Commentary: Noah Gragson, “Just Hard Racing.”Two-thirds of the way through the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series season it’s hard to find a more polarizing figure than the driver of the JR Motorsports No. 9, Noah Gragson.
Gragson has success this season but also has become the source of controversy. According to an NBCSN graphic displayed during the July 18th Xfinity Series race at Texas, Gragson has been involved in an on-track incident in 12 of the 16 races so far this season.
It was a Bristol victory for Noah Gragson in the Cheddars 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the half-mile oval.
Noah Gragson held off Chase Briscoe after a bump-and-run with his JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier to earn his second victory of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season in a frantic finish to the Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco at Bristol Motor Speedway.
A ‘Dark Horse’ driver could emerge as the new driver of the HMS No. 48
Hendrick Motorsports tackles a tall order to fill Jimmie Johnson’s shoes
This is the first in a series to examine potential candidates for the No. 48, from the ‘dark horse’ candidates to the more likely options.Please watch for more in this series from our newest commentary writer at Fan4Racing – Michael Orzel
Before the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season started, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson announced that he is hanging up his helmet at the end of this season. Immediately speculation about who could fill the seat of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet started circulating. It became one of the hottest topics for fans and insiders of the sport. Team owners Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon have no shortage of talented drivers to choose from – and the decision is likely a difficult one.
Unlike other recent high-profile retirements, there is no clear declaration of who is stepping into the No. 48. Nor is there a defined shortlist.
In 2015 Chase Elliott was promptly named as the driver piloting the No. 24, replacing Jeff Gordon. Clint Bowyer’s ascension to the No. 14 came along with publishing the retirement of Tony Stewart. A brief speculation period surrounded the high-profile retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr, although Alex Bowman was always the clear front runner to take the seat. It was no surprise when Bowman officially took over the No. 88 ride,
So, speculation abounds over the No. 48 the more the question lingers in the air. Apparently, there is still some haze over which driver is the heir apparent to what is certainly the hottest open seat in NASCAR.
The Pipeline Drivers at JR Motorsports
Dale Earnhardt Jr owns one of the most successful teams in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. While it is an independent entity, they keep a close association with Hendrick Motorsports. JRM is the de-facto pipeline of driver-development for HMS talent.
A recent JRM driver rising to the Cup level is Chase Elliott in 2016, followed by William Byron in 2018. Both won Xfinity championships for JRM driving the No. 9 car in the series. Elliott nearly won back to back championships for JRM but was edged out by Chris Buescher for the 2015 championship. The JRM No. 9 car also holds the 2018 Xfinity Series Championship with Tyler Reddick. He then drove for Richard Childress Racing to win his second championship title last season.
Outside Candidates for the No. 48
Of the four JRM entries currently running in the Xfinity Series, two seem far less likely as candidates for the No. 48.
The No. 1 car is driven by Michael Annett who seems happy in the Xfinity Series, with no desire in moving back to Cup. Despite his brief stint in Cup, Annett has enjoyed better results in the Xfinity Series although he has only one win over eight full-time seasons. That makes him a less likely possibility.
The other JRM car, the No. 8, is driven by a rotation of drivers including occasional Cup drivers and up-and-coming talent. On rare occasions, team owner Earnhardt gets behind the wheel. While it’s possible a development driver of the No. 8 car may eventually ascend to Cup, it is less probable they are ready for the No. 48 car in 2021.
The ‘Dark Horse’ Candidates
Justin Allgaier is the accomplished veteran at JRM. With the team since 2016 Allgaier has scored eight wins and is a perennial championship contender. His brief stint in the Cup Series gave him modest results from sub-par equipment. Given Alex Bowman’s success after a similar early experience in the Cup Series, it is not unrealistic to imagine Allgaier making the leap to Hendrick Motorsports. At the age of 33 and another year older at the beginning of the 2021 season, Allgaier is somewhat on the older side of starting a Cup career in top equipment. The ship may have already sailed for Allgaier but he’s still within the realm of possibility.
Noah Gragson is in the championship-contending No. 9 car for the second season at JRM. His rookie campaign is respectable and he already has a win at Daytona this year. Gragson has youth on his side and his best years are ahead of him, making him a reasonable candidate. Nevertheless, he still struggles with consistency and discipline on the track. Gragson’s tendency to over-drive his car and take chances often end in disaster. With more experience, he certainly holds the potential for a long and fruitful career in stock car racing. But for now, Rick Hendrick may hesitate to add yet another inexperienced driver to the mix and further divide the attention for driver development. An Xfinity Series title this season may make Gragson a stronger candidate.
Other Names in the Hat
Ross Chastain is one of the favorite candidates for the No. 48 car. The watermelon farmer from Florida has been around NASCAR racing for years, mostly for backmarker teams. Chastain’s career saw a turnaround with a breakout season last year winning races in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series. His explosion of popularity is arguably making Chastain one of the hottest names in the sport. His increased notoriety is what gave him the chance to fill-in at Roush Fenway Racing during Ryan Newman’s recovery from an accident at Daytona. With Newman’s return, Chastain’s plans beyond this season are unclear. For now, he’s focusing on the Xfinity Series championship with Kaulig Racing.
The caveat that may prevent Chastain’s move to HMS is that he remains under contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. He signed to drive the Ganassi No. 42 car in the Xfinity Series, but the DC Solar scandal led to closing the team’s door before the season opened. The contractual ties may hinder Chastain’s ability to seek a long term ride with Hendrick Motorsports. That may also mean Chastain is still an inside candidate for the Ganassi No. 42 Cup car in the future.
Timmy Hill was a relative unknown until the temporary suspension of the 2020 season for the coronavirus pandemic Hill’s star is on the rise. During the break, Hill put a spotlight on his talent During the Pro Invitational iRacing Series events. He beat William Byron for a win at virtual Texas, along with racing near the front for every other virtual event. Hill is a ‘clean slate’ prospect who is unencumbered by experience allowing HMS to shape him into exactly what the team needs. Whether the organization wants to put the effort into molding him is a matter of debate.
These drivers are certainly the ‘dark horse’ options to sit behind the wheel of the No. 48. Although a good case can be made for all of them, at this point, there are stronger cases to the contrary. Time will reveal who will end up in the seat. Hopefully, the shock value is less if indeed one of these drivers make the cut.
Three drivers ‘made their names’ in the NASCAR Xfinity Series over the last couple of years. Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, and Cole Custer each earned their place in the ‘Big Three’ of the series last year. On their way to collectively winning 21 of 33 races (64%), these three drivers took a meteoric rise to the top. Reddick went on to claim the championship for the second year in a row and now, the ‘Big Three’ are moving up to the NASCAR Cup Series as part of the rookie class in the premier series. That leaves the question of who fills the role of being next in the ‘Series where Names are Made?’
For many, the common answer is Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, and Austin Cindric. These drivers finished the season right behind the departing drivers, fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in the point standings. Briscoe won at Las Vegas and now leads the series points battle just two races into the season. Meanwhile, Cindric sits sixth and Allgaier ninth. While a strong case can be made for these three, there are other drivers already making their statements for this season on the track.
Editor’s Note: Fan4Racing writer Andy Laskey is the co-host for NASCAR Hot Topics Sound Off on Fan4Racing Radio every Monday and Thursday night at 10 pm ET. He’ll now offer a weekly blog of NASCAR Hot Topics to elaborate on subjects that – due to time constraints – we miss or short-change on the radio show. Please share your perspective of these hot topics in the comments section below.
Hot Topics 1 – Daniel Suarez Fails to Make Daytona 500
Arguably one of the biggest disappointments to start the 2020 NASCAR season has to be Daniel Saurez missing the season-opening Daytona 500. The driver of the Gaunt Brothers Racing No. 96 Toyota was involved in a crash in the Duel 1 race that sent him to an early exit from the race and subsequent DNQ from the 500.
This is incredibly disappointing for a team trying to gain traction and establish themselves in the NASCAR Cup Series. The deal between Saurez and Gaunt Brothers Racing came together fairly late in the off-season, which put the team in a position of hiring personnel and building cars barely in time for Daytona Speedweeks. Making the Daytona 500 would have helped this up and coming team in a major way, especially in terms of financial benefits by starting the event, with a good performance and showing the potential to win.
What ‘could have been’ was the chance to gain exposure and sponsorship for the team. Missing the biggest race of the season automatically puts this team in a deficit and it will be interesting to see how they can overcome this set-back in the coming weeks.
Hot Topics 2 – No Sophomore Slump for Gragson
A feel-good story to start the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series season has to be Daytona winner Noah Gragson. Entering his sophomore season in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, Gragson finds himself in a situation of opportunity to step up and establish himself as a title favorite and help secure his long term future in the sport.
There’s no better way to do that than start the season off by winning the biggest race of the year. Granted, winning a superspeedway race doesn’t guarantee success for the whole season but it certainly gives this team a lot of confidence moving forward. To start the weekend, Gragson exhibited a lot of confidence and optimism for the 2020 season, as do all teams this time of year. But you just get the feeling that this has the potential to be a big year for Gragson and certainly his win at Daytona helps establish himself as one of the favorites.
With last year’s Big Three drivers in Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick moving to the Cup Series, it remains to be seen exactly who will fill that void, however, this weekend Noah Gragson certainly made his case that he’ll be a season-long contender.