Leavine Family Racing have been sold and will no longer operate after the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. What does that mean for several drivers and teams?
As had been rumored for several months, specifically after the coronavirus pandemic hit and left them in a financial bind, Leavine Family Racing sold their team and will no longer operate following the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.
How will this affect the sport moving forward, particularly as it pertains to the 2021 driver market?
Leavine Family Racing formed a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing ahead of the 2019 season, and that technical alliance was enhanced ahead of the 2020 season and utilized to promote Christopher Bell from Joe Gibbs’s Xfinity Series team to the Cup Series behind the wheel of the #95 Toyota.
Bell joined Bob Leavine’s organization on a “multi-year” deal that kept him tied to the Gibbs organization and Toyota. However, the sale of Leavine Family Racing has changed the complexion of what that “multi-year” deal could end up meaning, since there is no alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing for whomever purchased the team (rumored to be Spire Motorsports).
Joe Gibbs Racing are a four-car team with three drivers under contract for 2021. The only one of their four drivers who does not have a deal to compete next year is Erik Jones, who is in his third year behind the wheel of the #20 Toyota after signing a one-year extension last September.
On paper, this will force the team to make decision between Jones and Bell, unless Joe Gibbs Racing can form another technical alliance to place Bell to wait before replacing either Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr., two veterans who are slated to be quadragenarians in 2021.
That is, however, unlikely. Toyota’s only other full-time Cup Series team is Gaunt Brothers Racing, and they are one of the backmarkers. They have never competed full-time prior to 2020, and with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel of the #96 Toyota, they still don’t have a charter and even failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 back in February.
Even if that happens, would Bell be willing to (a) take an inferior ride compared to what he has now and (b) wait indefinitely for a seat at Joe Gibbs Racing, given how many other rides are out there beyond the limited number of seats Toyota have to offer — or in this case, not offer?
Regardless, Jones or Bell will likely be in a Ford or Chevrolet next year, while the other one will be all but guaranteed the driving duties of the #20 Toyota.
Of course, we have already seen rumors that Hamlin’s deal will be bought out and he will leave after 2020 to replace retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports behind the wheel of the #48 Chevrolet.
This would allow Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to do what they have wanted to do all along and retain both the 24-year-old Jones and the 25-year-old Bell.
But are those rumors even worth a second glance, considering we are talking about the driver who currently sits atop the playoff picture with five wins and 29 playoff points following a career season that saw him advance to the Championship 4?
Maybe, seeing as how Matt Kenseth was given the boot in favor of Jones after the 2017 season, despite the fact that he had averaged 3.5 wins per year in the six seasons leading up to 2017.
But beyond a boat ride with Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon back in June, there has been absolutely nothing to suggest that this will happen.
As for where whomever doesn’t get the #20 Toyota will go next year, there are a few options. The first was already mentioned, and that is the #48 Chevrolet. Hendrick Motorsports already have a nice young core group of drivers with 27-year-old Alex Bowman, 24-year-old Chase Elliott and 22-year-old William Byron, and Jones or Bell would fit in well with this group as Johnson’s replacement.
We also can’t forget the fact that only two of Stewart-Haas Racing’s four drivers are under contract for next year, and Stewart-Haas Racing are a team that have changed their driver lineup after four straight seasons. Will Jones or Bell replace Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola ahead of the 2021 season?
Finally, there is Chip Ganassi Racing, which doesn’t seem too likely of an option for either driver but exists with Kenseth more than likely not returning behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet next year after replacing Kyle Larson four races into 2020. Could Jones replace Kenseth for a second time?