Erik Jones won’t be back with Joe Gibbs Racing for what would have been a fourth year in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. But could his departure mirror that of a former champion?
Back in August, Joe Gibbs Racing made the decision that they were bound to have to make at some point. They decided that they will be moving on from Erik Jones following the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Christopher Bell, who currently competes for the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Leavine Family Racing, is set to replace Jones behind the wheel of the #20 Toyota next year. Leavine Family Racing have been sold and will not operate in 2021.
Jones signed a one-year contract extension last September and was thought to be on the hot seat entering the 2020 season, given that he had not advanced past the round of 16 of the playoffs in either one of his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.
However, the 24-year-old Byron, Michigan native has also been considered to be one of the top pending free agents, and the fact that he won’t be back with Joe Gibbs Racing next year has solidified his status as arguably the top remaining free agent in a stacked free agent class.
Several landing spots are possible for Jones next year, most notably Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing. The former have an open seat behind the wheel of the #88 Chevrolet with Alex Bowman set to replace the retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel of the #48 Chevrolet, and the latter have an open seat behind the wheel of the #14 Ford with Clint Bowyer set to depart, marking five straight years of driver lineup changes. Additionally, Stewart-Haas Racing picked up ex-Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez after the 2018 season, so signing Jones would not be uncharted territory.
But regardless of where Jones ends up, his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing could mirror that of a former champion, and that is Joey Logano.
Logano spent four seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing to open up his career from 2009 to 2012, and he also drove the #20 Toyota. Including Jones’s rookie 2017 season with the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Furniture Row Racing, he, too, has spent four seasons within the organization at NASCAR’s top level of competition.
Logano was released by Joe Gibbs Racing after he won only two races in those four seasons and finished no higher than 16th place in the championship standings. He did not qualify for the playoffs in any of those four seasons.
Logano and Jones have even talked since the announcement that Jones won’t be back with Joe Gibbs Racing next year. Here is what Logano had to say about it, according to the Associated Press.
”Everything flashed back through my mind of what it felt like to have nobody have faith in you anymore. You can’t help but to start thinking about what’s next in my life? Am I even going to be a race car driver anymore? All my eggs are in this one basket and what am I going to do the rest of my life? ‘I felt like I can relate to Erik better than anybody because his story is identical to mine.”
Here is what Jones had to say.
”He got moved on from JGR around the same age that I was and had to find a different opportunity. He went from not being 100% competitive at JGR to a champion. So I wanted to know what clicked for him after he left. I thought it was an interesting conversation I learned a lot from and I can apply a lot of things from that.”
Jones’s numbers are similar to Logano’s, although he has qualified for the playoffs twice in three years with the team. His top finish in the championship standings is only 15th place.
Since he replaced Matt Kenseth behind the wheel of the #20 Toyota ahead of the 2018 season, he has won only two races, while the team’s other drivers have combined to win 34. He failed to qualify for the 2020 playoffs.
After the then 22-year-old Middletown, Connecticut native was released by Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2012 season, Logano signed with Team Penske.
In his first seven seasons with the team, he won 21 races and finished in the top eight in the championship standings six times, winning the 2018 championship. So far this season, he has added another two wins to his career victory total, which now sits at 25.
If Jones can get a break and land with a contending team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart-Haas Racing, will he be able to have similar success?
Even if he ends up elsewhere, will he be able to have success and/or set himself up for future success?
He has had the speed to make that happen, but his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing has not backed up that pace. Some have questioned whether a crew chief change would be the solution, as he has been with Chris Gayle since his rookie season with Furniture Row Racing. A team change, especially one in which he is forced out like he is, makes that inevitable.
Including his season at Furniture Row Racing, he has recorded 33 top five finishes and 62 top 10 finishes in 143 starts as a full-time driver. In 2019, he won just one race despite recording more top four finishes than all but five drivers. He has the potential to break out.
Those numbers still almost dwarf Logano’s. In his four seasons prior to joining Roger Penske’s team, he recorded 16 top five finishes and 41 top 10 finishes in 144 starts.
And the rest is history.
Where will Jones end up in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season? Will he land a ride with a contending team and move his career in a positive direction like Logano did?