Joe Gibbs Racing had no other choice. With Leavine Family Racing shutting down at seasons end, they were put in an uncomfortable position. It was either Erik Jones or Christopher Bell.
Everyone knew this. With three Cup caliber champions already in the mix and under contract for 2021, it came down to Bell or Jones for the 20 seat.
We know the outcome.
Last week, Jones was told he wouldn’t be retained by JGR. On Monday, Bell was told he has that ride.
It was a move that Jones said blindsided him. He thought they were working on a new deal then got the rug pulled out from under him.
Here’s what Jones said a few weeks ago when discussing his future.
“It’s a performance industry and we’ve been able to make the Playoffs the last two years,” said Jones. “I feel confident still that we’re going to make them this year. It’s frustrating when you’re in that spot and I don’t feel like all of what we’ve done to be in this spot is our own doing. We’ve had some bad races that things just didn’t go our way. Some of it has been our fault. I think it’s a combination of both. You feel the pressure and you want to get in the Playoffs and you want to perform for your team, for your sponsors and for everybody.
“But you hope that you can look over the course of your career and some of the things you’ve done over the last three years are going to add into that as well. I don’t think four or six races decide the fate of your career by any means and I’ve had a really good relationship with JGR for quite a few years now. I put probably the most pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say JGR ever comes to me and asks questions or questions why you’re in this spot. They see the same things we do and the same things we struggle each weekend and why we’re in this spot. People aren’t blind to that. The pressure I would say comes from me. I just want to run well, I want to content, I want to win races, I want to be in the Playoffs, I want to contend for championships. That’s the goal so that’s what we have to keep working towards.”
With no wins in 2020 and currently outside the playoffs, the choice went to Bell.
That’s because Leavine Family Racing closed up shop and Toyota had no where to place Bell.
So, with Bell not having much funding to find future work, he was worried about where he’d end up.
“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said in a media call on Tuesday. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”
“I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”
So, Bell played hard ball and gave Toyota and ultimatum to avoid that.
“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell continued. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”
That meant, he was telling them, it’s me or Jones and Toyota couldn’t afford to lose Bell.
“‘How is that going to work?’” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”
Bell said he doesn’t know how him relationship with Jones will be for the rest of the season now.
“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”