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Matt Kenseth out for Erik Jones at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones will drive JGR’s No. 20 Cup Series car beginning in 2018.

Erik Jones poses after winning the Xfinity Serie race at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2017.
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

During his 16-year tenure as an NFL head coach Joe Gibbs often had to make the hard choice of cutting a veteran who still had gas left in the tank for a rookie who projected more long-term upside.

Feelings had to be put aside for the greater good of the organization, as hard as it may be. That approach won Gibbs three Super Bowls and is one he’s applied to NASCAR where Joe Gibbs Racing has evolved into a premier team with four championships to its credit since 2000.

On Tuesday, Gibbs formally announced a decision akin to an NFL franchise waiving a popular proven veteran. JGR confirmed Matt Kenseth will not return to the team as driver of its No. 20 Toyota next season in the Monster Energy Cup Series, thereby clearing room for rising star Erik Jones, who moves over from JGR’s technical partner Furniture Row Racing after a one-year-loan.

The news is not surprising. The transition from Kenseth to Jones was put in place a year ago when JGR in conjunction with FRR and Toyota finalized a pact where Jones, under contract to JGR, would race the 2017 season with FRR before returning to JGR. Per this arrangement, it was expected Kenseth, who at 45 is the oldest full-time Cup Series driver, would retire after storied career that included one championship, two Daytona 500 triumphs and 38 race victories overall. It was this open seat Jones would occupy.

But physically fit and still competitive, Kenseth had second thoughts about retiring, preferring to continue racing past this season when his contract with JGR expires. The team, however, couldn’t acquiesce with Kenseth’s wishes as it was contractually obligated to bring Jones back in-house or risk losing him to a rival. And with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez under contract, and with Jones regarded as a phenom, the decision of who would be the odd man out was obvious.

Although it may come across as a callous transaction, it is in fact the smart decision. Jones gives JGR a driver to build around for the next two decades, while Kenseth’s career is in its waning years. And accompanied with Busch, Hamlin and Suarez, the organization now has a potent four-driver lineup not just for 2018, but well into the future. Something no other team can stake a claim to -- including Hendrick Motorsports, which needs a replacement for the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and possibly the underachieving Kasey Kahne before the start of next season.

Jones’ arrival also helps shore up one of the few areas JGR has been insufficient: Selling out the complete sponsorship inventory on the No. 20 car. A pivotal factor JGR couldn’t ignore, Busch said in an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Friday.

Despite Kenseth being competitive on the track -- his 14 wins since joining JGR in 2013 is tied for fourth-best over that span -- the team has seen two of Kenseth’s anchor sponsors, Home Depot and Dollar General, recently depart. Even with DeWalt signing on to fill some of the gaps, the No. 20 team remains without primary sponsorship in a handful of races this season.

The ability and youthfulness of Jones is a boon to JGR, which has built successful long-lasting driver-sponsor pairings with both Busch (Mars Inc.) and Hamlin (FedEx). Expect the team to cultivate similar partnerships with Jones going forward.

Yet another reason why JGR acted judiciously in swapping Kenseth for Jones, because whether it’s on the track or off, the team now finds itself in a more advantageous position than it would’ve been otherwise.