A look at JGR’s Cup driver lineup and what it means for the future

Joe Gibbs Racing watched a bone-a-fide Hall of Famer walk out of the doors for the final time. They’ll replace him with a 20-year-old rookie who’s also the grandson of owner Joe Gibbs. The team though is still in mourning as Ty Gibbs lost his father in an unexpected tragic event on the night of his Xfinity Series championship. That was the second son in the last four years that Joe Gibbs has lost. Each was in a position to eventually take over the team. Now, you have Joe Gibbs and Ty Gibbs.

You also have three drivers joining the younger Gibbs as teammates in Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell. In Feb. 2021, Hamlin agreed to a new multi-year deal to stay with JGR. NASCAR however doesn’t disclose contract lengths so you have to wonder how many years are left on that. He also has a Cup team of his own and one would say that he’s on the Back 9 of his driving career.

Martin Truex Jr. is entering the final year of his contract in 2023 and at Phoenix was non-committal on his future past that. He didn’t decide until June of this past year to even come back for a one-year extension for the 2023 season. He truly won’t say what he wants to do for 2024 yet and I don’t think that he also knows either.

The other car is Bell and he just signed a new deal quietly this past season.

“Actually, I wish we would have done a 20-year deal right now, the way this has worked out,” Joe Gibbs said ahead of the Championship Weekend in Phoenix on signing Bell.

“No, I think Christopher, if you think about when he came to us in Cup, it was during a really tough time. We were in COVID. We were having no practice. He was getting thrown onto racetracks that he had never raced on. He went through that whole year and did a great job of going through that year.

“Then the next year, stepped up, kept improving. I think what happened with us this year, we could see in him the way he was kind of advancing, and so we did do that. We stepped up earlier in the year, signed him to a long-term deal, and I think he’s really — at the last part of the year, he was extremely fast. He sat on poles.

“Then he and Adam I think have a really close relationship right now. They really believe in each other. For all those reasons, we’re sure happy with that team.”

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 06: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, pits during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Bell had 1 win, 9 top 5 finishes, 23 top 10’s, 0 poles and 118 laps led in his first two seasons in the sport. This year alone, he had 3 wins, 12 top 5 finishes, 19 top 10’s, 4 poles and 573 laps led.

“As far as Adam Stevens, he’s definitely one of the best in the business,” Bell said of his crew chief. “A race car driver is only as good as the car underneath of him. Time and time again Adam gives me the opportunity to showcase my talents. Just grateful to have him as a crew chief.

“I can’t stress that enough, that a driver is only as good as the race car that he’s given. Adam is the guy who is giving me great cars.”

What’s clicking this year to where it didn’t for Busch and Stevens is the return of practice and qualifying. While it’s still not as much as it used to be, even the smallest amounts are helping Bell learn to know what he needs to improve his car and relay that onto Stevens to help make it happen.

“Yeah, I mean, honestly, I think if last year we would have had practice and qualifying, we would have been able to perform just as well,” Bell continued. “Just really my first two Cup seasons, not being able to qualify and showcase our speed that we have week in and week out had really hurt my stats and my performance as a driver.

“This year is the first year that I’ve had practice and qualifying, been able to showcase our speed and what we’re capable of doing week in and week out.

“I mean, with that being said, I think practice has helped, too, because it’s helped Adam learn what I need in the car to be successful. So I think practice and qualifying goes hand-in-hand.”

With Chris Gayle moving up with Gibbs on the 54 side, you got the sense that the 20 and 54 teams are solidified for the future to come.

What about the 11 and 19?

The 11 was J.D’s number so I can’t see that moving away and with the 18 being brought back eventually, I can sense the writing on the wall is that if Truex decides to walk away at seasons end in 2023, then the 19 could become the 18 and have a new driver in it.

Hamlin and Chris Gabehart are clicking as well as anyone still in the garage so I don’t see any reason for that team to change one iota. The 19 team could in theory get switched, but Truex also said in Phoenix that he doesn’t want a change at all and wouldn’t be in favor of a move off James Small. He feels like they’re truly close to winning again and doesn’t want to change things up.

With the other three teams secured, I don’t see them doing that either because the last time was a swap between the 18 and 20 teams. Without a swap available, it makes sense to keep the 19 team status quo for another season.

So who do they have as replacements down the line?

Toyota lost KBM on the Truck Series level but gained David Gilliland Racing or what is now known as TRICON. Corey Heim, Tanner Gray and Taylor Gray are their main drivers with the fourth team being several drivers throughout the season in 2023.

The Xfinity program is still JGR but no drivers have been named as they lose both full-time drivers from 2022. Brandon Jones moves to JRM while Gibbs up to Cup.

John Hunter Nemechek hasn’t been named to any team yet which leads me to believe he could move up to JGR or even Sam Hunt Racing in the Xfinity Series. Same for Sammy Smith. Is there anyone else or is Smith and Nemechek the future of JGR with Gibbs and Bell?

Or does JGR lure a veteran away for that fourth season until they find someone they deem ready to take it over? Kevin Harvick is a free agent at the end of the 2023 season. Is he a year or two stop gap before bringing Smith or Heim up? What about Alex Bowman? What about Ryan Preece and force SHR to make a move? I don’t see Daniel Suarez coming back but there’s some options out there for the 19 car if Truex walks away after 2023.

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