We’re not even seven full months into 2021, so there’s obviously a long time between now and the start of the 2022 NASCAR season. There will obviously be some things that will be different next year. Some are known, such as the Team Penske plans to move Harrison Burton and Austin Cindric into the NASCAR Cup Series. The same goes for Brad Keselowski‘s future as a driver and part-owner at Roush Fenway Racing.
But there’s at least one more unknown at this time: Who will drive the most dominant car in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, the No. 54 car out of Joe Gibbs Racing?
Clearly, JGR has some big decisions to make between now and next year. What becomes of the No. 20 with Burton moving up? Where to put Ty Gibbs, and should that be a full-time opportunity? Those are obviously thoughts, as well as others, weighing heavy on the mind of Coy Gibbs and the other leaders of the Gibbs organization.
Here’s one thing that should be clear. If the No. 54 is again a multi-driver lineup, it makes too good of sense on multiple levels for one of those drivers to be Bubba Wallace.
For starters, and this is something that traditionalists of a certain mind detest, there’s a direct benefit in NASCAR Cup Series drivers running companion events. With participation limits in place, Cup drivers have to pick and choose what races to look at running, and the result is two or three Cup drivers in a field as opposed to what you’d see 10 years ago with most of the top-10 finishers being comprised of Cup drivers.
Because of this, if a Cup driver is one of the few able to double-up, the advantage of track time and other gleanings is significant. You only need to look at this season with the driver of the No. 54 car for proof.
The last three times that the Xfinity Series has raced, the No. 54 won. The first two of those, by Kyle Busch at Road America and Atlanta Motor Speedway, were followed a day later by finishes of third and second in the Cup events. Then, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Christopher Bell‘s Saturday (July 17) triumph came a day prior to a second-place finish, his best since a win at the Daytona International Speedway road course earlier this season.
For a driver like Wallace, who along with his team 23XI Racing, is still getting a feel for one another and the quirks of driving a Toyota, all the seat time that can be gained is all the better. Plus, if Toyota truly wants to put weight behind drivers across its diet of drivers, why wouldn’t you want an opportunity for one of your most visible drivers to find ways to succeed?
The Xfinity Series, to a degree, has two types of drivers: those looking to use it as a way up the racing ladder and those who have already gotten to NASCAR’s apex and race for the fun of it while also possibly using it to strengthen their Cup program. Wallace has already done the former, running full-time seasons in 2015 and 2016 for Roush Fenway Racing and in part through 2017 before funding ran out.
Heck, why not set up Mike Wheeler, Wallace’s crew chief for 23XI Racing, atop the pit box to pick up more? Especially prior to COVID-19, it was not uncommon for Cup crew chiefs to randomly make their way to pit road to examine trends or even look at the wear on tires following pit stops, seeking the smallest advantage that could be found. I still remember back in 2009 at Atlanta, standing behind a JR Motorsports pit and following pit stops, seeing Chad Knaus walk up and closely examine tire wear following a round of pit stops.
Wallace in the No. 54 for a handful of races would fit that bill nicely.
The other thing is this. Love him or loathe him, Wallace is one of the most visible drivers for casual fans who may not be the typical diehards. Media metrics and the number of comments on stories that mention Wallace in any way back that up. If you put Wallace in an occasional Saturday race, especially if one of his sponsors comes along for the ride, it draws eyeballs to those races, and who knows? Maybe those fans go from casual to die-hards.
The opportunity is there for Toyota to strengthen its overall driver lineup by working Wallace into the rotation at JGR. Whether or not it’ll be able to make that materialize remains to be seen.
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