CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Joe Gibbs Racing is replacing NASCAR’s oldest full-time driver with one of the youngest as the series undergoes a rapid changing of the guard.
Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 Toyota for Gibbs next season. That has been Matt Kenseth’s seat since 2013, and he has won a lot of races for the organization.
But Kenseth is 45, and Jones is 21. Plus, Jones is on a one-year loaner contract to Gibbs’ sister team Furniture Row Racing, and Gibbs had to put Jones somewhere in 2018.
“This is a really exciting time in my career for me to make the move back to Joe Gibbs Racing full time in the Cup Series,” Jones said.
Kenseth, in a contract year, gets the boot.
This is not a surprise in NASCAR, which has seen a quick shift in the last year toward the 20-something phenom at the expense of the middle-aged journeyman. Kenseth is the biggest name hit so far as the deep Gibbs development system has given the organization too many drivers to employ.
“I hate the position that Matt is in but obviously that didn’t just happen overnight,” 2014 champion Kevin Harvick said earlier Tuesday. “I believe Matt is probably the most sane leader of that particular team.”
Kenseth is the veteran at Gibbs, which has 2015 champion Kyle Busch, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez.
“Matt is the guy that is kind of the glue that holds the direction. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand,” said Harvick, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing. “Where do you push that direction from a competition standpoint? Is this really what we need to do? This guy’s complaining about this, this guy’s complaining about that. You need the voice of reason from a driver’s standpoint that says there has to be somebody that helps guide you in that direction of what you need to work on next.”
But there’s simply no room for Kenseth anymore, a stalwart in the series and a star for Toyota, which partnered with Kenseth when he joined Gibbs in 2013. He is 11th in the standings and in his 18th Cup season. He said last weekend there was no opportunity for him to return to Gibbs .
Jones is a Gibbs development driver, a product of a Gibbs and Toyota system that has stockpiled young talent. It’s use-them-or-lose-them time for Gibbs, which caught a break this year when Carl Edwards unexpectedly retired. Suarez got fast-tracked to the Cup Series, and Jones was moved to Furniture Row to await an opening at Gibbs.
Team owner Gibbs bid adieu to Kenseth in a team release.
“Matt has been a tremendous asset to our organization over the past five seasons both on and off the track,” Gibbs said. “He’s been a great teammate and a great ambassador for our sponsors. We have a great deal of respect for him and we are working hard to get the 20 team into the playoffs to make a run for the championship. We have a great deal of confidence in his abilities to do just that.”
Kenseth is the 2003 Cup champion, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and has 38 career victories. After he joined Gibbs four years ago, led the Cup Series with seven victories and finished second in points that year. He is admittedly looking for a ride next season.
Jones, who turned 21 in May, was discovered by Busch in 2012 when Jones upset Busch to win the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, Florida. Jones at the time became the youngest winner in the Truck Series when he won in 2013 at 17 years, five months and eight days. He won the series title two years later — the youngest series champ at 19 — and made his first Cup appearance that season in relief of Denny Hamlin at Bristol. He later drove a Cup race for Busch and two races for Kenseth.
Jones won four Xfintiy races last year as a rookie and ran for the championship in the season finale in Miami but finished fourth in the points.
Jones is currently 14th in the Cup standings. Martin Truex Jr., his Furniture Row teammate, is second in the Cup standings, leads the series with three victories and has been the most dominant driver of the season.
“Furniture Row Racing’s commitment to Jones and the No. 77 team remains the same for the remainder of the season,” Furniture Row owner Barney Visser said. “Our goal is for Jones to qualify for the playoffs, make a run for the championship and capture rookie of the year honors.
“We are working on our team plans for 2018 but don’t have anything concrete to report at this time except that Martin Truex Jr. will continue to drive the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.”