drivers. I have no idea because I don’t have access to see what goes on in either shop. So why did you bring that up? Sounds like you just think you are a no it all little douche bag, Go F yourself Josephine.

  3. Avatar

    I was all in for Matt Kenseth to take the #20 ride at JGR, but mostly because the Roush garage was just not keeping up with their cars anymore and didn’t seem even concerned about it. Roush was from a bygone era and couldn’t lead his people towards the best race prep technologies. Mat found a wonderland at JGR and had his best year ever in 2013 with 7 wins and a second place finish to Jimmie Johnson for the Cup. Finally having great cars showed what a great driver Matt was. But father time started catching up with him in 2016 and by 2017, JGR had decided on a 20 year old Eric Jones. But I was appalled that JGR had nowhere to go with Matt, who could have given them a couple more good years before he got too old.
    Toyota doesn’t see NASCAR as anything but a way to advertise their cars and trucks. They have never given much of a damn what happens to the drivers. JGR is victimized by being the only garage Toyota will ever care to support on a full time basis. Jones is a great young driver who, like Kenseth and Suarez, is too introverted to be a lot of use to Toyota’s sales. Bell has a little more star quality, maybe.

  4. Avatar

    Good luck to Christopher Bell – but don’t turn your back to Joe Giibbs, the phony good guy who tosses drivers like yesterday’s trash! Bell is a good guy, who likes to run the dirt on his off days. Finished second at our local dirt track a couple of weeks ago when cup had an off weekend. I don’t believe that Joe will allow him to sit his butt in a dirt sprint car or midget in the coming years! Possibly the best thing that ever happened for Eric Jones, getting away from JGR. Would love to see him move over to Stewart-Haas – maybe in the 14 car. Not a Hendrick fan, but the 48 car would also be a step up from his current ride.