Kyle Busch has overhauled his NASCAR Truck Series driver lineup two years in a row. Will he have to make another change this offseason, but for a different reason?
Kyle Busch Motorsports are in the midst of their best NASCAR Truck Series season since Christopher Bell won five races and the championship in 2017, as they have two drivers remaining in the playoff mix, including the points leader.
In 2018, Noah Gragson recorded what would be the team’s final regular season win for a full-time driver until 2021.
For 2019, the Kyle Busch-owned team brought in Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland. Neither driver made the playoffs, though Gilliland did win a race once the playoffs began.
Neither Burton nor Gilliland were brought back for the 2020 season, when Busch hired Christian Eckes and Raphael Lessard, two drivers who had spent time competing for the team on a part-time basis.
Eckes made the playoffs but didn’t win a race, while Lessard, like Gilliland, won a race in the playoffs, but without qualifying for them.
So the 2021 season saw yet another lineup overhaul for Busch, and this one seems to have panned out.
John Hunter Nemechek has been the driver to beat throughout the season, winning the regular season championship and recording five wins. The current points leader has established himself as the favorite to win the title, and his teammate hasn’t been slacking either.
Chandler Smith qualified for the playoffs without winning, but he has since secured his first career win with a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.
A full-time driver lineup with six victories has been a long time coming for Kyle Busch Motorsports. But could there be change at the team again in 2022, for a different reason?
Smith will likely stick around for at least another year behind the wheel of the #18 Toyota, but Nemechek is where things get more interesting.
Nemechek was a full-time Cup Series driver for Front Row Motorsports last year, but he made the gamble to drop down two levels to the Truck Series to redefine his career path and effectively work from the ground up, reuniting with Toyota in the process.
Busch said at the beginning of the year that he wanted to hire a Matt Crafton-like guy who could compete for wins and championships every season, and as far as production is concerned, Nemechek fits the bill. But at 24 years old, Nemechek doesn’t seem as though he wants to be a career Truck Series driver.
And it could be that he makes the jump up to the Xfinity Series as early as next year, leaving the #4 Toyota needing a driver once again.
Joe Gibbs Racing, the logical Toyota destination for a driver climbing through the ranks, have several openings at their four-car Xfinity Series program for 2022.
Daniel Hemric, the current driver of the #18 Toyota, is set to move to Kaulig Racing to replace the Cup Series-bound Justin Haley. Burton, the current driver of the #20 Toyota, is set to move to the Cup Series and replace Matt DiBenedetto at Wood Brothers Racing.
The #54 Toyota, assuming it sticks around, will also need a driver or drivers. The “star car” will be losing its most prominent pilot, Busch himself, after he hit 100 career wins this past summer and did what he had long promised he would do: retire from NASCAR’s second highest level of competition.
The only current Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity Series car for which change is not expected is the #19 Toyota, which is driven by Brandon Jones.
While it is quite obvious that part-time driver Ty Gibbs, the grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, is set to move into one of these open seats as a full-time driver, that still leaves at least one full-time vacancy for the team to fill.
Who better than Nemechek to fill it? And what better situation for Nemechek than to ascend to a team for which he could immediately compete for wins and championships in the Xfinity Series, much like he has done in the Truck Series this year?
This particular statistic stands out: in five Truck Series starts this season, Busch won twice and finished in second place three times. All three runner-up finishes came behind Nemechek.
Plus, Nemechek recently made a one-off appearance for Joe Gibbs Racing at Talladega Superspeedway behind the wheel of the #54 Toyota.
If that isn’t a sign of things to come, it would be somewhat of a shock, given the elite performance he has shown now that he has had the opportunity to compete in top-tier equipment.