NASCAR: Erik Jones to Furniture Row in 2017?

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

The NASCAR silly season won’t begin until November but that doesn’t mean we can begin to try to put some of the off-season pieces together. One of those pieces is Erik Jones and where he fits in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

If you are on NASCAR twitter, the chances are pretty high that you follow @TheOrangeCone. Last night, the wise and connected Cone was doing a little Twitter Q & A, and one of the questions he took was “which Sprint Cup driver will retire next after Tony Stewart?” Cone answered Greg Biffle, but that made me think of the guys I always seem to think of when I think of Sprint Cup and Xfinity drivers and comings and goings.

Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones.

Matt Kenseth is 44. Erik Jones is 19. They both drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kenseth is a Sprint Cup champion and a veteran driver who, at worst, is still thought of on the same level as his younger teammates. He is definitely not the weakest link in the JGR Cup stable, just the oldest one.

Jones won the Camping World Truck Series championship last year and is the only Xfinity Series regular to win a race in 2015. He is arguably the favorite to win the Xfinity Series title this season.

If you accept that none of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, or Carl Edwards are going to be asked to step aside for any other driver any time soon, and that Jones is enough of a talent that JGR will not want to let him go, that does seem to create a bit of a dilemma for JGR. Kenseth or Jones?

With that in mind, I shot the Cone a question.

And (embarrassing typo aside), I got an answer.

Now, that makes such perfect sense that I felt a little silly for not even considering it. The Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row Racing-alliance is working swimmingly so far, with Martin Truex Jr. driving the Furniture Row Camry to tenth in Sprint Cup points and nearly winning the Daytona 500. Furniture Row could expand…Gibbs could keep their upcoming driver in-house until any one of their drivers is ready to move on…everyone wins, right?

That does raise some real questions, though.

Let’s say it was 2015 and this was going down. What would have to happen?

Furniture Row Racing builds a second car and puts Erik Jones in it.

And that’s about it.  Sure, maybe there is a deal made for the new FRR car to get the owners points from JGR’s 20 car, since Matt Kenseth would have had the champion’s provisional as a fallback.  But really, just building the car and getting to the race track was about all that was necessary.

Today? It’s not quite that simple.

Sure, it could be, if Furniture Row and JGR are good with Jones having to qualify on speed every week. (That would be the Ryan Blaney/Wood Brothers-plan.)  And getting 30% less prize money every week, which seems like a less than optimal thing for a smaller team – alliance or not – like Furniture Row.

So would Furniture Row try to get a charter? What if Penske wanted to get a charter for Blaney?  Would there be a charter bidding war suddenly? Or would the teams stick with manufacturer loyalty so a Ford team would sell one to Penske and a Toyota one would sell one to Furniture Row? (That would be less fun, but I could see it happening.)

And without a charter, would Furniture Row’s second entry be a part-time team, with Gibbs keeping Jones in Xfinity to run a full schedule there? You could make an argument that Jones has shown enough talent that perhaps not having Jones in a full-time de facto sixth Gibbs car would be best for the other five Gibbs/Furniture Row cars, with Jones in good equipment being at least as capable of winning in 2017 as Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have shown to be in their rookie seasons. JGR might be (would be?) creating more competition for a Chase berth with Jones in a full-time car.

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That only covers the immediate future. What about 2018 and beyond, or whenever Kenseth decides to hang up his helmet?  (Kenseth is only a few months younger than the about-to-retire Stewart and the recently-retired Jeff Gordon, so it’s coming.)  With Jones in a Furniture Row car, could Martin Truex Jr. be the driver to move to the 20?  Could that open Truex’s Furniture Row seat for Daniel Suarez, making Furniture Row essentially a JGR junior team? Or if Gibbs moves Jones to the 20, does the veteran Truex decide it is time to move on from the smaller team?

With so many veteran drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, I was already excited to think about how the current crop of younger drivers (Ty Dillon!  Cole Custer!  Bubba Wallace!) was going to start making their way to Cup rides. Bring on a second Furniture Row team and let’s see what happens.