Are We Sure That Christopher Bell Is More Talented Than Erik Jones?

Ask any Nascar fan, and they’ll tell you that it’s only a matter of time before Erik Jones makes way for Christopher Bell at Joe Gibbs Racing.

However, is Bell actually the superior talent?

The easiest comparison to make between drivers is when they drive the same equipment. Thus, comparing the two — who both drove the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the Xfinity Series — is easy. Right?

Not in this case. Extreme rule changes in the Xfinity Series renders a straight, statistical comparison between the two imprecise. In this article, I’ll isolate the extenuating circumstances that made performing significantly easier for Bell and give a revised statistical comparison that more accurately relates the drivers’ results.

In 2016 — Jones’ lone Xfinity season — there was no limit on the number of starts that Cup drivers could make. Competitive “Buschwhackers” — Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, etc. — made 133 combined starts and won 23 times in the 33-race schedule. Only Road America was free of Cup drivers.

In Bell’s two seasons combined, Buschwhackers made 81 attempts and won 20 of them. In 66 races, exactly half — 33 — were free of Cup drivers.

Clearly, it was easier for Bell to win races. To accurately compare, we must inspect how each did against their respective Xfinity opponents, while also observing their performance against Cup drivers.

Let’s get the controls out of the way: The strength of Gibbs’ Xfinity equipment was the same (the best) for both. Bell faced a tougher crop of Xfinity talent — the group of Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric is superior to Jones’ class, headlined by Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Bubba Wallace. Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler were also present (in JRM equipment) for both. It’s difficult to quantify an exact, weighed difference in the level of competition, but we’ll observe the bias.

Of Jones’ four wins in 2016, he beat Cup drivers in all of them. At Bristol, Jones (then-19) beat Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon; at Dover, he beat Joey Logano; at Iowa he triumphed over Brad Keselowski; at Chicago, he defeated Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, and Paul Menard. Meanwhile, there were seven additional races where he lost to a Cupper but finished first relative to his Xfinity competitors. Thus, we’ll say he “won” 11 races.

Of Bell’s seven wins in 2018, he beat Cup drivers in two of them*. He defeated Kyle Busch at Kentucky and outclassed Brad Keselowski the next week at Loudon. There were four additional races where he was Buschwhacked but managed to beat his Xfinity regulars, so he, too, scored 11 “wins.”

Note: He also defeated Ross Chastain at Richmond when Chastain was piloting Chip Ganassi’s #42, no small feat.

Of Bell’s eight wins in 2019, three came against Cup competition, but those Cuppers were Ryan Preece, Paul Menard and Matt DiBenedetto. The only Cup driver to win in Xfinity last season was Kyle Busch, and in his four wins, Bell was the top Xfinity driver in none of them, so his eight win-total is accurate.

The results: Jones “won” 11 races in 2016, while Bell “won” 19 over his two years.

That would tilt the scales in Jones’ favor, but remember, the other regulars in 2016 weren’t as talented as those that Bell competed with. Both drivers had impressive wins over Cup competitors. On speed, it’s pretty much a wash.*

*Note: Erik Jones’ average start in 2016 was 3.1, which is insane, especially given the presence of Cup guys in nearly every race. Bell’s average start was 8.5 in 2018, and 4.2 in 2019.

On the flip side, Bell’s formative racing years were spent on dirt, while Jones has been on pavement his whole life. Thus, you would think that Bell has more potential to grow as a paved-oval driver.

But wait! Jones is 18 months younger than Bell. So shouldn’t he — in theory — have more upside, despite having spent more years on pavement?

My head is spinning. When you really dig into it, these two are so, so close. Both have the talent to win a Cup championship one day.

Bell’s raw Xfinity statistics exceed those of Jones, leading many fans to believe that he’s unquestionably better and more deserving of the #20 Joe Gibbs Toyota in the Cup Series. A deeper dig reveals that, all things equal, it’s very difficult to declare one superior.

Bonus: There are seven drivers in NASCAR history to win multiple Cup races before turning 24: Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones. Five Cup champions, and two future ones.

All statistics via racing-reference.info.

Nascar Cup Series at Phoenix: Eight Laps

Welcome to my first installment of my Eight Laps weekly series, in which I fire off eight quick takes from the weekend’s Cup race.

Let’s go:

1. The new, 2020 short-track aero package looks like a massive success

After a breathtaking Daytona 500 and pair of races at Las Vegas and Fontana that exceeded expectations, Phoenix put on another great show Sunday, continuing Nascar’s upwards momentum.

The races at this track were borderline unwatchable last year, due primarily to the massive rear spoiler that made passing damn-near impossible at short tracks. Given that the championship race in 2020 (and likely beyond) will be held here, it was imperative that the sanctioning body make aerodynamic tweaks to try to better the product.

Success! The combination of a smaller rear spoiler (designed specifically for short tracks in 2020) and PJ1 sticky traction compound forged an exciting, competitive race in which there were comers, goers, multiple lead changes and action all around the one-mile oval.

Last year, the thought of a title-deciding race at Phoenix hatched a sense of dread. Now, not only are fans pumped to go back to the desert this fall to decide a champion, but we can also look forward to Martinsville, Richmond, Dover, and all of the short-tracks that will undoubtedly be made more exciting by the new aero package.

2. The Penske crew swap is working wonders.

You know who’s really good at life organizational decision-making? Roger Penske.

Last season, his three drivers and teams combined for six victories and all finished inside the top-8 in points. Despite the success, The Captain made the bold choice to reshuffle the deck: Todd Gordon and his crew would go from Joey Logano to Ryan Blaney; Paul Wolfe and crew from Brad Keselowski to Logano; and Jeremy Bullins and co. from Blaney to Keselowski. On its face, it seemed the risk outweighed the potential reward.

And this is why we should never doubt The Captain. After Sunday, the Logano-Wolfe pairing has won two of the season’s first four races and looks like an easy title favorite. Blaney has been equally as fast, and may have two wins himself if not for some brutal luck. Keselowski, the supposed odd man out, led 82 laps Sunday and has led 118 for the season, fourth-most in the series.

The decision to swap the teams — and in theory, fix something that wasn’t broken — now looks brilliant. Penske Racing looks like the best team in the garage right now, and Roger deserves immense credit.

3. Tyler Reddick is electric.

Of the “Big Three” Cup rookies, Reddick entered 2020 with the lowest expectations. Though he had won back-to-back Xfinity championships, he would be driving for a declining RCR Cup program that hadn’t won a race on pure speed since Kevin Harvick in 2013. Moreover, his #8 car scored only two top 10’s last year with Daniel Hemric.

But on Sunday, he put on an absolute show, wheeling his Chevrolet from a 29th starting spot all the way to 2nd. It was a breathtaking performance, particularly considering that Phoenix is a tricky, technical track that typically lends itself to veterans. Unfortunately, a blown right front tire led to a crash and early exit, but Reddick made a loud statement that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with, even as a newbie.

Frankly, he’s looked electric all year — the ex-dirt tracker ripped the top at Fontana en route to a solid 11th place, and was good at Vegas and Daytona as well before incidents hurt his finishes.

He’s a beautiful driver. It’s difficult to discern talent when you’re watching at home on TV, but Reddick rips the top of the race track with a fearlessness and smoothness that translates to corner-exit speed and quick lap times. Like Kyle Larson — another dirt-track shoe — his skill bleeds through the television screen.

Lastly, unlike Custer and especially Bell, he carries himself with a swagger and fearlessness that belies his rookie status. This dude’s got competitive arrogance in spades, and I love it. He’s going to be fun to watch, and a borderline playoff contender this year if the bad luck subsides.

[Note: I’m not trying to suggest that Reddick will be the best rookie this year. It’s too early to make that claim, especially given Bell and Custer’s respective talents and teams. But I’m ready to say that Reddick is a special young driver, and will be ripping the top-side in the Cup Series for our viewing pleasure for a long time.]

4. The Clint Bowyer-Johnny Klausmeier duo makes a statement

Given his advancing age, media talents and expiring contract at Stewart-Haas, my gut has been telling me that this will be Clint’s final year as a full-time Cup driver.

At the same time, I wasn’t optimistic about his new pairing with new crew chief Johnny Klausmeier. Though offbeat personalities between driver and strategist can sometimes work, Clint’s explosive fire didn’t seem a fit for Klausmeier’s more reserved, engineering-based approach.

But the #14 Ford was quick Sunday and earned a solid 5th-place finish. After qualifying well and then free-falling through the field at both Vegas and Fontana, it was encouraging to see Bowyer and Klausmeier take a car that wasn’t great when they unloaded (qualified 18th) and turn it into a top-5 horse by the end of the day.

Very inspiring run from this group. Excited to hear Clint and Dave Portnoy discuss it on the next Rubbin’ is Racin’ podcast, which everyone needs to subscribe to immediately.

6. The sleepy start to the season continues for Erik Jones

A year ago, Jones was lightning quick every week, but too often bad luck led to sub-optimal finishes that masked his performance behind the wheel.

Speed is down across the board for Toyota this year, and Jones seems particularly affected. The #20 ran like dog meat at Vegas, and was only adequate at Fontana with a 10th place finish that overstates how the car ran for most of that weekend.

At Phoenix, the car was poor again — Jones floated around the back-end of the top-15 before crashing after trying to overcompensate for some questionabl pit strategy from Chris Gayle. He finished three laps down in 28th.

It’s no secret that Jones needs a big year. In his fourth Cup season, it’s time for the 24-year old to turn elite talent into elite production, especially given his expiring contract at Joe Gibbs Racing and noise about Christopher Bell taking his seat at the table.

It hasn’t been an encouraging start. He typically catches fire in the summer months, but it’d be nice to see him put together consistent, good runs early in the season before the chatter about his contract accelerates.

[Note: Ryan Blaney has taken off after the swap to Todd Gordon, and part of me wonders what would happen to Jones if he, too, were given a championship-caliber crew chief.]

7. Ryan Preece finally scores a top-20.

The Cup series is loaded with more good drivers than there are competitive seats. Given this inefficiency, Preece’s grip on a semi-competitive Cup seat feels tentative at best.

After an unimpressive rookie year, the 29-year old (he’s not as young as you may think) was off to an abhorrent start to the season, and sat 35th in points after three races. At Phoenix, he finally scored a top-20 (18th), which should help him sleep a little better tonight.

Still, it’s not clear if Preece is a Cup-caliber driver, and he needs to start stringing together solid results if he wants to stay at this level. I’m sorry, but that’s just the reality of the Cup Series, particularly when a driver comes without attached sponsorship. It will be interesting to see what happens to both him and the #37 JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet in 2021.

8. Ross Chastain still can’t buy a finish.

As chairman and CEO of Ross Chastain Is A Cup Champion Hiding In Plain Sight Inc., I’ve been frustrated by his performance as Ryan Newman’s substitute in the #6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford.

Has the speed been there? Of course, because Chastain always has the speed. But he’s trying too hard and overdriving the car, which has led to incidents and disappointing finishes. Sunday, he was on the verge of a top-10, but got too aggressive racing with William Byron and Cole Custer and spun out with 12 laps to go.

I’m not selling any Chastain stock. As the old adage goes, it’s easier to slow a driver down than to speed him up. But for the sake of his finishes, Ross needs to take a chill pill and stop getting into these minor incidents. It’s better to bring it home in 11th than bring out a caution and finish outside the top-20.

Secretly, I’m enjoying this. I’m so confident in Chastain’s talent that I’m going to enjoy this brief period in which everyone wonders if he’s overrated. Here’s a hint: he is not, and he’ll rip off a few top-10’s before Newman comes back. This, of course, before stepping into a Chip Ganassi seat in the coming years and competing for wins and championships.

That’s all I got! For this week, at least.

Get well soon, Ryan!

Contract Extension Win-Win For Ryan Blaney, Penske Racing

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You know who appeals to car owners? Young, über-marketable drivers who can win Cup Series races on road-courses, ovals and triangles alike.

You know what appeals to drivers? Penske Racing.

Thus, it was only a matter of time before Penske and Ryan Blaney came to a long-term agreement. The timing, however, is interesting, and speaks to Roger Penske’s class and intelligence.

There was no impetus for Penske to get this deal done early. The huge supply of free agents this winter and limited supply of championship-level equipment gave The Captain all the leverage — he could have easily strung this out until the summer.

But despite leading the point standings after three weeks, Blaney needed the reassurance now.

After all, in a matter of seconds, he went from staring at a potential Daytona 500 win to wondering if his minor mistake triggered a fatal crash. The next week at Las Vegas, he was leading the race with 5 laps to go when an untimely caution and subsequent pit stop led to an 11th place finish. Then, at Fontana, he was running 2nd with 7 to go when a cut right-rear forced a pit stop and 19th place result.

Penske knew that his driver, despite performing brilliantly behind the wheel, was beaten down and drained. What better way to lift him up than this? Classy move by The Captain.

On the other hand, it shows intelligence. Three straight weeks of heartbreak could have triggered a wave of negative momentum. This announcement sends Blaney, Todd Gordon and the entire #12 Ford team this message: Keep doing what you’re doing, and the victories will come.

For this season and beyond, Ryan Blaney will be paid millions annually to pilot a championship-level hot-rod. Meanwhile, Roger Penske gets to watch his homegrown young stud blossom into a yearly championship threat.

“Win-win” might be an understatement.


The Crash(es) That Changed My Life

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I shared this with my family, and it felt so good to write that I had to throw it on here.

There’s no footage of my crash five years ago and I don’t remember it, so it was difficult to put my incredible fortune into perspective. That changed a few weeks ago, when on the last lap of the Daytona 500, this happened.

Ryan Newman got t-boned in the driver’s net at 200 mph. When Fox (unintelligently) showed the slow motion replay, I almost vomited. I knew he was dead. It was an unsurvivable, one-in-a-billion type impact. 

I immediately took Charley (my dog) for a walk and thought of his two young daughters. I’d never witnessed a death in a live sporting event and it was pretty brutal, especially considering I’d been following the guy his whole career. 

But a few hours later it came out that he had a pulse and his injuries were not life threatening. I knew he’d be paralyzed or impaired, but I didn’t care — I was just happy that his kids would have their dad. 

The next day, it came out that he was awake and joking around with the hospital staff. I was in shock. A couple days later, he’s walking out of the hospital hand-in-hand with his daughters.

His precise injuries were never disclosed, but his father said he had a brain injury that left him with bleeding in the front of his head and swelling on his brain. Five years ago, I, too, was t-boned in a car accident that left me hospitalized in serious condition with bleeding in the front of my head and swelling on my brain. I, too, was miraculously joking around a day after the crash and escaped not only with my life, but complete functionality. But unlike Newman, I wasn’t wearing a helmet and wasn’t even buckled in. 

My outlook the last three weeks has been different. On one hand, every day is a blessing, and anything that happens the rest of my life is gravy. On the other hand, I’m only still here because God has big plans for me, and I’m not going to let Him down.

Get well soon, Ryan!