After a wild 2019 silly season, the dominos could continue to fall heading into 2020. As a result, a few drivers should be feeling the pressure. Here’s my best guess at who.
This is probably the most controversial name on this list. Quite honestly, it’s more about what’s behind Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing. Christopher Bell is the driver to watch for next year. The 24 year old came up short of an Xfinity title, but he did more than enough to prove that he’s ready for the next level. He expressed that desire multiple times during 2018, but the timing just isn’t right.
Gibbs wants to keep him in-house, making a satellite operation like Leavine Famliy Racing, who is now aligned with JGR, less likely. If that’s the case, one of Gibbs’ current four drivers would have to move elsewhere. With Martin Truex Jr. now in place and Kyle Busch not going anywhere, that leaves Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.
Jones is just a couple years removed from being a top prospect himself and picked up his first career win last July in Daytona. He seems like he would be higher in the pecking order than Hamlin.
Hamlin, however, is signed through 2020, along with his sponsor FedEx. As you know, sponsorship can take you a long way in NASCAR these days. Would JGR cut that deal one year short? If they want to keep Bell in their stable, they may have to do so.
Hamlin’s performance on track took a nosedive in 2018. He posted the first winless season of his career and was ousted in the first round of the playoffs. That prompted the shifting of crew chief Mike Wheeler to Leavine, who will head up JGR’s new satellite team with Matt DiBenedetto.
2019 could very well serve as a make it or break it season for Hamlin.
As we just mentioned, Matt DiBenedetto is the other piece to the puzzle with this messy JGR deal. He will pilot the No. 95 for Leavine this season, a well-deserved opportunity for a guy that’s put in his time in some lesser equipment.
Again, Christopher Bell has a role in this. JGR wants him in their primary stable, but who gets pushed out? If it’s Hamlin, could he get pushed down to the No. 95? Would they consider putting Bell in the 95 for a year if it runs well with DiBenedetto? That would allow Hamlin’s deal with JGR to expire and Bell to take the No. 11 in 2020.
For DiBenedetto specifically, this is a prove it year. He bet on himself by leaving Go Fas Racing, now he’s got a shot to run towards the front with some help from JGR. For what it’s worth, DiBenedetto’s deal with Leavine is a two year deal. There was some talk of a second team being established here to house Bell, so keep that in mind. Leavine has run two cars before, entering a No. 59 entry a handful of times in the past.
As the dominos fell in 2018, it became clear that Daniel Suarez was going to be the odd man out of the JGR picture. Martin Truex Jr. signed with Gibbs after Furniture Row announced they would close up shop. It’s tough to blame Gibbs for making that move, especially considering he got crew chief Cole Pearn under his roof in the deal.
It’s unfortunate for Suarez, who has never really been given enough time to develop as a prospect. He was rushed into the ride after Carl Edwards retired two years ago. Suarez hasn’t had a ton of success since, competing in top equipment.
Suarez will now head over to Stewart-Haas Racing, set to run in more top equipment. If the results match what he did at JGR, it could be a short stay at SHR. Cole Custer is going to get another year in the Xfinity Series. If all goes well there, he’s going to be knocking on the door of a cup ride.
Wallace absolutely had his moments in 2018. From the second place finish in the Daytona 500 to leading laps at Bristol, the flashes were there. Unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good for Wallace’s rookie season.
You’ll give him a mulligan for his 28th place finish in the Cup Series standings. After all, Richard Petty’s No. 43 isn’t exactly filled with speed. RPM finished 30th in owners points, down from 24th in 2017, 27th in 2016 and 17th in 2015.
This team is heading in the wrong direction, to be blunt. It’s not exactly Wallace’s fault, but he’ll have to make a decent second year leap to keep the team’s faith in him. For a team that struggled with sponsorship all year long, Wallace will have to improve on his six DNFs and 24th place average finish in 2019.
The good news is they’ll have a new package to race with this year. Maybe that can even the playing field for Wallace, who has plenty of experience racing a similar package in the Truck Series.