The Curious Case of the 38: Front Row Motorsports’ Disturbing Trend

Today should have been an exciting day for Zane Smith and the future of Front Row Motorsports.

Instead, they will spend the day answering questions about their future plans for Todd Gilliland.

It was announced today that Zane will pilot the number 36 in this year’s Daytona 500 with sponsorship from Ambetter Health. In a somewhat unexpected twist, the remainder of Zane’s races will be driven in the 38 car. Prior to today’s announcement the plan for the 38 was for it to be piloted by second-year Cup Series driver Todd Gilliland for the full season. This leads me – and plenty of other fans – to ask one glaring question:

What is this team doing, exactly?

Gilliland, 22, finished 28th in points last season with one top-five and two top-10s and had an average finish of 23.1. He finished third in Rookie of the Year standings to Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton. It was a good, though not great season – but certainly solid enough to justify not pulling the plug on the development of the young driver this quickly. It’s almost a broken record at this point that sponsorship runs NASCAR now more than raw talent, but the timing of this announcement is very interesting.

This shouldn’t take away from the excitement for Zane Smith. He’s just doing what he’s being asked of by the team. He’s the defending Truck Series champion and has two runner up finishes for the title, along with Xfinity experience with JR Motorsports. He’s the future of the franchise no doubt, but it comes at the expense of another driver looking to improve in his second year.

It’s a sentiment most social media users seem to agree with thankfully, as most of the thoughts regarding this situation have been some variant of “I’m happy for Zane, but…” as fans rally behind the perceived wronging of one of the sports rising young stars.

Decisions like this are commonplace within Front Row Motorsports over the last few seasons seasons. In December of 2019, the team announced that John Hunter Nemechek would drive the 38 in 2020 after the retirement of David Ragan from full time racing. He would be the highest finishing rookie in that years’ Daytona 500 and finished the season with three top-10s. He finished 27th in points but a week after the season ended, the team and Nemechek parted ways.

A few weeks later, the team hired Anthony Alfredo to pilot he 38, poaching him from RCR’s driver development program. He finished 30th in points with one top-10. The team announced in November that he wouldn’t return. Gilliland was announced for the ride shortly after.

And that brings us to the present. Is anyone noticing a pattern yet?

It’s one thing to release a driver for poor performance if it’s over a several year period. It’s another to remove the driver before they’re even settled into the full time grind of the Cup Series. NASCAR is a business, though, and it unfortunately sometimes falls into the category of “what have you done for me lately”. It’s nothing new in the lower series, where drivers in Xfinity have shared cars for the season due to sponsorship, but it isn’t a particularly common practice for a full time multi-car Cup team to make a move like this. In fact, it’s unsettling.

We don’t know what the full future holds for Gilliland, but judging by the last two drivers to meet the same fate, the road back is not easy. John Hunter drove for Kyle Busch Motorsports after leaving the 38. He won seven times over the last two seasons in the Truck Series and finished third and fifth in points, respectively. He’ll drive for Joe Gibbs Racing this season in the Xfinity Series, but aside from a race filling in for a suspended Bubba Wallace in 2022, Nemechek has not been active in the Cup Series. Alfredo’s story has a little more cause for concern. After leaving at the end of 2021, Alfredo went on to drive for Our Motorsports in the Xfinity Series for 2022. The results were good, however the team folded after the season. Alfredo will spend 2023 in the Xfinity Series with BJ McLeod Motorsports, a mostly mid-pack race team.

Where the anger lies is in driver development. How can any young talent see what’s going on at Front Row and want to commit their future to them long term? All of these drivers were picked from another team’s driver development program, and rushed to the Cup Series because they had sponsorship that they could bring to the Cup level. Sure, they may not admit it, but each of them stunted their development by doing so.

The closest to even possibly being Cup ready was Nemechek and that was because he had driven for Chip Ganassi where he won a race, and for GMS where he was consistent. Alfredo had 34 races between Xfinity and Trucks, neither of which he had run full-time. Todd had spent parts of the last five seasons prior to 2022 in the Truck Series, driving for KBM and his dad’s team and has never made an Xfinity start at all. The Cup cars and Xfinity cars aren’t alike in their current iterations, but it could have helped him prepare for some of the tracks that share weekends with the Cup Series.

I’ve long been a proponent of NASCAR actually re-adopting the ladder system to prevent a situation of this nature from happening over and over. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see drivers do the “ABC (ARCA, Busch, Cup)” program. Ryan Newman came from USAC and is one of the success stories from that program, running with Penske Racing from 2000-01. He won three out of the five ARCA starts he made in 2000, won at Daytona in 2001 and made spot Busch series starts that season, including his first win at Michigan, all while finishing his engineering degree at Purdue University. He would run full time in Cup in 2002 and earned his ‘Rocketman’ nickname with six poles as a rookie. He won his his first race at New Hampshire and won Rookie of the Year over Jimmie Johnson.

Am I saying any of the aforementioned drivers are like Newman? No. But this case and countless others show what can happen when you’re patient with a driver. Most teams currently have a driver development lineup, or are at least affiliated with one. Until recently, Front Row was paired with David Gilliland Racing.

In 2023 however, the newly renamed Tricon Garage team switches to Toyota. Gilliland’s status from full time to a partial season could be looked at as a sour grapes moment from a Ford Performance perspective. There’s no word on what Todd will do in the weekends where he’s not racing but one could question whether he’s in Ford’s plans at all after this year.

This is the type of announcement you make in the early weeks of the offseason, not two weeks before the season starts. Front Row doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for why they made this move, but it will not stop fans and media from questioning this move and several others over the past few seasons. At some point they will have to answer, and those answers better be good.

Photo credit: Patrick Vallely

Published by Phillip Spain

A 25 year veteran in the world Motorsports, Phil loves anything with an engine. When he’s not watching cars, he’s out with family.

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