Following two weeks off, the NASCAR season is about to get restarted again this weekend at Watkins Glen. With that said, hope everyone enjoyed the last two weekends off because we’re about to embark on a 14 straight week endeavor to the finish.
Here are the top five things to watch for the final 14 weeks of the 2021 campaign.
Can Hamlin Hold Off Larson For The Regular Season Championship?
Leaving Darlington back on Mothers Day weekend, Denny Hamlin had accumulated 529 points on the season already. That day was his ninth top five result in the first 12 races of the season. Meanwhile, Kyle Larson finished runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. in that race and now had 385 points of his own. As we come into Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN) this weekend, that advantage is down to 13 points between the two.
In the last 10 races, Hamlin has just two top five results with a best finish of fourth in the first Pocono race. Larson meanwhile, has six top five finishes in that span including all six being in the top two. That’s allowed him to make up 131 points on Hamlin in 10 races. Can he make up 13 more points in the final four events of the regular season and take home the crown of being the regular season champion?
It’s going to be close.
First up is Watkins Glen this Sunday, a place where Hamlin has three top four finishes in his last four starts there. He has three top eight finishes in four road races this season too. Larson, has just two top 10’s in his last five Watkins Glen tries and just one top five in his career there. On the flip side, the Hendrick Motorsports driver also has a top two finish in two of his last three road course starts. The only reason as to why he doesn’t have a top five in all four is due to him spinning while running sixth towards the end of the Daytona road course back on Feb. 21 and then getting ran over while running third on July 4 at Road America.
Then it’s to Indianapolis for the inaugural race on that road course. With how both have fared on road courses this season, I think these next two weeks will remain close for the two heading into Michigan a week later.
At Michigan, Hamlin has two runner-up finishes in his last three tries including four top eight finishes in his last five starts in the Irish Hills, but Larson has also been at his best on 2-mile tracks too. He has three wins there with Ganassi and five top three’s in his last eight starts. Now, he’s with Hendrick. Imagine what he could do there with them.
Then it’s to Daytona to close out the 26 race regular season to where Hamlin is obviously far better than Larson on superspeedway’s.
That’s why this is going to be an interesting battle to the finish because I can make a case for either to win the regular season.
Where the point above is key is that the regular season champion also takes home 15 additional playoff points. Those would be big for either because Hamlin has yet to win a race and could use those 15 points to carry with him throughout the playoffs. For Larson, it would be big because he already has banked 32 playoff points. 15 more puts him at 47. The next best is Martin Truex Jr. with 19. That would give Larson a huge cushion in the 10 race postseason.
Also, if Hamlin wins the distinction of being a regular season champion but doesn’t win a race in the next four events, then he takes a guaranteed playoff spot. If Larson passes him and holds him off, then a wildcard spot opens back up.
I don’t think on Mothers Day in Darlington we’d ever thought it would come down to this. The 16 driver playoff grid in the NASCAR Cup Series would remain intact for the next six weeks after the May 9 event. In fact, once we got to June leaving Sonoma, we figured it was pretty much set.
Now, we’ve seen this thing get turned upside down two weeks in-a-row with two drivers that combined to win 16 times a year ago being winless after 22 races run.
Heading into Nashville back in June, Kurt Busch was 63 points down in 18th. Aric Almirola was 186 points arrears in 28th. As we now head to Watkins Glen, both are playoff bound.
Busch, won two races ago in Atlanta while Almirola won the race after in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With four races left (Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Michigan and Daytona), one has to think that we may be far from over in terms of new winners.
We’ve seen 13 different race winners in 22 races completed. With two road courses and Daytona looming, how many more do we end up getting?
We all thought the two new recent winners were down and out heading into June. Busch at one point was 83 points back but here he’s now gotten hot. Almirola was -232 points entering Sunday’s race and now he’s in. This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when they created this format.
Last year, it seemed like shoo-in that Kevin Harvick or Hamlin would win the championship. Harvick, won nine times. Hamlin seven. Neither did. In fact, Harvick didn’t even make the final round and Hamlin was even first or second in the end.
Now, we have a driver that was 27th in points, 232 markers out of the playoffs and now he’s in by winning the fifth to last race of the regular season. Almirola, had no top five finishes in the first 21 races run. He had just two top 10’s at that with 26 total laps led. Three of his first four finishes were 30th or worse. Six of the first eight were 20th or worse. In fact, by time we got to the 16th race of the year in Sonoma last month, he had 12 finishes outside the top 20 including six straight.
Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 but has since earned eight finishes of 16th or worse in his last eight starts on the season and has also been 13th or worse in 11 of his last 12 overall. Seven of those were outside of the top 20.
These two are playoff bound and if anyone else 17th or worse now in the playoff standings wins, they can be too.
The thing is, it’s entirely possible for it to happen in Daytona. But prior to that, the race to stay off the 16th spot is going to be a race to watch. See, Austin Dillon was 105 points ahead of the cutline heading to Nashville. It bumped up to 108 heading to Pocono 1. Now, he’s five points out due to Busch and Almirola’s wins.
Dillon, entered the Loudon race 104 points ahead of the cutline so via Almirola’s win, he lost 109 points in one day. His teammate Tyler Reddick is now on the bubble at +5 but he entered on the bubble at +96. He essentially gained on Dillon as he trailed him by eight points for 15th in points and leaves five ahead but also lost 91 points for the bubble spot though too.
Reddick though is outperforming Dillon in the sense that he has seven top 11 finishes in his last 10 tries. He’s also scored 41 stage points over the last five races. Dillon, has only accumulated four stage points with one top 10 in his last 10 tries.
Dillon, hit pit lane just as a caution for Ryan Newman and Quin Houff occurred so not only was he a lap down because of that, he also was penalized for pitting during a closed pit. He’d only finish 17th, one lap down as a result.
Reddick, scored stage points in both stages but came home 13th. Still, he’s the better of the two RCR cars now but the playoff bubble got all that more interesting as we can see a points battle for it.
Harvick isn’t guaranteed either. He may be +82 but if Hamlin keeps the overall points lead — he’s 13 points ahead of Kyle Larson right now, and also doesn’t win a race either, then he takes another guaranteed spot which gives us 14 drivers in and two spots for the taking for wildcard drivers.
Harvick and Reddick hold those spots but what happens if we get two more winners over the final four races?
It boils down to Dillon, Chris Buescher, DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo and if at least one of them can win one of the final four races?
Well, half of those 14 drivers have never won a Cup race in their careers yet. Buescher and Cole Custer have just one win. Erik Jones hasn’t won in the last 69 races. Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t won since 2017.
Why would they magically win a race now?
Plus, we’ve already had two straight weeks of somewhat fluke winners, what makes us think that will go to a six race stretch to close out the regular season?
Buescher, is back sliding with no stage points in the last seven races and no finish better than 16th in that span. He hasn’t won a race since 2016.
DiBenedetto has three straight top 11’s but prior to that was eight straight finishes of 18th or worse. He’s had six stage points since the Coca-Cola 600.
Chastain, has 20 stage points since the ‘600 and three finishes of 21st or worse in his last five tries.
Wallace, has had one top 10 all year.
Stenhouse Jr. has 12 finishes of 15th or worse in his last 15 starts on the season.
Suarez, has two 36th place finishes and a 20th place run in his last three races with also just one top 10 in the last nine races overall. He has six finishes of 15th or worse in his last nine races in general.
Then you get guys 23rd on points and further back with them struggling even more.
After that, you have to look at the tracks over the final four races. We go to Watkins Glen next to where Martin Truex Jr. has three straight top two results and Chase Elliott has won the last two races there. Elliott, has won two of the last three road course races on the season as well. Again, not an easy track for a driver to steal a victory.
The Indianapolis road course could potentially be with it being an inaugural event, but Elliott has won the last three first time road course races.
Hendrick Motorsports has won 7 of the last 8 overall road course races in general. Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win each of the last 9 road course races. Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR, these three teams have won 12 of the last 13 road course races. The only one they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap or else it would be 13 straight.
Stewart-Haas Racing is the only other team to have won since 2015 on road courses. Hendrick has won 8 times, JGR has won 4 times, Furniture Row, SHR and Penske each twice themselves. That’s 18 races.
Of the winners in this span, only Elliott (7 wins), Truex Jr. (3 wins) have won multiple times. Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart are the only other winners. Among them, Stewart has since retired and the others are currently inside of the playoff grid.
After the road course stretch the next two weeks is Michigan to where Harvick has three straight wins and five top twos in his last six tries. Hamlin has two runner-ups in his last three tries there. Kyle Busch has six straight top six finishes. Truex has four straight top fours. Kurt Busch has five top 10’s in his last six starts including two in the top three. Kyle Larson has three wins there with Ganassi and five top three’s in his last eight starts. Now, he’s with Hendrick. Imagine what he could do there with them. Elliott has nine top 10’s in 10 tries.
Can anyone steal a playoff berth against these guys in the Irish Hills? Not very likely.
That leaves it all up to Daytona for the cut race at the end of August. This is where things can get interesting. DiBenedetto, Stenhouse, Buescher, Chastian, Suarez and Dillon could all easily win the Coke Zero Sugar 400. With all but Dillon facing must wins anyways, this is the point to where a surprise winner from that crop could alter the playoff picture.
That would have the battle to stay off that 16th and final playoff spot an interesting one to watch over the next four races because I can assure you that you don’t want to go to Daytona sitting on it. The 14th and 15th placed drivers in the wildcard standings want to distance themselves from 16th badly. With Almirola’s win, that doesn’t seem very likely now either.
Can Elliott Repeat As A Champion?
Chase Elliott is having a very similar season now as he did in last year’s championship winning one. At this point last year, he had one win, seven top five finishes and 12 top 10’s through 22 races. This year, he has two wins, nine top five results and 12 more top 10’s. Can he catch fire again and repeat as a Cup champion?
The last driver to do so was Jimmie Johnson. He did that in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since, no one has repeated as a champion. Jeff Gordon was the last before Johnson to do so as he did it in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Elliott accomplish this feat in 2021?
He has just one top five finish in his last six starts on the year. That was his win on July 4 at Road America. In fact, out of the last 11 races, he has just five top five finishes and three of those five were on road courses. Luckily for him, we have two straight road courses now but only one in the final 12 weeks. Can he find the speed that it takes to go back-to-back?
He also has parity working against him too. We’ve had this playoff format since 2014 and in the seven years of this, we’ve seen six different champions. By those accounts, that means Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Chase Elliott won’t win the title at Phoenix this November. Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver to win a title in this span but he’s since retired.
What he does having working for him is the sense that he’s not had a greatest of starts to the season though. What I mean by that is, under this format, the eventual champion has always started the year off slow.
Just last year, it happened with Elliott. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.
Also, 5 of the 7 champions in this era has won five times during the season that they were crowned. One of them won just three times. Only twice in seven years did a driver that won the most races during the course of a season actually win the title itself.
Does this bode well for Elliott?
How Many Drivers Will HMS Get Into The Championship 4 Or Has Everyone Else Caught Back Up?
This was a relevant question for much of the summer and still very much remains so. Hendrick Motorsports at one point was doing so well we we’re questioning on if they can sweep all four spots into the Championship 4. The thing is though, I wrote back in June that we have to wonder if we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves.
As we head into the final four weeks of the regular season, I think maybe we’re backing off on that assessment. Still, it leads us to wonder, how many drivers do they get into the final round?
I do think there’s a case to be made that all four make it to the Round of 8. But, once in the Round of 8, can they really advance all four drivers? I mean, you have to look at the path to the Championship 4 (Texas, Kansas, Martinsville).
We’ve not raced at Texas yet this year but we have Kansas and Martinsville. Before we get too far ahead, let’s break it down by what they’ve done on these horsepower type tracks. Two of the three are on 550 tracks which have suited HMS better this year than the 750 tracks.
Larson won the All-Star race at Texas back in June but that was with a different package and shorter laps run between segments too.
In Kansas, Larson led 132 laps but got into the wall while battling for the win in the end. He can very much win there. His other teammates that day led a combined zero laps and finished 5-9-18 with Larson the worst finish in 19th among them.
But, in recent 550 tracks like Atlanta and Pocono, HMS’ advantage looked to be gone though too. HMS drivers combined to lead just 13 of 260 laps all day last month in Atlanta. That comes after leading nearly all 500 miles of the race at the same track in the spring. They didn’t lead much (40 of 140 laps) two weeks prior to that in the second race of the Pocono doubleheader.
Then, they went to New Hampshire and led just 53 of 301 laps, all coming by Chase Elliott early just as he did the week prior in Atlanta. Is it time to worry yet and by worry I mean are teams catching up?
There’s no guarantee they dominate Texas or Kansas in the first two races of the third round. Then once they leave Kansas, it’s down to just two races remaining and both are on 750 tracks. These are the same two tracks that Elliott won at last year, but as of now, HMS doesn’t look like the leaders of the pack in this package anymore.
Take New Hampshire as an example, since that track went down from two races each year to one annually, this race has ended up being a Championship 4 preview. Last year especially since Loudon can translate over to Phoenix. In fact, with Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix all being in the playoffs, that’s 30% of the postseason being on like tracks to Loudon. That’s why that race was arguably so important.
Plus, the tire used last month in New Hampshire will be used in November at Phoenix. There’s a lot that can transfer over.
In general though, all four drivers to make the Championship 4 in 2018, 2019 and 2020 have all finished in the top 10 at New Hampshire. Furthermore, they’ve went 1-2 in each of those three years at the checkered flag in this race including taking three of the top four spots in two of the three years overall.
Last year, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott combined to lead 285 of the 301 laps in New Hampshire. They finished 1-2-4-9. In 2019, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished 1-2-6-8 and led 272 of the 301 laps. In 2018, Harvick, Busch, Truex Jr. and Logano went 1-2-4-9 and led 131 of 301 laps.
This year, HMS went 7-9-18-21. HMS looked lost in Loudon. They were out to lunch. Same thing for the other 750 tracks too this season too outside of Dover or road courses.
Larson was seventh in Phoenix, fifth in Martinsville, 20th in Richmond, second in Dover and now seventh in Loudon. Elliott was fifth, second, 12th, third 18th and on the same tracks. Byron was eighth, fourth, seventh, fourth and 21st respectively while Bowman actually won twice (Richmond, Dover) and was 13th, 34th and ninth in the other two.
Dover was their obvious best at 1-2-3-4 but they’ve not been as dominant on other short tracks either. Where this could be the most worrisome is they’re not the best on short tracks right now in general.
Martinsville is the cut race. In the spring race, HMS did place three cars in the top five but they also led a grand total of nine laps all day. Denny Hamlin led 276. Martin Truex Jr. led 20. They went 1-3.
Then it’s to the Arizona desert to settle the season. At Phoenix this past March, Hamlin led 33 laps and Truex Jr. 64. Joey Logano led 143 laps himself. Truex won there too with Hamlin in third, just like Martinsville. HMS drivers went 5-7-8-13 with one lap led all day.
Plus, JGR looks to have the best equipment on 750 tracks. Hamlin led 207 laps in Richmond with Truex leading 107 himself. Alex Bowman stole a late win, but the strength goes to JGR for the whole race.
Hamlin has four top three finishes of 750 tracks. Truex has four top fives including two of which being wins. Logano has a top six in every 750 race including four top three’s. When we get to Martinsville and if these three are still around, aren’t these the favorites for the championship not HMS drivers?
I also like what I’m seeing out of Kyle Busch too. He won at Kansas, was 10th in Homestead, third in Vegas, fifth in Atlanta and third in Charlotte on 550 tracks. It’s the 750’s that’s been his struggle. Again, there’s two 550 tracks in the Round of 8.
Kevin Harvick has four top 10 finishes in eight races on the 750 package as well as four top 10’s on the 550 package. If he can make it to the Round of 8, then watch out.
Then you get Team Penske that looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney.
Right now, I think the top teams in order on the short track package is JGR-Penske-Hendrick respectively.
On short tracks, Toyota has led 784 laps this season. Ford has 526 laps led. Chevrolet only has 136.
Plus, on playoff tracks this season, HMS led no laps at Darlington, 10 laps at Richmond, 150 laps at Vegas, 132 laps at Kansas, nine laps at Martinsville and one lap at Phoenix. Larson accounted for 236 of those laps led.
You can make a strong case for Larson then, but what about the other three?
Elliott’s finishes on these tracks are 7th, 12th, 13th, 5th, 2nd and 5th respectively. Byron’s are 4th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 4th and 9th with Bowman’s 17th, 1st, 27th, 18th, 34th and 13th.
That’s why I pause to say that HMS can continue this all the way to Phoenix. Most of their success during this span is on tracks not hosting a playoff race and even now that’s since cooled.
HMS has won 15 of the last 36 races now after winning 14 of the previous 133. They’re 10-for-22 on the season in general and have won eight of the last 11 including last month’s All-Star race too. So, it’s not like they’re too far off, it’s just can they regain their advantage that they had from May-early July?
This is still more wide opened than you think. Hamlin, Busch, Logano and Harvick could have a say in this come October/November and you never can count out Truex Jr. either. That’s five drivers and if you add the four at HMS, not all of them can even make the Round of 8.
There’s a lot to still watch for the future too. The 2022 schedule should come out soon. Also, the teams have started receiving the parts to build the new cars for 22 and those should get assembled here shortly. That single handily leads into Silly Season. See, that’s mostly by design too. With the new car coming out for 2022 and teams being able to test it this Fall, you really need to get your driver lineups shored up before then.
We now know that Brad Keselowski will drive the No. 6 Ford with Roush Fenway Racing and become a part owner. Austin Cindric will replace him in the No. 2 Ford with Team Penske. Harrison Burton moves up to replace where Cindric was going to drive for 2022 with the Wood Brothers in the No. 21 Ford.
That news comes after Kaulig Racing announced that they’ll run two full time teams next season with Justin Haley full time in one car and the other one being split between multiple drivers. AJ Allmendinger will be in that ride for select races as one of the drivers.
GMS Racing will move up to Cup but they don’t have any details yet on a manufacturer or a driver. They currently down own a charter either.
Speaking of charters, Trackhouse lost their charter for the No. 99 Chevrolet when Spire sold their two charters to Kaulig. Spire will have a one car team next season with Corey LaJoie back in the No. 7 Chevrolet. With Trackhouse wanting to not only stay in Cup but expand to a two-car outfit, they went out of left field and purchased Chip Ganassi Racing. That landed them two charters in the process.
We knew Daniel Suarez would be back in the 99 but now we know that Ross Chastain will stay inside the organization moving from Ganassi to Trackhouse and will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet for them.
So, what’s left?
The only other teams seeking expansion at the moment is JTG Daugherty Racing and 23XI Racing but the question is, where do they get their charters from? Their best option is NASCAR taking one away from Rick Ware Racing for their charter being in the bottom in each of the last few years, which by rule they can do, and 23XI Racing taking it over.
Also, with the new car coming out, teams have to pay to put all the pieces together. These teams like RWR can’t just buy old chassis anymore. Can they afford to buy enough parts and put together cars for four full time teams? If not, do they sell a charter or two?
If so, there’s three teams (JTG, 23XI, GMS) that are in the market.
In terms of free agents, Ryan Newman joins Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Preece, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones as the top ones left at the moment with not a lot of cars left for the taking.
SHR has a ride should they not extend Almirola but that deal should be all about Smithfield. Now that he’s won, the team may just stay in tact for another year.
JTG then has two open seats as they own one charter and would be in the market for a second one should they afford it. Kevin Harvick’s agency represents both current JTG drivers and if Almirola isn’t retained by SHR, one of them make the most sense to be moving to SHR. If neither JTG driver ends up with SHR I think it stays with Almirola.
If 23XI expands, Busch is the top target. That’s a big IF. Nothing has been assured yet for them. Busch also hinted that he’d be interested in replacing Jeff Gordon in the TV booth if Fox Sports wants him. I don’t see him going to JTG or even back to SHR, so his only options seem to be down to coming back to his ride now 23XI or the TV booth.
Front Row Motorsports would likely retain Michael McDowell and a potential suitor for the second car could be DiBenedetto or Newman.
The rest is pretty well secured. Penske is set. JGR is set. HMS is set. RCR is set and not really looking to expand.
The 2021 charter list.
Hendrick Motorsports (No. 5, No. 9, No. 24, No. 48)
Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 4, No. 10, No. 14, No. 41)
Joe Gibbs Racing (No. 11, No. 18, No. 19, No. 20)
Rick Ware Racing (No. 52, No. 53, No. 15)
Team Penske (No. 2, No. 12, No. 22)
Richard Childress Racing (No. 3, No. 8)
Roush Fenway Racing (No. 6, No. 17)
Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 1, No. 42)
Front Row Motorsports (No. 34, No. 38)
JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47)
23XI Racing (No. 23)
Wood Brothers (No. 21)
Spire Sports (No. 7, No. 77)
Spire Sports (No. 99) *leased to Trackhouse Racing
Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 43)
Live Fast Motorsports (No. 78)
StarCom Racing (No. 00)
Petty Ware Racing (No. 51)
For 2022, the list remains somewhat similar.
Hendrick Motorsports (No. 5, No. 9, No. 24, No. 48) *no changes
Joe Gibbs Racing (No. 11, No. 18, No. 19, No. 20) *no changes
Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 4, No. 10, No. 14, No. 41) *no changes unless the 10 car has a new driver
Team Penske (No. 2, No. 12, No. 22) *Cindric replaces Keselowski in the No. 2
Roush Fenway Racing (No. 6, No. 17) *Keselowski replaces Ryan Newman in the No. 6
Richard Childress Racing (No. 3, No. 8) *no changes expected
Trackhouse Racing (No. 1, No. 99) *team bought out Chip Ganassi Racing, Chastain takes over the No. 1
Front Row Motorsports (No. 34, No. 38) *McDowell likely back in the 34, the 38 ride is open
Kaulig Racing (2 charters, numbers TBA) – Justin Haley in 1 car, AJ Allmendinger to share the 2nd car with other driver. Charters purchased from Spire.
Wood Brothers (No. 21) *Harrison Burton replaces Matt DiBenedetto for 2022
JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47) *car is open for the taking, team seeking an additional charter
23XI Racing (No. 23) *Bubba Wallace will be back in 2022, team seeking an additional charter
Spire Sports (No. 7) *Corey LaJoie back in the No. 7, they sold other 2 charters for Kaulig.
Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 43) *Erik Jones may not be back
Live Fast Motorsports (No. 78) *Team not selling a charter, looking for drivers for 2022.
StarCom Racing (No. 00) *Are they back?
Rick Ware Racing (No. 52, No. 53, No. 15) *How many of these charters are back?
Petty Ware Racing (No. 51) *Does RWR and Petty sell this one?
As you can see, 31 of the 36 charters are known with StarCom and RWR now holding the keys to the rest of Silly Season for 23XI, JTG and GMS’ chances of securing a charter.
Stewart-Haas Racing (1) – No. 10 Ford
JTG Daugherty Racing (2) – No. 37 and No. 47 Chevrolet’s
Front Row Motorsports (2) – No. 34 and No. 38 Fords
Richard Petty Motorsports (1) – No. 43 Chevrolet
Kaulig Racing (1) – Part time seat in 1 of their Chevrolet’s
Rick Ware Racing – all their seats are open
GMS Racing – has an opening
23XI Racing – Possible landing spot for Kurt Busch?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The slogan “Names are Made Here” has been so true for the NASCAR Xfinity Series lately. Several drivers have made a name for themselves in NASCAR’s version of what AAA is to baseball and another young class is set to move up to the big leagues of the NASCAR Cup Series in 2022.
We already knew that Justin Haley was going to drive a full time car for Kaulig Racing. We also already knew that Austin Cindric would be in Cup but plans changed as he will now move from the initial plan of taking over the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers and shift sooner over to the No. 2 Ford at Team Penske instead.
With that move, the Wood Brothers had an opening and in comes 20 year old Harrison Burton. That’s three drivers moving up the ranks which follows Chase Briscoe doing so last year. He followed Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell.
I mean, just look at those names. You also have to look at what’s being left being for the series itself too.
Reddick won eight times in two straight championship seasons between 2018 and 2019. Custer was second in points in both years and also won eight times those two seasons. Bell, won 15 times between 2018 and 2019 himself as all three made the Championship 4 in 2018 and again in 2019.
Briscoe and Cindric joined them in victory lane in 2019 as the five of them combined to win 25 of the 33 races that year. Kyle Busch won four of the other eight that they didn’t win.
In 2020, the door was open with all three moving up to Cup but Cindric and Briscoe took over. They’d win 15 times between themselves. Haley, won two more as they’d comprise three of the four Championship 4 spots last November in Phoenix. Burton, won four times himself with Cindric, Haley, Briscoe and Burton combining to win 21 of the 33 races.
This season, Cindric has already won four times. In fact, if you look at the top seven in overall points, three of them have full time rides in Cup next year. A fourth, AJ Allmendinger, will be part time.
That leads the question being, who’s next?
Since 2018, only Daniel Hemric (2018) and Justin Allgaier (2019, 2020) have made the championship four other than these drivers mentioned above. Between them, they’ve won 50% of the races since the start of the 2018 season. They won 76% of the races in 2019 and 64% in 2020.
Who’s left to hold the candle as most of the top rides in Cup are taken by these younger drivers?
Allgaier is the most logical choice but he’s 35. Allmendinger is too but he’s 39. What about Jeb Burton? He’s 28. Daniel Hemric is 30 without a formed path anymore. Josh Berry is 30.
The next guys to fill the gap of the younger ones leaving may be more seasoned veterans without a defined path for them to make it up the ranks to a top Cup ride.
With that said, who’s the next younger class ready to capitalize the same way Reddick, Custer, Bell, Cindric, Briscoe, Haley and Burton did?
Ty Gibbs is likely the next one up for the younger front as he’s won twice already this season in a part time role. He’s only 18. Same for Sam Mayer who’s with JR Motorsports who is just now 18 too. Noah Gragson could also benefit. He’s just 22. But, does it serve him well to come back for another season in Xfinity? He may not have a choice.
JRM could roll out a lineup of Michael Annett, Allgaier, Gragson and Mayer.
Kaulig could leave Burton and Allgaier in full time roles.
Those are the top three to hand the torch off to.
Myatt Snider could be a big benefit next as he’s just 26 and in that same RCR car that Reddick won back-to-back championships in. The jury is still out though on 22 year old Riley Herbst. Brandon Jones is only 24 but his path up the ranks with Toyota or JGR doesn’t appear to have much promise. He either stays with JGR with being an Xfinity Series veteran or tries to move to another team with a better path to Cup.
Other than that, it’s really it. That’s why maybe a thing to watch is what Truck Series drivers get a chance to move up. Will John Hunter Nemechek stay in Trucks another year with KBM or does JGR move him up and cut ties with either Hemric or Jones? Or, do they bring out the No. 54 car for Nemechek and go with four full time NXS cars?
Right now, the future is open again for the Xfinity Series with Gibbs and Mayer taking the next chances up. Nemechek isn’t far behind. Then do you see Gragson, Snider, Herbst and Jones capitalize?
We know Allgaier, Allmendinger, Jeb Burton and Berry have a chance to do something special as veterans in the series. It’s what kids will they be battling with that’s the question.
What’s Someone Like Daniel Hemric’s Future?
Is the door also closing for someone like Hemric or Ty Dillon to get back up to a top Cup seat since now most of them are being taken with the youth movement.
Hendrick Motorsports has all four drivers 28 years of age or younger. Penske’s future in now having 31 year old Joey Logano, 27 year old Ryan Blaney, 22 year old Cindric and 20 year old Burton locked up.
No one new will be with these two teams any time soon.
Stewart-Haas Racing has also gone younger with having Cole Custer (23) as a rookie last year and current rookie Chase Briscoe (26) in a car now. Kevin Harvick will be there through 2023 but with the 10 car potentially open at seasons end, they have a potential to get another younger driver as well. Unless Hemric, Dillon or even at DiBenedetto find themselves vying for a seat here, where else do they have?
Trackhouse feels like they’re not set. RCR obviously would go with Ty Dillon if they expand but right now there’s no plans for that. Name me another team in the Chevrolet or Ford camp at this moment that can be a destination spot for a free agent to go to and be a legitimate playoff contender for a team that I didn’t already mention.
HMS, Trackhouse, RCR and Spire are set with Chevrolet while Penske, Wood Brothers, SHR and even Roush Fenway Racing are set with Ford.
Which then bodes the question, what can Toyota do to their landscape? They lost out on a younger driver to Cup again. They already lost out on Larson and Byron, had Erik Jones but didn’t have room for him to stay, lost Noah Gragson to JR Motorsports and others. Burton is just the latest casualty.
See, Toyota runs a different business model than the other manufacturers. They get scrutinized a lot but they’re also showing that it works.
Toyota won nine times in 2020 and put Denny Hamlin in the Championship 4. In 2019, they won 19 times and had three drivers in the final round including a championship by Kyle Busch. In 2018, they won 13 times. In fact, from 2012 through 2019, they had won at least 10 races seven times in the eight year span.
The thing with them is, they really only had four Cup rides to put their drivers in. They tried to expand with Furniture Row Racing but while that worked for a while, it faded with FRR closing their doors. Leavine Family Racing tried it in 2019 but they folded after the 2020 season. Now, it’s 23XI Racing’s turn. They’re wanting to expand to a second full time car for 2022 which would give Toyota six cars in Cup.
The problem is, Ford and Chevrolet has so much more and a lot more real estate to place younger drivers in. Toyota’s business model doesn’t but Toyota also spends a lot on younger drivers from the dirt ranks to Trucks to Xfinity where Ford and Chevrolet don’t.
Toyota gives them the resources to compete at a high level quick and if you don’t win right off the bat, someone else will. Their only issue is, they’ve not really given the younger drivers that can succeed much room to grow in Cup.
JGR is full. Kyle Busch (36) isn’t going anywhere. 40 year old Denny Hamlin and 41 year old Martin Truex Jr. aren’t either. Why would they? Why would JGR or Toyota want to push them out? All three have contracts in place for the team past this season and I’d expect them to be back not only in 2022 but 2023 as well. So would Christopher Bell. He’s shown to be their future and is only 26.
So, for drivers like Burton or anyone else, what’s their path? When you get a job opportunity in Cup, you take it.
Bubba Wallace will be back with 23XI and he’s only 27. If the team expands, it’s likely that they’ll put Kurt Busch in the second car.
It’s clear Ty Gibbs is the future for the 20 car in Xfinity and with Kyle Busch not racing in the series next season, they can keep Brandon Jones in the 19 and if Daniel Hemric wants to return, let him stay in the 18. The only issue is, the path for Jones and Hemric to move up to Cup seems to be low.
Gibbs is likely next in line to move up to Cup in the Toyota camp. I’d say John Hunter Nemechek is behind him.
That means a lot of NASCAR’s future is known really now.