Timing on Jones announcement stings, but a new opportunity might be best

It’s not the homecoming Erik Jones expected. 

Just days before NASCAR returned to the Wolverine State for this weekend’s races at Michigan Speedway, word leaked on the internet that the 24-year-old’s contract would not be renewed at Joe Gibbs Racing. 

JGR confirmed the story later Thursday night. Christopher Bell, his fellow Toyota development driver, is expected to replace Jones in the No. 20 team in 2021.

“I greatly appreciate the opportunity that JGR provided me with over the last four years and I wish the team nothing but success and good fortune,” Jones said in the team release. “JGR gave me a solid foundation from which to go out and compete at the highest level and I look forward to building on that in the years to come.”

The Byron, Michigan, racer, the first in a long and tremendously successful list of Toyota proteges, executed the perfect audition when he was just 16 by beating Kyle Busch in the 2012 Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway. Soon after, Jones was recruited by Toyota.

Jones’ meteoric rise through the NASCAR ranks included wins in ARCA and then in the Truck Series—in his fifth start. He was both the youngest driver to win his first race and the championship in the Gander RV & Outdoors Trucks Series, at ages 17 and 19, respectively. His truck title came during his first full season on the tour. 

Nine races into his Xfinity Series experience, Jones won from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway in the 2015 spring race. The following week, he was recruited to sub for an ailing Denny Hamlin at in the No. 11 Cup car after Hamlin suffered neck spasms during a lengthy rain delay at Bristol. Two years later, Jones graduated to a second car at Furniture Row Racing. The situation was far from ideal. Still, in a freshman class that included Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Corey LaJoie, Jones won 2017 rookie honors handily.

Once he joined the JGR fold in 2018, Jones scored his first Cup win at the July Daytona race. He doubled his top-five results, finished half of his starts in the top 10 and qualified for the Playoffs. In 2019, Jones won again—this time in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington—and earned a one-year extension on his contract, even though Bell waiting in the wings as the next young, hot prospect in the Toyota camp. 

Although Jones started the 2020 season by winning the Busch Clash at Daytona, he’s currently 18th in the standings after five top fives and eight top 10s in 20 starts. Since joining JGR, Jones has been overshadowed by veteran teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. His results were better than those of Daniel Suarez during their two seasons together at JGR. Though Busch has yet to win in 2020, Hamlin has won a fourth of this year’s Cup races. Martin Truex Jr. won at Martinsville in June.

Sure, Jones has endured his share of bad luck. But compared with some of his 20-something peers on the Cup tour, Jones has more top-five and top-10 finishes than Alex Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon or Bell. 

Certainly, Bell is a once-in-a-generational talent in whom Toyota has invested handsomely. Under the direction of Jason Ratcliff, who also guided Jones earlier in his career, Bell has made gains in the No. 95 Toyota. His true potential won't become evident until he's under JGR’s roof. 

Perennially, there has been a stark contrast between Jones and the other top Gibbs’ drivers in equal equipment. When drivers such as Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth entered the stable, both were able to hold their own and win immediately.

That’s not to say that Jones won’t flourish in a different environment, as Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch did when they left their previous employers for a fresh start. I would bet on it. 

While Bubba Wallace is the frontrunner for the No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and LaJoie appears headed to the No. 37 JTG Daugherty team, and the replacement plans for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports seat have yet to be determined, Jones could enter any of those situations and make a significant difference. 

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