By Cole Cusumano
Over the past few weeks, the once heavily blurred image of the NASCAR Cup Series silly season for 2021 has gradually become more defined.
As expected, Toyota Racing Development driver, Christopher Bell, secured his spot at Joe Gibbs Racing and will pilot the No. 20 car. This leaves Erik Jones, who was believed to be the cornerstone of the prestigious organization’s future, currently without a ride next year.
Although winless in 2020, Jones has been putting up numbers that mirror in comparison to the prior two seasons and he’s only one top-five away from tying his single-season career-high of 10, which was recorded last year. If that wasn’t enough, the Michigan-native’s 13 top-10s tie him for fifth most among competitors.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do, up and running in the top five each and every week,” Jones said. “We’re right there. We want to win a race bad. We just haven’t had quite enough speed at some of these places to really cap it off.”
Those numbers, while impressive, could also be contributing to the 24-year-old’s dilemma. Sure, he hasn’t regressed, but he hasn’t progressed either. When driving top-tier equipment, improvement is expected.
What’s also pretty alarming is that Jones has outperformed many of the big names to already receive deals in desired seats for 2021, and had the young driver made the playoffs, this could potentially be a different story.
Since the postseason began, the 2019 Southern 500 winner has been the most consistent driver in the field. With five top-10s, that also include four top-fives and an average finish of seven, Jones has statistically been the best driver over the last six races. The question now becomes, is it too little too late?
“I think any time you can help your stock is good,” Jones revealed. “I’ve ran good on every style of track. I don’t know what more to do. It’s frustrating sometimes when you think about it. You run up front, I know we haven’t won a race this year, but it’s tough sitting in this spot being out of a ride, not having one set up so far.”
There’s no telling exactly where Jones would be if he made the Round of 16, but a strong case could be made that he would be a lock for the semi-final stint before the finale at Phoenix Raceway; even more importantly, he may not have been faced with such an uncertain future for 2021.
The reality now is that there are only two top rides vacant in the Cup Series with the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 and Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14. Speculation and talk about the sport has placed Kyle Larson and Chase Briscoe in these rides, meaning Jones would undoubtedly be taking a step back next year.
The 2015 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series Champion stated in a post-race press conference at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval that something should be “done this week,” as far as contract talk is concerned. There have been multiple reports that Jones could be the successor to the famed No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports, following the departure of Bubba Wallace to a new team owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.
Wallace has been able to run moderately competitive this year at Richard Petty Motorsports, so it would be interesting to see what Jones could do with a little more experience under his belt, especially after driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Nothing in regards to the three driverless teams is concrete for 2021, so take these speculations with a grain of salt. What we do know is that Jones has been on a roll as of late and it’s very possible that we could see him click off a win over these remaining four races.