This offseason was one of the biggest in NASCAR history with new teams being formed and NASCAR getting into a bunch of different types of markets. The key factor in all this was 23XI Racing and its owner Michael Jordan who seems to be fast-tracking his team’s growth.
It’s been rumored for a while that the 23-car was just the beginning and that the team would begin expanding in the near future. They’ve actually bought the land and have gotten county mandates to build onto their garages. It’s actually possible they move up to three cars, not just a second.
With all the struggles we’ve seen from the team this year the thought of expanding seems lofty, but the team seems to be determined. We’ve never had a team owner with the funding available to them that Michael Jordan has. Not only does he have his own wealth, but the sponsorship deals seem to only continue to grow.
While the team’s struggles are somewhat surprising, it is important to remember that this is a brand new team that just opened its doors a few months ago. While the equipment value is high, it’s going to take time for all the moving pieces to fit together.
Who would the driver be for this new team though? Toyota has never had a shortage of development drivers that they can pull from and 2021 is no different with a talented crop of drivers coming through the ranks. I think the contenders for a second or third car would be the following:
- Brandon Jones
- Harrison Burton
- Daniell Hemric
- John Hunter Nemechek
A lot of fans seem to think Ty Gibbs is a contender for a Cup ride next year, but the blunt truth is that he’s not ready. His success in his limited run of Xfinity is great, but he needs a full season in Xfinity, maybe even two. If I was Joe Gibbs I would keep Ty in Xfinity until one of his four guys retires or moves on. I doubt his rookie season is in any car besides a Joe Gibbs Racing car.
Of the four guys listed, I think there are two clear favorites, but it’s a bit murkier than just who the favorite is. I want to go through each of these guys individually and discuss their chances.
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 4
Avg. Finish: 17.4
No disrespect to Brandon, but I wanted to get him out of the way because I’m not sure that he has what it takes to compete consistently at the Cup level. He is currently facing a steep digression from his 2020 season, and this was supposed to be his breakout year.
Brandon seems like a guy who can compete for wins, winning three in 2020, but he’s not consistent. Last season was a good year for him, but even finding victory lane multiple times only netted him a 6th place spot in the standings and an average finish of 12.8. His 2020 numbers were not good enough to warrant a Cup ride, and unless this is just a slow start, I still don’t believe he’s ready.
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Average Finish: 11.3
Same as Jones, Burton is going through a slump early on. To be fair though, he currently sits third in points. Burton is an odd case because his development seems very up and down. He ran for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the truck series and put up very poor numbers considering his equipment. When he was given an opportunity in Xfinity, it raised a red flag because he didn’t seem ready to make the jump. Thankfully for him, it seems that something hit different in Xfinity and he had a very successful 2020 despite only coming home 8th in the standings.
This year he is showing red flags once again and might be facing either a slump or digression as well. I think Harrison could benefit from at least one more season in Xfinity. He is a strong contender for a 23XI ride because he has a solid fan base and sponsor support from Dex Imaging, but he would not be my first choice.
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 6
Avg. Finish: 7.4
He’s still chasing his first win, but this is going to be the season; if it’s not, then it’s not meant to be. Hemric has been running extremely well and currently sits second in the standings only behind Austin Cindric. While he has bounced around from team to team in the last couple of years, he has finally found something that clicks and has found the best ride of his career so far.
I believe Hemric is a good driver and strong candidate for a Cup, especially with support from Poppy Bank. The only thing he has working against him is the fact that he has been in NASCAR for four seasons in decent to good equipment and has never won a race in Xfinity or Cup. He has competed for championships in 2017 and 2018 however while putting up comparable numbers to this year so far, so the wins are crucial, but not the only thing to look at. I think many will look at his 2019 season in Cup with RCR and question his abilities, but to be honest Ryan Newman didn’t have a great season in that car the year prior and Austin Dillon also struggled that same year.
John Hunter Nemechek
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 4
Avg. Finish: 10.6
His move from a Cup ride at Front Row Motorsports to the truck series could be leading to this moment, and if so, that’s a heck of a gamble that might pay off. JHN ran well in Front Row Motorsports equipment and has been the class of the field so far this season in trucks. It’s no doubt that he has Cup-level talent and I think 23XI is his end goal.
Toyota was smart to jump on him while they could, and it almost makes you wonder if this was their plan the whole time? While he’s only in trucks, he’s proven to be a successful driver in Xfinity and held his own in Cup, he’s ready. His development for the most part is complete, Toyota just needed to bide time until a Cup ride opened up.
I think 23XI Racing only should have two options here, but I know how the business works. I don’t think Brandon Jones will be considered, he doesn’t have the resume or funding at the moment to make him a viable candidate. So, it comes down to Burton, Hemric, and Nemechek.
While I personally do not think Burton is ready, I know that he has a lot of financial potential for the team, even if success does not come early. I think he and his partners should consider the fact that his stats would lead you to believe he’s not ready for the jump, but if Dex Imaging puts up the money, each side might have to give it a shot.
When the season began, I thought Hemric wasn’t really part of the Toyota family proper and was really there just to fill in the seat at JGR thanks to his sponsor, but it seems that was incorrect. Since joining Toyota he has put up incredible numbers and was even featured in a Toyota commercial next to Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones. So, it seems that Toyota does consider him to be part of their development system. Despite his age, he seems to have just as much shot at landing this ride as any of his young teammates.
My personal hope is that 23XI expands to a three-car team in 2022 and gives both Hemric and Nemechek the rides. Both of them deserve it, and to be honest I wouldn’t know who to pick if I had to just pick one. Each has proven in their previous seasons that they are championship-caliber drivers in the Xfinity series and I think they are ready for Cup.
Both of them had comparable rookie seasons in Cup, but the slight edge has to go to JHN since he was working with worse equipment. To be fair, I don’t think either of their rookie seasons should be taken into consideration; I do not believe either was put into the best situation.
If you made me pick one, I’m taking John Hunter Nemechek over all of them because I think he has more upside. It’s still a young season though, so many things could happen and Burton or Jones could still make a strong push for consideration. For the first time in a long time, the development future of Toyota looks very bright.
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