Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, the team announced Thursday night.
“We appreciate all Erik has done for Joe Gibbs Racing over the past several years,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “He joined us as a teenager and has accomplished so much in his time here and we remain focused on the remainder of this season and earning him a spot in the playoffs.”
Said Jones: “I greatly appreciate the opportunity that JGR provided me with over the last four years and I wish the team nothing but success and good fortune,” said Jones. “JGR gave me a solid foundation from which to go out and compete at the highest level and I look forward to building on that in the years to come.”
Jones’ one-year contract with JGR expires after this season. The departure of the 24-year-old Jones clears the way for 25-year-old Cup rookie Christopher Bell to join JGR next season. In its announcement Thursday night, JGR did not indicate who will replace Jones, although that is expected to be Bell.
Toyota Racing Development has invested significantly in Bell, guiding him through dirt track racing, the Truck Series, Xfinity Seres and now Cup. Jones also has been a TRD development driver, competing for the Toyota in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series.
Jones has two wins in 131 Cup starts heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway, his home track. His Cup wins came at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington (Sept. 2019). He is the only driver in NASCAR history to be rookie of the year in Truck, Xfinity and Cup. He also won the Truck title in his first season in that series.
Bell has made 20 Cup starts with a best finish of fourth at the first Pocono race in June. He won the 2017 Truck title and set the Xfinity rookie record for wins with seven in 2018.
In a statement, Ed Laukes, Group Vice President, Marketing, Toyota Motor North America, said: “Erik has been an incredible friend to Toyota throughout the last eight years. We’ve become close not only to Erik, but to his entire family. We’ve celebrated together, we’ve cried together and we’ve supported each other through it all. Unfortunately, the time has come that we have to part ways from a competitive standpoint. We know Erik will continue to do great things in this sport and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors. We will certainly continue to follow his career and will be there to congratulate him as he continues to succeed.”
Friday 5: Focus is on drivers, teams to be vigilant against COVID-19
NBA and NHL players reside in bubbles. Major League Baseball and NFL players do not. While the NBA and NHL have not reported any positive tests from those inside their bubbles, Major League Baseball faces a COVID-19 outbreak on one team, and the NFL will see how well its system works with training camps underway.
NASCAR, meanwhile, rolls on.
There is no coronavirus testing in NASCAR. The onus is on competitors to avoid contracting the virus and infecting their team and others in the sport.
NASCAR’s plan is designed to keep drivers separate from their crews, pit crews separate from road crews and those that travel separate from team members working in the shop. If someone is infected, it should only impact a small group instead of an entire team.
The challenge is for drivers and crew members to remain vigilant against COVID-19 away from the track and shop as the year progresses and the desire grows to be in more public settings.
“It’s easy to get fatigued with this and let off the gas and we can’t do that,” said Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing.
After the 70-day shutdown, Cup teams ran 16 races in 68 days — an average of one race every 4.3 days — between the series resuming May 17 at Darlington Raceway and the July 23 race at Kansas Speedway.
August will not be much easier. Cup teams will race seven times between Sunday’s race at New Hampshire and Aug. 29 at Daytona. Five of those races will be held in a 16-day period — a pair of doubleheaders at Michigan and Dover each and the series’ inaugural race on the Daytona road course.
So, if anyone deserves a break, it is the Cup drivers and crew members. Last weekend provided that opportunity and some shared photos on social media about their getaways.
But with no COVID-19 vaccine available and what’s at stake should they be infected, drivers and team members must balance being cautious in what they do outside the track and shop and living life.
Christopher Bell said he plans to run in midget races next Tuesday and Wednesday at Pennsylvania.
“The biggest thing is just trying to use common sense and being as smart as I can about going to the races and making sure you keep your distance,” Bell said of balancing health concerns with personal decisions. “Instead of traveling up to the Pennsylvania races on a plane, like I probably would, I’m going to be riding in the rig and isolating from the masses as much as I can anyway. I think it’s a matter of just doing your part. Wearing masks when you need to and making sure that you’re staying away from people and just using common sense.”
Although Ryan Preece admits he’d like to race a modified between Cup events this summer, he isn’t doing so.
“I think it’s hard right now with the way things are to do it and not know if you’re going to be forced into quarantine or whatever it may be,” Preece said. “I’m used to racing 60 to 80 times a year, but at the same time my focus is on the Cup series.”
And that means avoiding situations that could compromise his health and force him out of his ride temporarily at JTG Daugherty Racing while he would have to quarantine.
“You don’t put yourself in those situations,” Preece said. “That’s really it … because I want to race. And that’s it.”
Alpern says Joe Gibbs Racing reinforces car owner Joe Gibbs’ message of “Just be smart” to the organization’s drivers and team members about when they are not at the track or the shop.
NASCAR informed all teams and others in the industry going to New Hampshire for Sunday’s race that they are “prohibited from patronizing any restaurants (take-out/to-go/delivery orders only) or bars in the area and must limit their travel to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and their hotel only.”
Such restrictions are mandated by a modified travel-related quarantine the state of New Hampshire approved for those traveling to put on the race.
To those who raise questions about NASCAR not doing COVID-19 testing, Alpern says he understands the reasoning.
“When we were talking about protocols, there was a ton of discussion about testing and should we test, should we not test,” he said. “We went back. I know testing is not like you just walk down the road and get one. It’s not super easy, but it’s a lot easier right now than it was. When we came back (to race in May), there was a lot of sensitivity to people who really needed tests not being able to get a test.
“So I think our sport wanted to be sensitive to the fact. Do we really have to use up tests for folks? The challenge that you have when you don’t have a bubble, let’s say for example we were testing people every day, the second you leave the bubble, the test is rendered useless because you tested but now you have gone and exposed yourself. If you’re in a bubble, testing makes complete sense because then you’re protecting the bubble.
“Once you are in the bubble you can act like things are normal. We are not acting like things are normal at the track or (at the shop) because of that. We are spacing, we are wearing masks because it’s difficult when people are coming in and out of the bubble as we talked about before. I think the process we have is working pretty well.”
2. Frustrating stretch
Last week at Kansas Speedway, Ryan Preece didn’t finish last.
It’s been that kind of a month for the JTG Daugherty Racing driver who had finished last in three consecutive races before he placed 34th last week at Kansas. But that race marked the fourth consecutive time he’s failed to finish: three times because of an accident and once because of a transmission failure.
“Whenever I hear people talk about bad luck or that, I’ve always been a believer of making your own luck,” Preece said. “But this has probably been the first time in my career that I really, wrong place wrong time, things that were out of my control happening. I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s been frustrating for sure.
“The thing that’s even more frustrating is Kansas. I really don’t know what else I could have done. I don’t think there was anything else I could have done. But we had a fast race car right there, at that point in time when it needed to be and that’s kind of been the case. We’ve struggled at the beginning of the races and then gotten our car better as the stages have gone on. The only thing you can do at this point is really go and gamble on things. I’ve got nothing else to lose.”
He was collected in a crash at Kansas that sent his car into the inside SAFER barrier on the backstretch. Asked how long he was sore after that vicious crash, Preece said: “I was ready to go as soon as I got out of that race car.”
He says he won’t let these struggles beat him.
“You’ve just got to be positive,” Preece said. “It’s easier to say than it is to do, but I feel like over the past few weeks of just constantly living that way, things have become easier. My life has become much happier. I’m probably a lot better to be around. And you just put in the hard work, that’s it.
“Just sitting there hoping things are going to turn around … it doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that. So, I’m just going to continue fighting and hopefully we can finish 2020 better than we have.”
3. Different stage length
One thing that will be different about Sunday’s race at New Hampshire (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the length of the last two stages.
Stage 1 ends on Lap 75 as it has in the past. Stage 2 will end on Lap 185 — 30 laps later than it has in the past. That makes the final stage shorter by 30 laps.
Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, says the changes to the stage length could make an impact since the race is among the shorter ones, which puts a premium on track position.
“It will definitely make it a little more interesting I think with the longer stage,” he said. “You have tire wear, you’re going to have fuel mileage stuff to look at. It’s definitely going to change the strategy a little bit, which we’re going to have to stay on top of. You’re going to have a Lap 30 competition caution, which should give you a good read on tires, as far as what kind of wear you’re going to be looking at throughout the race and the lap time fall off. So, I think that’s going to kind of dictate what you do in that second stage, for sure.”
4. One way of looking at it
It’s easy to look at Ryan Newman’s season and think how different it could have been had the Roush Fenway Racing driver won the Daytona 500 instead of crashing as he came to the checkered flag.
“No doubt I’ve thought about it, but the reality is it’s not the truth, it’s not what happened, it’s the what could have been and everybody has that in their season,” he said. “We have to do our job to go back and kind of replay those events and make corrections to whatever mistakes or whatever differences we can to try to be victorious. That doesn’t go just for Daytona, that goes for every racetrack.
“The season no doubt has been a challenge in so many ways for so many people and our team, I feel like we’ve struggled a little bit, but I feel like we have the things that we need to make the corrections to be better and be stronger and be successful, so we’re just gonna keep our nose to the grindstone and carry on.”
5. Will dominance continue?
A few things to watch for in Sunday’s race:
Joe Gibbs Racing has finished either first or second in 13 of the last 14 Cup races at New Hampshire. JGR cars have led 45% of all the laps run in those last 14 races.
Toyota cars, led by JGR, have been dominant in the last five races, leading 84.3% of the laps run in that time. Chevrolet teams have led 2.9% of the laps in the races at New Hampshire since July 2016.
Martin Truex Jr. has won the first stage in three of the last four years there. His 744 laps led there makes him the driver to lead the most laps at the 1-mile track and yet to score a win. His best New Hampshire finish is third.
Ty Gibbs, grandson of NASCAR team owner and former Super Bowl winning head coach Joe Gibbs, won his second race of the season in Saturday’s ARCA Menards Series General Tire 150 at Kentucky Speedway.
The 17-year-old Gibbs beat runner-up Bret Holmes to the checkered flag by 1.247 seconds. It was Holmes’ best career finish in 67 starts in ARCA competition. Points leader Michael Self finished third, followed by Sam Mayer and Drew Dollar.
Gibbs has now won two of the four starts he’s made in the series this season. He also won at Pocono, finished third in his season opener at Phoenix and was 15th last week at Indianapolis.
Gibbs has now won seven races across the ARCA Menards, East and West series over the previous two seasons.
With Satuday’s victory, Gibbs became Kentucky Speedway’s youngest race winner at 17 years, nine months and seven days, breaking the previous mark held by two-time NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch, who had just turned 18 when he won at the 1.5-mile track back in 2003.
Hailie Deegan wrecked on Lap 77 and finished 14th, dropping her from second to fourth in the point standings, 24 points now behind series leader Michael Self.
The ARCA Menards Series’ next race is next Saturday, July 18, at Iowa Speedway, the seventh race of the season. It will be televised live on MAVTV and streamed on TrackPass on NBC Gold.
Change is sweeping NASCAR. No longer are fans being asked not to bring the Confederate flag to the track, they’re being told not to do so. Drivers are speaking up about social injustice more than they have. They’re listening and learning.
Monday, they stood with Wallace.
They gathered at Wallace’s car on pit road before the race. Johnson said on a group chat for drivers that he planned to stand with Wallace for the national anthem and invited his competitors to join him.
Kevin Harvick suggested they push Wallace’s car from its 24th starting spot to the end of pit road and the front of the field. Crew members walked with them. Joining them was 82-year-old team owner Richard Petty, who made the No. 43 that Wallace drives famous but never saw a day like Monday.
As Wallace started to climb from his car after being pushed by his competitors down pit road, he buried his head. Petty, who had not attended a race since the COVID-19 pandemic, comforted Wallace.
The day before had all seemed well to Wallace until Phelps told him about the noose in the garage stall. Wallace’s mother, Desiree, said on SiriusXM that when her son told her what happened, “at first he looked defeated.
“I said, ‘Look, that was an act of fear. I said they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. I said it was a cowardly act. I said and, at the end of the day, you don’t allow them to strip away your character or your integrity.”
Later Sunday night Wallace told Ryan Blaney, one of his closest friends what happened.
“I couldn’t find the words to describe how I felt,” said Blaney, who won Monday’s race. “I felt a mixture of anger and sadness for him, confused how anybody could do something like this. I just felt all these different emotions. I know he went through a big range.
“You hate to see your buddies or anybody you love be sad and be hurting. I tried to support him the best I could. Gave him a big hug before he left. I think it was just a multiple range of emotions. Last night I was really angry. I couldn’t fall asleep.”
Some drivers weren’t aware of what happened until Monday morning.
“My immediate reaction was just speechless,” Aric Almirola said. “I couldn’t believe that somebody would do that.”
Almirola, who says he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to compete in NASCAR’s highest levels had he not been a part of a diversity program set up by Joe Gibbs and the late Reggie White, finished third in Monday’s race.
“So growing up trying to race as a Cuban American, sure, I’ve had things said to me, things that were offensive, that hurt,” Almirola said. “I actually told Bubba (Monday) morning that on a very, very small scale I can relate and I can empathize. I have never had to go through what he’s had to go through in the last couple weeks, and especially in the last 24 hours. I feel for him immensely.
“I think that the sport has worked so hard since I got my opportunity in 2004 to adapt. I think forever NASCAR has been considered an All‑American sport. All of America has changed and evolved a lot over time. I think that NASCAR has done an incredible job of being inclusive and making sure that the garage area, the spectators, the fan area, that they all resemble all of America.”
That was evident Monday. Talladega was allowed to have up to 5,000 fans and Wallace, who finished 14th, walked to them and slapped hands through the fence. A few fans wore Black Lives Matter shirts.
“Look, first (time) fans right here, from Atlanta,” Wallace said in an interview with Fox after the race. “That is so cool. This sport is changing. The deal that happened (Sunday), sorry I’m not wearing my mask, but I wanted to show whoever it was you’re not going to take my smile and I’m going to keep on going.”
It’s not just him that will keep going but all of NASCAR.
Ty Gibbs, 17-year-old grandson of NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, held off rival Sam Mayer in a two-lap overtime shootout to win Saturday’s ARCA Menards East Series race at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway.
It was the younger Gibbs’ first win in the East Series and his fifth overall in the last two years between the ARCA Menards, East and West series. The race also marked the first ARCA race held since the COVID-19 pandemic hiatus.
The win avenges a runner-up finish for Gibbs last season at Toledo.
“It’s really good to come back out here and get a win,” Ty Gibbs told ARCARacing.com. “I was able to move up a spot, which is always a fun time.”
The East Series rookie dominated, leading 183 of the 204 laps around the paved half-mile oval.
Mayer, defending East champion, finished second, followed by Bret Holmes and Rev Racing teammates Chase Cabre and Nick Sanchez.
The race will air this Thursday on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET.