What Is The Future Of JGR/SHR?
A few year ago, both of these organizations were seen as the “Big 3.” Not saying that they’re not contenders anymore, but they’ve taken a noticeable dip in performance in recent years. Which leads to the questions, what’s the future?
For Joe Gibbs Racing, it’s real. Unfortunately, Joe Gibbs has lost two sons in tragic fashion in the last 4 years. Both were key persons to run the team in the future. Coach Gibbs isn’t getting any younger and now that he’s faced so much hardship lately, how much longer does he truly want to do this?
Kyle Busch and M&M’s are gone. Martin Truex Jr. could be entering his final season. What about his long-time sponsor Bass Pro Shops? If Truex is gone, would they want to sponsor someone new at JGR or just stick with 1 car for Austin Dillon at an entirely different race team? One would think if Truex walks, so does Bass Pro Shops. ‘
He’s been noncommittal on his future and says he truly doesn’t know yet if he wants to come back in 2024 or not.
Then you have FedEx. Their contract is up soon. Do they renew? Does that affect Denny Hamlin’s future with the team? I mean they let Busch a multi-time champion walk.
That’s why JGR has some longer-term questions. Could they in theory scale back and Gibbs sell a charter or two to 23XI Racing?
This is a noteworthy thing to watch this season and how this all plays out.
Similar inside SHR’s walls. They were growing tired of NASCAR last Fall. They made it clear. Now that Kevin Harvick is walking away at seasons end and potentially Aric Almirola too, who’s next?
Now that we for sure know that 2023 will be Harvick’s last, there’s a very real threat that none of the drivers that were with this organization as soon as 2019, will be racing for them in 2024.
However, as SHR has taken a step back in performance, who’s going to take the baton and carry SHR into the future?
“I know you don’t like to hear these things,” Tony Stewart said in a video tribute to Harvick, “but you’re the flagship at SHR. Single-handedly, without a doubt, the greatest racer we ever had.”
When SHR was formed for their debut season in 2009, they immediately won. However, this was Tony Stewart’s team then despite them also having Ryan Newman as a part of it.
Stewart won 13 of the first 15 races for SHR. Newman had 3 total wins from 2009 through 2013.
2014 it transitioned really over to Kevin Harvick. SHR doubled their fleet that year going from a 2 car team to a 4 car operation as they added Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick while letting Newman go.
Harvick won the championship that year. He and Busch were the veteran presence that SHR needed as Stewart’s shelf life was waning.
Over their next 23 trips to victory lane, Busch and Harvick combined for 22 of them. Stewart had one.
Clint Bowyer won for them twice in 2018 but this was largely in the midst of Harvick’s reign.
SHR has won 69 total races entering the 2023 season, Harvick has won 37 of them. In fact, from 2019 on, Harvick has 16 of SHR’s 19 wins with only Cole Custer (once), Aric Almirola (once) and Chase Briscoe (once) having won in that span.
So when Harvick walks, out goes 37 wins and counting with him. Almirola has two trips to victory lane at SHR, Briscoe has one and Ryan Preece has never won a Cup race yet. I would sense that Custer would be the easiest replacement for Harvick to move him back up, but he has that lone win in 2020 too.
In theory, if Almirola returns in 2024, SHR would boast a lineup with 5 career wins (that’s if they don’t win at all in 2023). If Almirola walks too, out goes his 3 career wins.
Which is why the most intriguing aspect to Harvick announcing his retirement is where does SHR turn? Who’s going to be their new on track leader?
Can Hamlin Finally Get A Title?
How does one define greatness anymore? It’s a touchy subject. Some say nothing else matters other than championship rings. Others say you shouldn’t discount regular season success. So where’s the line that separates the good from the great and the elite from the legendary status?
That’s relevant because it’s a topic that surrounds Denny Hamlin right now. I don’t think there’s any reason of doubt to say that Hamlin is a for sure First Ballot Hall of Famer in this sport. 48 Cup Series wins in an era that’s growing more and more increasingly difficult to win, he’s still winning in bunches.
He’s won almost all the crown jewels now. He’s a 3-time Daytona 500 champion, as well as reaching victory lane 3 times in the Southern 500. He’s also won the Bristol Night race twice, the All-Star race once and now this season the Coca-Cola 600. The only thing missing is an Indianapolis win and a championship.
Is this his year?
Hamlin just made his 16th career playoff appearance a season ago. Just he, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have done so. Nobody else has more. His 12 playoff wins rank 3rd best. Just Jimmie Johnson’s 29 trips to victory lane during the postseason and Harvick’s 16 rank higher.
Now though, can he march back to the Championship 4 at Phoenix at the end of the season. He has 4 of them already, which is 4th best. The only ones ahead of him each have 5 (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick).
Another trip puts him with them so long as they don’t make the final round too this coming November. However, among those 4 previous trips, he’s not taken home the championship in each. Is this his year to do so?
Prior to last season, Hamlin made 3 straight Championship 4’s and all 3 ended in defeat.
From the tape in Homestead in 2019, to Chase Elliott just being that much better in 2020 to a late caution in 2021 that took he and teammate Truex Jr. out of the top 2 spots, Hamlin has seen it all. Hell, it took a Ross Chastain video game move to keep Hamlin out of the final four last year.
What has he learned from the previous 3 that he can carry with him to a triumph in November? Is there anything he looks back on as to what he could do differently?
Still, would another march to the final round and leaving Phoenix without some new hardware leave another bad taste in his mouth or should Championship 4’s now be the new gold standard?
I mean think about it. A Championship 4 appearance is about your entire season. The grind that it takes to be in the playoffs and the mental toughness that it takes to last 9 rounds of the playoffs.
A Final 4 is a championship in and of it’s own. A championship is a different standard because it’s only about 1 race and a winner take all scenario among the 4 drivers fighting for the championship that season. The previous 35 races no longer matter. You can’t take the points with you.
So does he hang his hat on the fact that he’s gotten to this many over the years?
Is Blaney Ready To Take The Next Step?
Blaney comes into his eighth full-time season riding a 46-race winless streak. One could say that in an era that rewards winning during a season that saw so much parity, that it was impressive that Blaney marched all the way to the third round of the playoffs without a trip to victory lane and in that round, if not for two self-inflicted mistakes in the opening two races of the round, Blaney could have been the one in the Championship 4 instead.
That’s a race that he finished second in, remember.
“I make a list at the end of the year,” Blaney said. “OK, what did we do well? What did we struggle with? And like what are your goals to get better? What do you really want to improve?
“Me and (crew chief) Jonathan (Hassler) sat down last week and went through our list of notes, and like where do we want to get better and improve at, and what did we do well and can still build off of?
“That stuff to me is always really helpful. You look back on the year, and you’re like, ‘Well, we screwed up in this situation. Let’s jot that down and let’s try to figure out a different way. If that comes up again, let’s change it.”
One race Blaney would like to change is the season-opening Daytona 500, where he had a chance to win on the last lap but finished fourth as rookie teammate Austin Cindric took the checkered flag.
“The one that stings the most is the 500, because we’ve been so close to that that thing for years,” Blaney said. “That one stings the most, but I try to get over that stuff really quick.”
3 of the last 4 years he’s marched to the semifinal round. 4 of the first 5 years he was in Cup, he won just a single race each season. Last year was the first time that he won multiple times in a season. He followed that up with being winless. Now, he’s hopeful to use all of that and to make a final four run in 2023.
Is Trackhouse a Championship Front Runner Now?
236 feet. That’s all that separated Ross Chastain from a 2022 championship. In just its second full season in the NASCAR Cup Series and its first year with multiple cars, Trackhouse Racing has put both of it’s teams in victory lane and earned spots in the Playoffs for the first time in the young organization’s history. When it was all said and done, they also put both cars in the top 10 in points too.
Ross Chastain finished third in the season finale at the Phoenix Raceway last November which meant he was second in points. Daniel Suarez was 10th in the final standings in a career year for him too. It was a season to which they made their mark and one that left them revolutionizing the sports’ ownership model.
“I think the way they came on the scene and what they’re being able to do as a new team, I know from our standpoint, we would love to learn from all of our competitors, and certainly I think everybody is looking at what they’ve been able to do,” Joe Gibbs said of Trackhouse and Justin Marks.
“Hey, anytime somebody can come to a pro sport as hard as this is and compete the way they have and wind up going all the way to the final 4, I say, man, anybody that can do that, I say congrats, fantastic job.
“I think all of us will probably be looking at that in some way, saying what can we learn. For me, you’re in a pro sport, you’re trying to be the best, but you also know that you need to be coachable and continually trying to improve, and one way of doing that is studying what the people that are being real successful are doing.
“I always kind of look at that, and I always said I have no pride. In football if somebody else I saw a play that was really good, I’d take it. I’d steal it. I’d copy it.
“But anyway, I think it is a learning thing for all of us. I say congrats to them, and certainly they had a fantastic year. You’ve got to give them all the credit in the world.
Rick Hendrick agreed.
“Well, you know, I look at Trackhouse and any other competitor that comes into the sport,” said Hendrick. “I think the 23 crowd has shown a lot of muscle. They’re going to be competitors and fierce competitors next year.
“I think you’ve got to race everybody now. I’m going to pull for a Chevrolet team if it’s not us for sure, because we’re stronger together.
“But Justin has done a great job. He’s got two great drivers. You can’t take anything away from that.
“But I look at them like Brad is going to be tough next year, having Reddick over in that Toyota is going to be tough. Hey, you’ve got to race everybody, so it’s going to be a bunch of good cars out there, and we just have to go race and win our share.
“But they have done a super job, and I commend them on that. We can’t really look at other people. We just have to get better ourselves. We have to do a better job of figuring out the car and crew chiefs and drivers working together and the whole organization working together.
“We’ve won 11 races this year, and you always want to win more, but I’m thankful to win 11.
“I see other competitors coming, and you can’t rest on your laurels. We’re going to have to be better.
“I think we are better. I think we are getting better every race. Some races don’t show it, but in some areas I think we’ve improved, and then in other areas we need to improve a lot more.
“I look at everybody as competition.”
Penske built his empire by smart business moves and a trucking fleet. Hendrick built his off of highly successful car dealerships. Gibbs off of a successful NFL coaching career. Marks, well he did his by hardwork and effort. He doesn’t have the business background as his counterparts. His background is racing and a dream. That turned into a fervent worth ethic and now here he is.
“I’ve never seen a team come into the sport as well prepared as Trackhouse,” said Walt Czarnecki of Penske. “Right from the beginning, just the way they presented themselves, as individuals, the way the team presented itself, the way Justin presented himself. I really don’t know Justin. I may have said hello to him once or twice, and that’s one thing I need to do is get to know him a little bit better.
“But when I listen to him, he’s all about business. I think he’s not unlike us in that respect. He knows it’s a sport. He loves it. But he’s also a businessperson, and he understands all the constituent parts, all the entities that have to come together to compete and compete successfully.
“Having said that, I’ve never seen a team that well prepared coming into the sport as Trackhouse was this year.”
Now, do they take the next step forward again? If so, that’s a championship. Are they ready in Year 3? The first year was a fun story with no expectations. Last year was the underdog role. This year, they’re a target now. How can they respond? How can they keep the pedal to the floor and keep thriving?
I’m curious to see how this season goes for them and if they can improve even more.
Kyle Busch In The 8 Car
How does Kyle Busch fare in the shift from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing. The only multi-time champion in the sport joins a once proud organization that won 6 titles with Dale Earnhardt. They’d not won a championship since with their last occurring in 1994. Can Busch bring them back to the promise land?
If he could, this would be a massive feat and another notch on his storybook tale. It’s not like he’s coming to RCR while the organization is fully down. They’re on a rise. Tyler Reddick took this car to victory lane 3 times in 2022 while Busch only had 1 trip to victory lane himself. Factor in Austin Dillon’s Daytona win and you get 4 combined RCR victories this past year.
Busch has 4 combined wins since the start of the 2020 season. That’s why I want to see if he is rejuvenated in a move for next year.
Rookie Of The Year Race
Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs have both been granted rookie status ahead of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Gragson, driver of the No. 42 LEGACY Motor Club Chevrolet, made 18 Cup Series starts last year, the majority of which came for Kaulig Racing in its No. 16 Chevrolet. Ty Gibbs, driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, made 15 starts for 23XI Racing as Kurt Busch recovered from a concussion.
The duo will battle each other for 2023 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors after heated battles the past two years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Gibbs triumphed on Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway, taking home the 2022 Xfinity championship with his seventh win of the season and 11th of his career.
Gragson was victorious eight times last season and finished runner-up to Gibbs in the championship race by 0.397 seconds in his No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. In total, Gragson has collected 13 Xfinity wins and two Craftsman Truck Series victories.
This could be seen as a controversial decision by NASCAR here. It can be hard to call either a “rookie” when Gragson raced literally half of a season last year and Gibbs nearly half himself.
In the past, the requirement was no more than 7 career Cup starts to be considered a rookie at the beginning of a full-time season. These two have more than doubled that. While that rule no longer exists and this is under NASCAR’s discretion, it’s hard to fathom either being considered “rookies” when they’re far from it.
On the flipside, why wouldn’t NASCAR want a rookie battle between these 2 in Cup though? This is a true rivalry and being apart of the same rookie class always pits them against one another.
“I’m just voicing my opinion that I don’t like him,” Gragson said from the Arizona capital city during the Championship 4 Media Day last November. “I’m just sick and tired of the, ‘I’m sorry, I’m trying to learn’ deal. It’s been two years. … I think all of us are definitely over being the pinball for him.
“He doesn’t care. He lives in fantasyland. I have no clue honestly what goes through his mind. It’s got to be badass to live in the kind of world where you just have no real consequences or anything.”
Even in defeat last Fall in Phoenix, Gragson said he doesn’t care for Gibbs and it’s deeper than we all thought. The two used to be friends, but Gragson admits that they’re not that way anymore and Gibbs knows his feelings about him.
“You know, I’ve had a conversation with Ty the day after Portland and Gateway and let him know how I felt, let him know if he gets into us, what the consequences are going to be, and just — I used to be buddies with him when he was younger,” Gragson said. “You know, probably three, four years ago, he was a super cool kid. He really was.
“But I don’t know, it’s just kind of changed over the last couple years, and I’ve told him that, and he knows that.
“I don’t want to really go into much more detail about that out of respect for him and whatnot, but I told him that hey, you used to be a super cool kid and you kind of turned into a little bit of a douchebag.
“He can still grow from it, and he did a great job. They won the race fair and square today. It takes great people around you to learn, and I think he is capable. He has the potential to learn. He’s a great race car driver, and I’ve been in those shoes, too, where it just seems like you can’t do nothing right, and it’s you against the world and whatnot. But at the end of the day, I think he’s got potential, and he hasn’t reached his full potential yet off the track.”
Now both move up as rookies in the Cup Series this season in the same freshman class….
Jimmie Johnson Returns
This is a big one in a sense NASCAR gets a legend back. However, Johnson isn’t going for a record breaking eighth championship as he’s back in NASCAR as a team owner and part-time driver. He’ll race Daytona some select races, but the fact that he’s back is a big storyline in itself.
Harvick’s Final Season
A few months ago in Phoenix, Kevin Harvick was no committal on his 2024 plans. He said he would make a decision one way or the other by time we get to Daytona next February. However, it was behind the scenes, starting to become known in the racing circles that Stewart-Haas Racing was planning on a future without Harvick in it though. His contract ran through the 2023 season and the team was starting to realize that he wouldn’t be back in the No. 4 Ford for 2024. The question was, would Harvick be in the garage at all?
A few weeks ago, that news was confirmed. Harvick announced that the 2023 season will be his 23rd and last. That gives us one last time to appreciate the 47-year-old’s greatness because I feel like now that we have time to take a look back and reflect on his career, I don’t feel like he got enough credit for truly how good he was.
Harvick’s decision to make the 2023 season his last comes as the father of two eyes more family time. Together with wife, DeLana, they’ll continue to visit racetracks, but Harvick won’t be wearing a firesuit. His 10-year-old son, Keelan, is an avid karter who races internationally, and his 5-year-old daughter, Piper, is already following in the family’s tire tracks, wheeling a go-kart of her own.
In a career that started in an unexpected twist that he had to take over the rebranded 29 car at Richard Childress Racing in wild fashion following the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt, Harvick will conclude a storied career that will make him a for sure first ballot Hall of Famer.
I mean just look at what he did. His greatness started almost instantly.
While RCR was still reeling from Earnhardt’s death, Harvick took the team to victory lane just three weeks later in thrilling fashion in Atlanta. That was the first of two wins during his rookie season while he also was running full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (formerly Busch Series) as well.
“We just found a way to make it work, and that’s what we did all year long,” said Harvick, who won a second Xfinity Series title in 2006, again running the full Cup and Xfinity schedules.
From literally no Cup starts, to two wins, six top five finishes, 16 top 10’s and a ninth place points finish despite missing the Daytona 500 since he wasn’t even planned to race in Cup that year was remarkable. He also won the 2001 Busch Series title as well.
“Dale’s passing changed our sport forever, and it changed my life forever and the direction it took. It took me a long time to really get comfortable to really even think about things that happened that day,” Harvick said.
“Looking back on it now, you realize the importance of getting in the Cup car, and then we wound up winning my first race at Atlanta in the 29 car after Dale’s death. The significance and the importance of keeping that car on the racetrack and winning that race early at Atlanta – knowing now what it meant to the sport, and just that moment in general of being able to carry on, was so important.”
2002 was his second year in Cup, but initially slated to be his first season. He took a step back. However, 2003 on, well he was an annual championship threat.
From 2001 through 2013 at RCR, Harvick won 23 races. The thing is, he surprisingly announced at the end of 2012, that he’d join Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season.
That was a move that paid off even more.
2014 was his first year with a new team. It was the first year with his new playoff format. Harvick took home his first and only title then on the heels of 5 wins in 36 races.
In nine seasons at SHR, Harvick has won 37 races. Combined, that’s 60 wins in a tie with Kyle Busch or ninth all-time. In fact, the lead the active drivers on the career wins list. No one in the Cup garage now has more.
Everybody ahead of him is in the Hall. Why wouldn’t he be?
Harvick has won a Cup title, two Xfinity (Busch Series) titles, a Winston West championship, an IROC crown, a three-time Brickyard 400 champion, a 2007 Daytona 500 triumph, a two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, a two-time winner in the Southern 500 and has taken the 2018 All-Star race win.
Every big race there was to win, he won it.
He is only 99 laps shy of leading a staggering 16,000 laps in his career – one of only 11 drivers in the history of the sport to do so – and the Bakersfield, California native is slated to make his 800th career Cup Series start April 23 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
That’s why I feel like Harvick’s career has largely been unappreciated.
It was controversial as Harvick was frequent in spats. He was never afraid to call out his peers or even NASCAR for what he felt was wrong. It created a lot of controversy, but it didn’t affect his on track success.
The most notable moment off track was him calling out Dale Earnhardt Jr. in an indirect way. Harvick was asked about NASCAR’s popularity waning and made a point that a problem of that nature was that their most popular driver, wasn’t winning enough.
He felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the face of the sport but maybe shouldn’t be. That was more on name rather than success. Others like himself were enjoying a ton of success on track but the attention was on the driver not vying for titles.
That deeply hurt Earnhardt for which they had a rift for a while over those comments Harvick made. To make it worse, Harvick was the one to take over his dads right, remember?
But in an era to where NASCAR racing has changed so much, from a season champion awarded on points, to the numerous changes to the playoff format, to stage racing, to four generations of race cars, Harvick has won in all. He had success in everything he’s driven no matter the rules of package.
With Jeff Gordon dominating early in Harvick’s career, to Jimmie Johnson’s reign to the new parity, Harvick was mostly overshadowed by their success and it was a shame.
It’s not over yet though. We have 36 more races to witness a generational talent.
Allmendinger A Legitimate Championship Contender
You also now have to look at Allmendinger being a legitimate championship contender in 2023. There’s 5 regular season road course races now compared to just 2 in his last season, and he could win at any one of the 5 this year. Kaulig is also proven to have fast cars on ovals too for which there’s no reason to think that not only could Allmendinger be a playoff driver, he could make a serious run through the postseason. If he can escape the opening round, the ROVAL is back in the Round of 12 to which Allmendinger is 3-for-5 at.
He ended 2022 in Cup with 6 top 10 finishes over his final 8 starts.
Another Strong Year For HMS?
Hendrick Motorsports has always been one of NASCAR’s top team. No one has as many wins (291) or championships (14) than this storied franchise. But, a few years ago, they were in the midst of a rebuild. Jeff Gordon retired after the 2015 season. Jimmie Johnson won his 7th title a year later however, but that was the beginning of his fall. Kasey Kahne wasn’t cutting it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. started battling concussions. Factor in a young rookie for 2016 in Chase Elliott and you get the start of a rebuild.
From 2017-2019, HMS had 11 wins, 61 top 5 finishes and 2,527 laps led across 108 races.
35 wins, 119 top 5 finishes and 8,428 laps led in 108 races. They’ve won two of the last three NASCAR Cup Series championships and are eying another this season.
Elliott has made it to at least the Round of 8 every year (6 years). He’s eyeing his second championship in four years at that and is only 27 years of age. Larson is 2-for-2 in the final round in the owners race. He’s won 13 times in 72 starts for HMS. He’s only 30.
Alex Bowman has 5 wins in two years and is just 29. William Byron had another break out year in marching to the Round of 8 with scoring 4 wins in 3 years including a pair in 2022. He just turned 25.
With Jeff Gordon and Chad Knaus in place to run the office and competition side for the future, Elliott, Byron and Larson locked in for several years down the road, HMS is back and are back in a big way.
This all comes after a 2021 season that was extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization was able accomplish. They earned 17 NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2021; Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 was the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races last season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win last year at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).
The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.
They also in 2021 led the fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); but set a new Hendrick Motorsports team record that stood for 12 years (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.
Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 33 finishes inside the top two; most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 83 top-10 finishes; the team’s second-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 55 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 28 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021.
Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2004, the 2021 is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 18 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 54 postseason wins, most all-time.