After Joe Gibbs affirmed that he has long term plans in place for both Christopher Bell and Erik Jones, there’s been widespread talk about which Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver at Joe Gibbs Racing Bell will replace.
If it’s not going to be Jones on the way out, then who would it be? There’s no way Gibbs would get rid of the face of the franchise, Kyle Busch, and recently signed Martin Truex Jr. probably won’t be a one-and-done. That leaves Denny Hamlin on the hot seat, a situation that should never occur.
Hamlin is a 33-time Cup Series winner and nearly won the organization a championship in 2010. Now, had Hamlin spent the last several years in mediocrity, then the case could be made that it’s time to move on from him, but he’s won two races this year. No multi-time winner should ever be replaced. Ever.
Bell is regarded as the next big thing, a diamond in the rough, who has absolutely dominated the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Does that mean that Bell will go on to have a Hall of Fame Cup career? Absolutely not. If it did, then Austin Dillon would be winning races on a weekly basis.
I do not see the point in replacing a proven driver with an unproven prospect. Up-and-coming talents rarely pan out to be as great as they are projected to be. Brian Vickers never lived up to his hype after replacing Joe Nemechek. Buckshot Jones, Scott Wimmer, Scott Riggs, Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Reed Sorenson were all drivers who had success in the lower levels, but failed to do much in the Cup Series.
Remember Casey Atwood? He was supposed to be the next Jeff Gordon, yet Ray Evernham let him walk after only one uneventful season, never to be seen again. Atwood was moved up too quickly and his career suffered as a result.
Even future Hall of Famers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were moved up too soon and failed to catch on with the teams that developed them. It took about 10 years for both drivers to really get to the level that they were once projected to be at. Sure, Busch has always won races, and he had a remarkable year in 2008, but in no way was he as dominant, consistent and mature back then as he is now.
They say the average age where a driver is at their prime is 38 years old. Yet, with the current trajectory of where the Cup Series is headed, drivers keep getting forced out at younger and younger ages in favor of people who can’t legally buy alcohol.
Kevin Harvick is only 43 years old. He won eight races last year. There should be no rumors of him retiring to replace Darrell Waltrip in the FOX booth. He should be able to maintain his No. 4 ride for at least the next five years without getting harassed by the media. Kurt Busch just turned 40 and Hamlin is 38, a.k.a he just hit the magic number. Both are competing at a high level and shouldn’t be questioned about retirement or replaced in favor of younger drivers for several years.
Have we already forgotten that Mark Martin and Harry Gant both won races at 50 years old?
Gant was 51 when he won four straight races in 1991. If that happened today, then every reporter in the media center would act as if a race didn’t just happen and only ask him questions about retirement. And his owner would replace him with a 20-year-old with money when Gant failed to make it five in a row.
Could you imagine the outrage today if Richard Petty drove until he was 55 years old despite an eight-year winless streak?
Rusty Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download that he hadn’t considered retirement at all until he started getting questions about it. Wallace said that Roger Penske told Wallace that he should probably retire. Well, of course Penske did — he was making moves to try to get up-and-coming star Kurt Busch in the No. 2 car.
Numerous times, Wallace has said he retired too early. After all, he was in the playoffs in his final year in a time when only 10 drivers made the postseason. If I was one of the 10 best drivers in NASCAR, you would have to pry the steering wheel out of my cold, dead hands before you replaced me with a younger driver.
And how exactly did it go when Kurt Busch got in the No. 2 after Wallace? He won races, but had nowhere near the success that Wallace had and Brad Keselowski is currently having.
Gibbs should’ve never replaced Matt Kenseth with Jones. Kenseth was still a championship contender and probably would’ve had more wins this year and last year. He took a terrible Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team and turned it into a car that could run in the top 10.
Meanwhile, Jones has only won one time, and it was at a race at Daytona International Speedway where nearly everyone wrecked. I’m not saying that Jones won’t be a great driver someday, but he was rushed to Cup too quickly.
Jones is only 22 years old. He shouldn’t be in a situation where people could potentially label him as a bust. The same goes for William Byron, who is only 21 and hasn’t done much the past two seasons. Yet, Gibbs and Rick Hendrick moved these younsters up super quickly because they dominated the Truck and Xfinity series and were considered to be the next superstars. Now, the same will be done to Bell, and the expectations will be set way too high for a driver still in the maturing stages.
Rick Mast said when he was coming along Cup owners wouldn’t consider a driver until they were 30 years old, even though Mast had success in what is now Xfinity in his 20s.
But then, Jeff Gordon came along and was super successful in his early 20s so all the owners had to get themselves a 20-year-old. But here’s the thing, Gordon is a once in a lifetime athlete. Hendrick was heavily criticized for hiring a driver so young, and he was extremely lucky that it actually worked out in his favor.
Gordon, Petty, Kyle Busch and Logano will probably be the only drivers ever to start in their early 20s and go on to have legendary status. And for Busch and Logano, starting that young didn’t do them any favors. The rest of the Hall of Fame drivers needed that extra time to develop and mature before getting thrown into the spotlight.
Now, I don’t think the method Mast talked about is the best way to go either. Waiting until a driver is 30 is too long to wait. But late 20s seems like a good age range for drivers to start their Cup careers. Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte were all in their late 20s when they started running Cup full time, and all went on to have remarkable careers. I’m not sure that would’ve been the case had any of them started any sooner.
Also, from a fan standpoint, nobody wants to cheer for a driver who looks like a little kid. They want to cheer for a grown man who looks tough or someone they can relate to. Who can relate to a spoiled rich kid who’s given a Cup ride without having to work hard for it?
Fans used to pick favorite drivers based on who came from their local track. I grew up going to Southside Speedway and South Boston Speedway and I know a lot of people who rooted for Hamlin, Elliott Sadler and the Burton brothers because they used to race at those tracks. Now, drivers are rushed up the ranks so quickly that fans can’t get to know them at the local level and they enter the Cup Series with a tiny fan base. No wonder races don’t sell out anymore — fans don’t have an authentic personal connection with any of the new drivers.
So owners, please slow down your driver developments and quit promoting drivers so easily. If a sponsor says they want a younger driver, tell them it’s your team and you’ll run it the way you want. Instead of hiring a driver that brings sponsorship, how about you instead hire smart marketing and business people that can recruit your own sponsors so you can hire the best proven driver available.
Those 20-year-old drivers will be even better when they’re 25, so don’t rush them to the top. Instead, go win some races with some 38-year-olds.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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