Race Weekend Central

Joe Gibbs Racing Prepping for the Future with Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez

Coming off of a championship-winning season with Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing has an obvious goal: to win another title.

However, building for the future, even with secure funding for each of its four drivers for multiple seasons, has become the objective.

Adding a plethora of drivers to its NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series roster, Joe Gibbs Racing looks to change its development route after establishing multiple drivers in the mid-2000s, including Denny Hamlin, JJ Yeley and Joey Logano.

Because entering the new season, JGR’s Sprint Cup roster are each over 30 years old, with the average on the team being 36. While the age factor has not come into play quite yet, the four-car team has reached its limit for the amount of cars it can field. The only exception to this is fielding a fifth part-time car with a mixture of rookies, who can run up to seven races each in a given season. But that will likely not happen, according to 2015 Truck Series champion Erik Jones, who has been under contract with JGR and Kyle Busch Motorsports since 2013.

Jones, 19, is leading the newest crop of Toyota racers. As he has comes off a season where he dipped his feet into the Cup Series, Jones will be competing full-time for JGR in the XFINITY Series, battling for the championship.

“I’m just happy to be with the same group week in and week out and be able to have the ability to grow with the same group of guys,” Jones said during the annual NASCAR Media Tour last week. “We’ll see as the season goes on how things go. I think it is going to be a really nice and strong group of guys that we can go out and compete for a championship with.”

While Jones works through the NASCAR rankings, his elder peers at the Gibbs organization have been encouraged by his performance. According to Busch, he refuses to give Jones any more advice, acknowledging that the kid that beat him in the 2012 Snowball Derby — a prestigious Late Model race — is no longer just a teenager.

Along with Jones, Mexico native Daniel Suarez is attempting to work his way into NASCAR’s premier division as well. The reigning XFINITY Series Rookie of the Year will return to JGR in 2016, but this time he is taking on the veteran role for the organization’s XFINITY team. Satisfied with eight top 5s and 18 top 10s in his first season, he said he believes the momentum will continue into 2016. However, expectations have increased now that he has a full season under his belt.

“We had a good first season,” Suarez explained. “We learned a lot of new things with the team, people and racetracks. Now, it’s different. Now, our expectations are higher. We know what to expect and we can go out and expect a little bit more out of ourselves. I think that is going to be the biggest difference from last year to this year.”

Heading into the new year, Suarez will be paired with reigning championship crew chief Scott Graves, who enters his first season outside of the Roush Fenway Racing banner. The team believes the move will be one that can catapult the No. 18 into a title contender this year.

But first, it must establish the organization’s weaknesses from 2015. Through Suarez’s first six races last season, he had an average finish of 17.5, holding onto a spot in the top 10 in the standings. After a runner-up finish at Bristol behind a dominant Logano, Suarez began to do what he hoped to do all along. But along the way, there were some bumps that the majority of rookies experience, including a speeding penalty at Dover in May that took away a shot at a top 5.

“They both have the passion, fire and desire,” Busch said about Suarez and Jones. “They want to do it and want to be successful at it. Although Daniel didn’t win a race last year, he was close multiple times. I felt he missed out on a couple of opportunities that presented themselves. I felt like he learned from those instances and they made him a strong, better driver.”

With the opportunities Busch has given both drivers, mainly in the Truck Series, the two young guns have created a new mentality at Joe Gibbs Racing. Helping create the next generation of racers, JGR has essentially set itself up for the future.

Though he will get limited opportunities to race in NASCAR’s premier division in 2016, Jones and team owner Joe Gibbs have stated numerous times that a plan is in place to advance the Michigan native to the Sprint Cup level sooner rather than later. Adding Furniture Row Racing as an ally is a step in that direction, and it could create at least one opening to field one of the team’s newest stars.

“Is there an opportunity for something like that to happen? I think that is certainly true,” Joe Garone, general manager of Furniture Row Racing said. “There isn’t necessarily a plan in place for that [a second part-time car in 2016], but if you look at the capacity we have to expand to multiple cars, I can certainly see something like that in our future. Were not anywhere where I can say were going to do that yet. What I can say is that we’re going to do the things we need to do to be in position to do that. A couple months into this season, we will start working on that plan as it comes together.”

Expanding JGR’s borders within Furniture Row Racing’s shop has created a relaxed atmosphere for its group of drivers, which is led by Matt Kenseth, who turns 44 in March. The move enables the Gibbs organization to move Jones to the Cup level full-time as early as next year as a teammate to Martin Truex, Jr.  Once Kenseth decides to retire several years down the road, it could mean that either Jones or Suarez will take over the No. 20 ride, or it enables them to add a driver from another team.

The alternative will require JGR to release one of its current drivers, and the man on the hot seat is Hamlin, whose contract is allegedly expiring at the end of this season. With limited openings due to the new charter system that will be announced in the coming weeks before the Daytona 500, it is unlikely that he would depart the No. 11 team given his relationship with FedEx and the lack of openings at other major organizations.

JGR’s newest Cup driver, Carl Edwards, believes that competing for a ride with the younger drivers within the team makes him strive to do better on the track. While other drivers may be considering early retirement, he wants to continue racing, hoping to one day battle against Suarez and Jones, though he seldom gives them advice.

“They are always right behind you, and this is a performance sport,” Edwards explained. “Somebody joked about Erik early on and they were saying we should quit helping him. I think it was Matt that said, ‘Man, you’re making us look bad.’ If you look at the level of experience those guys have – and they basically no experience – yet they’re massively talented and perform so well. They definitely keep me motivated.”

As Jones and Suarez look to battle each other for a championship in 2016, they will ultimately be competing for a ride in the sport’s top tier. Sponsorship will likely dictate the future of any driver coming through the rankings. However, with these two drivers, the talent is present, which will force JGR to make room for them in the Cup Series sooner rather than later.

Said Busch: “I hate teaching them anything because then they beat me with it. I love Erik and Daniel both. They’ve done and do a great job on the track each week of learning and picking through my brain. They figure out things through me that helps them. I’m all for helping the younger guys and I have four more coming through KBM this year. Daniel Suarez being the elder statesman at JGR in the XFINITY Series, Erik will have to lean on him quite a bit.”

About the author

Joseph started with Fronstretch in Aug. 2014 and worked his way up to become an editor in less than a year. A native of Whitestone, New York, Joseph writes for NASCAR Pole Position magazine as a weekly contributor, along with being a former intern at Newsday and the Times Beacon Record Newspapers, each on Long Island. With a focus on NASCAR, he runs our social media pages and writes the NASCAR Mailbox column, along with other features for the site.

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Hamlin’s contract expires after next year. Maybe if you’d have done your homework you’d realize that Jayski has it wrong.

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