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Job market rough for mid-level NASCAR drivers, like Michigan's Erik Jones

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Talladega, Ala. — One of NASCAR’s big shots won at Talladega Superspeedway, a hectic and crash-filled race that still, somehow, managed to showcase three drivers in need of a job.

Michigan native Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto and Ty Dillon all followed winner Denny Hamlin across the finish line in a predictably chaotic and white-knuckled triple-overtime finish. A win would not have locked down a 2021 seat for any member of the trio, but it certainly would have generated buzz to sway a potential sponsor.

This season during the pandemic has led to the most tumultuous free agent period in two decades and mid-level drivers are being squeezed out during an economic reset. The multimillion-dollar salaries for A-list drivers have shrunk, paying rides are few and far between, and the market is flush with inexperienced, young entrepreneurs armed with some sponsorship dollars.

Joe Gibbs Racing announced in August that Erik Jones wouldn't be returning to its Cup Series team in 2021.

“It’s getting to a tough place in the sport where you have to bring money with you,” Dillon said. “A little bit goes a long way right now.”

The nature of Talladega gave all three a shot at racing for the win and then selling their story to a sympathetic crowd. Talladega permitted about 15,000 fans and they saw a record 13 cautions and 12 laps in overtime for a four-plus hour event stopped by two red flags. They booed when Hamlin was declared the winner after a NASAR review, but cheered the underdogs who weathered the on-track carnage while facing job uncertainty:

►Jones is out of a job for the first time in his career because Joe Gibbs Racing is replacing him next year with Christopher Bell. Jones thought he was working on a contract extension to stay with the organization so he was a late addition to the market and many teams were well into 2021 planning.

►DiBenedetto doesn’t know if his option will be picked up by Wood Brothers Racing and the deadline last week for a team decision passed without a word. It’s the second year in a row his job status has been in flux late in the season and he miraculously upgraded his 2019 release with his current Team Penske-affiliated ride. DiBenedetto wants to return to the No. 21 Ford but he’s at the mercy of a Penske need to open a seat for an Austin Cindric promotion from the Xfinity Series.

►Dillon is in his fourth full season driving for single-car Germain Racing. The team is aligned with Richard Childress Racing but Dillon has been able to step away from the spotlight that shines first on Childress, his grandfather and a Hall of Famer, and brother Austin Dillon, a Daytona 500 winner currently in the championship race. Germain folding his team put Dillon out of work and the resources don’t exist for RCR to expand to give him a job.

Those three fall into a group of drivers who don’t bring much, if any, sponsorship money with them and must persuade team owners to hire them based solely on potential. Those kind of jobs hardly exist anymore — even Bubba Wallace is bringing upward of $18 million in sponsorship to the new Hamlin and Jordan race team — and drivers are grabbing anything they can get. Dillon would even consider dropping a level to the Xfinity Series.

Jones has always been in top equipment and has always drawn a healthy salary because he was discovered by Kyle Busch when he was 16. He had no chance of landing with a team at the same competitive level of Gibbs, but the former Southern 500 winner is rated among the best available.

DiBenedetto worked his entire career for Cup Series stability and it was upended last fall when Leavine Family Racing replaced him with Bell. He still landed in the best cars of his life with the Wood Brothers and Penske, but keeping the job is totally out of his control.

Even if he had beaten Hamlin on Sunday, his first career victory and the 100th for the pioneering Woods Brothers team might not have been enough. Any hopeful vibes after crossing the finish line second to Hamlin were stomped when NASCAR penalized him for going out of bounds. He was dropped to 21st.

That pushed Dillon to a career-best third place, also the best finish in Germain Racing history. It would take new sponsors at RCR to expand for Dillon, and even if the funding materialized he has enjoyed doing his own thing.

“I haven’t really been an RCR driver now for four years,” Dillon said. “I hope people can understand that I can bring value to a team respectfully, not just because of who I am but because of my talent.”

It’s a hard sell during a volatile time. Many cars are funded through business-to-business relationships, slowing the flow of hard cash. It has upended the quality of driver — Cup champions Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) have railed about the talent discrepancy in the series — and placed the mid-level driver on the endangered list.

DiBenedetto understands the harsh reality of the business, knowing this job might be the best of his career.

“It’s been a tough week with the uncertainty and I just pray to continue driving for the Wood Brothers,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s a dream come true and there’s a lot of people involved that go into the decision-making and I just pray and pray I get to do it.”