The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season will be Erik Jones’s “Daniel Suarez” moment, should he land with another top team. He needs to perform.
A young driver in Joe Gibbs Racing’s development program puts up great results in NASCAR‘s lower series, winning a championship in one of them.
He then makes it to the big leagues in the Cup Series, replacing a retiring superstar. He is given a quality ride, only to be met with mediocrity.
These paragraphs can describe both Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones to a T, two drivers whom it felt like were hyped to the moon: Suarez for his Xfinity Series championship and his Mexican background, and Jones for beating Kyle Busch to win the 2012 Snowball Derby and winning a Truck Series championship.
These achievements alone sound deserving of a ride in the Cup Series, and with Suarez and Jones being one year apart in terms of arriving at Joe Gibbs Racing, it sounded like the team was well prepared for the future.
Let’s start with Suarez. After 2016, he replaced a retiring Carl Edwards, who drove the #19 Toyota to three wins, nine top five finishes, and a place in the Championship 4 in his final year.
In 2017, Suarez kind of exceeded expectations by recording 12 top 10 finishes, including a third place finish at Watkins Glen International.
2018 was a tad bit of a down year compared to his rookie season. He recorded only nine top 10 finishes. He secured three top five finishes, but still no wins –good, but not good enough for the top team in NASCAR. He was replaced by Martin Truex Jr. after 2018.
Suarez was left without a ride until he got a second chance with Stewart-Haas Racing in the #41 Ford, replacing Kurt Busch, who just wheeled the car to a seventh place finish in the championship standings. Surely, it can’t be just bad luck.
Suarez posted 11 top 10 finishes and a 17th place finish in the championship standings in 2019. Again, good, but not good enough.
You can make the argument about being the car, the crew or the driver. But when you’re handed two quality rides over three years and you still can’t win a race or even make the playoffs, it becomes a lot more clear — and it became clear for team owners, as Suarez currently resides in “NASCAR Purgatory”, celebrating 25th place finishes with Gaunt Brothers Racing.
The outlook for Suarez looks mediocre at best. His chances at landing a top ride are gone. I can see him at a mid-tier teams such as Roush Fenway Racing when Ryan Newman retires, or maybe at Richard Petty Motorsports if Bubba Wallace decides to leave. To put it bluntly, Suarez is the next David Ragan.
Then there’s Erik Jones. His entrance into the Cup Series was an unusual one, filling in for three out of the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers at some point in the 2015 season. His opportunities proved himself worthy, as he passed cars and ran in the top half of the field in all of his races that season.
He competed in the Xfinity Series in 2016 and recorded three wins and a fourth place finish in the championship standings. That gave him great momentum heading into the 2017 season, when he went full-time in the Cup Series at the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Furniture Row Racing as Truex’s teammate.
That season, he even did better than the aforementioned Suarez, beating him for Rookie of the Year honors thanks to his 14 top 10 finishes, including a second place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Jones was riding high. It was only going to get better, as he replaced Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing behind the wheel of #20 Toyota for the 2018 season.
Unlike Suarez, Jones actually won a race at Joe Gibbs Racing. He won at Daytona International Speedway on Fourth of July Weekend, and he recorded 18 top 10 finishes (50% top 10 rate) during the 2018 season. He was quickly showing up Suarez.
2019 kept the good times rolling with another win, this time in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He recorded another 17 top 10 finishes. For a young driver with still so much left to prove and learn, it looked like 2020 was going to be a breakout year for him.
But 2020 has marked a sharp downturn for Jones, and he is slated to lose his ride to another young Padawan in Christopher Bell.
So how do Suarez and Jones compare? Just from looking at the numbers, Jones is clearly the better driver and has a ton more upside and potential than Suarez. It has long been rumored that he is the top candidate to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson.
So 2021 will be Erik Jones’s “Daniel Suarez” moment. If he does go to Hendrick Motorsports, he has to perform, and by perform, I mean make at least the round of 12 of the playoffs, something he has yet to do. If not, I’ll be awaiting the announcement of him becoming the new MBM Motorsports driver.