As the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens.
And so, when Noah Gragson confirmed a move to the Cup Series with Petty GMS Motorsports for 2023, that means it’s almost time to throw out the welcome mat for a new driver of JR Motorsports’ No. 9 Camaro.
The JRM No. 9 has been maybe the most successful launch pad in NASCAR history. It has won three championships, one each with Chase Elliott, William Byron and Tyler Reddick – all of whom have gone on to be multi-time winners in the Cup Series. Gragson is a likely contender for the Xfinity Series championship this year, and whoever steps in to replace him will have the equipment to make a serious run for the title in ‘23 and beyond.
That is, if anyone does.
As Bob Pockrass’ purse Tweets can tell us, there is a lot less money to be made in the Xfinity Series than in Cup. Despite fan-favorite owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick, JRM can’t afford to maintain four full-time teams without additional funding. Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris has paid Gragson’s way throughout his time at JRM, and it is unlikely (though certainly not impossible) that the deal will remain in place without Gragson in the car.
Unfortunately, I predict the single most likely outcome is that the fourth JRM car will return as the team’s designated ‘all-star car,’ featuring the occasional start from partially funded lower series regulars, the occasional Cup Series star, and the lone annual start from the bossman himself.
But that’s no fun. Let’s look at the options should JRM want to put a full-season driver in.
It would be a homecoming of sorts for Zane Smith, the 2022 Truck Series’ breakout star. Smith ran eight Xfinity starts for JRM in 2018 behind the wheel of the No. 8, with a best finish of 5th (at Iowa and Phoenix) before running full-time in Trucks ever since. At the start of this year, he defected to Ford and Front Row Motorsports after four years in Chevrolets.
Clinching a dominant regular series championship last month at Pocono, Smith is surely looking to move up into a full-time Xfinity Series opportunity, and with a lack of front-running Fords in the series, Smith might be convinced to give the Bowtie another try.
Keeping it in the Chevy family, the seat could be given to Carson Hocevar, the 19-year-old Truck Series phenom who’s been walking with crutches since breaking his leg in a last-lap crash at Gateway. Hocevar is one of the series’ most promising talents, and I doubt we’ve seen the full marketing potential of his distinctively Gen-Z social media presence. There’s one big asterisk: Hocevar hasn’t won a Truck race. In the Niece Motorsports No. 42, Hocevar has made the playoffs twice on points in as many years. He’s certainly contended for wins, even though, for whatever reason, he can’t seem to finish the job.
Surely that win is coming, and when it does he’ll elevate his case for promotion to Xfinity, but I don’t see that happening without at least one checkered flag.
What could NASCAR’s biggest Silly Season story, Kyle Busch maybe departing Joe Gibbs Racing, have to do with the driver of the No. 9?
If Busch leaves JGR and Toyota, what happens to Kyle Busch Motorsports, his Truck Series team? Busch has said before that KBM isn’t a money-making program without Toyota’s support: does the team’s sudden instability give Chandler Smith, Corey Heim or John Hunter Nemechek a reason to look elsewhere?
But do any of them bring the kind of money JRM needs?
Much of the buzz suggests that, for funding reasons, aptly-named JGR development driver Drew Dollar could get the nod. He’s certainly aware of the rumors, spending most of yesterday jokingly engaging with fans on Twitter. But despite the rumors, several prominent sources have suggested Dollar isn’t actually in store for the seat.
Frankly, none of these options would be a surprise. There is no clear front-runner, and that’s what’s so fun about the lower series’ driver markets. As the Cup puzzle pieces fall into place over the coming weeks, all the craziness will trickle down into the lower divisions. Prepare yourselves, the season is going to get silly.
Featured image from Pat Vallely