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.