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.